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[THE GRAMMYS] | THE HONOREES

Instinct, vision, and a bit of Brass

A&M's Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss built a diverse empire around artists who seemed mainstream but were often off-kilter.

February 11, 2007|Eric Weisbard | Special to The Times

IT might be a 1969 telegram to Australia from a label president unaccustomed to working with openly out-of-control rockers, asking about Joe Cocker's "deportment." Or a letter from a fan irritated that it was not possible, in 1966, to buy tickets in New Jersey for a concert in Queens. A recording studio schedule revealing that crooner Bing Crosby and country rockers the Flying Burrito Brothers were working side by side one March 1970 evening. And an apology from an international branch manager in 1977: He just couldn't get a video promotion for Quincy Jones' "Roots" album on South African television.

These are just a few of thousands of documents contained in the A&M Records Collection at UCLA. Here, a cache of donated recordings, photographs and promotional items, and boxes and boxes of business papers offer a rare glimpse into the mind-set of a working record label. Reading through the material, what registers above all is how much had to be invented to create pop music as we now understand it: a global industry of countless styles, formats, venues and distribution channels. What we often reflexively dismiss as "mainstream" or "middle of the road" is actually a complex, if hard to mythologize, accomplishment.

And A&M was arguably the most adventurous mainstream label in music history. With founders Herb Alpert, a jazz trumpeter with an ear for pop, and Jerry Moss, who got his start promoting records to radio stations, about to receive a president's merit award at this year's Grammys, a reconsideration is in order.

Founded in 1962, with offices in the historic Charlie Chaplin film lot on La Brea Avenue, A&M led the pivotal 1960s shift of the music industry from New York to California. An independent label that competed with the majors, it survived by becoming steadily more diverse in its artist roster.

Talent-spotting acumen

MOSS is still old school enough to call himself a "record man." "I always liked the term," the wry and spry septuagenarian says in his Beverly Hills offices, where every wall holds an artwork by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein or a memento of his 2005 Kentucky Derby winning race horse, Giacomo. (Horse racing and philanthropy are his main pursuits these days.) "I've never been a real business man. I don't read a balance sheet all that well. We just always were trying to survive, after Herbie's great success allowed us to build a company. We went along, looking for people who really excited us, and once in a while we got lucky and found somebody."

It is the range of those somebodies that registers in retrospect. Nearly all of A&M's top acts were categories unto themselves, centrist entertainers with an off-center disposition. A&M in the easy listening 1960s meant Alpert and his Tijuana Brass, which sold 13 million albums in 1966. In the pop-rock 1970s, it meant the terribly straight Carpenters on one end of the decade and the new wave Police on the other. (In between came the Captain & Tennille's saccharine "Love Will Keep Us Together" and the album that ruined arena rock, "Frampton Comes Alive.")

The 1980s saw Janet Jackson given a funky retrofit and grunge progenitors Soundgarden ushered into the pop arena. Before relinquishing A&M, which they sold in 1989 for $500 million to Polygram but managed until 1993, Alpert and Moss had one final signing: Sheryl Crow, an updated singer-songwriter versed in digital rhythm loops.

"Listening to artists, you don't get a second chance," says Alpert, whose status as a performer-businessman is unrivaled and gave A&M its reputation as a musicians' label. "You can't hem and haw and decide in three weeks if you like them. As a partnership we were able to turn quickly. That worked to our advantage."

Where Moss is the eclectic record man, Alpert, also 71, is the equally eclectic artist and dreamier interview presence. He can live with that. "I think the true measure for an artist is honesty," he declares. "If you're honest, you can win out. It doesn't matter what genre you're in. It's like when we signed the Carpenters. There was some honesty about her [Karen Carpenter's] voice, the way they approached it. It was real to them. That's the measure."

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