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In January 1966 I had a phone interview with a trumpet player whose name isn't heard much these days, but for several years he and his unusual group of musicians were almost as popular as The Beatles. At the same time he spawned another unusual band that some regarded as the second coming of Spike Jones.

That he isn't more highly regarded today, I think, is because easy-listening music commands little respect, and when it came to producing music that was easy – and fun – to listen to, nobody ever did it better than Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass, or the more raucous group known as the Baja Marimba Band. (Check out "Ghost Riders in the Sky.") That band was Alpert's idea, but it was Julius Wechter who took charge – and also played the marimba.

Look at Alpert today and you might not think so, but in 1966 he was an unusually handsome fellow. He was Jewish, a native Californian, and his first group of musicians were of Italian and Russian descent. How and why they became the Tijuana Brass is explained in the following excerpt from my 1966 newspaper story:

 

The group set out to record a song called "Twinkle Star," but Alpert Mexified the arrangement by overdubbing some "oles" he had recorded in a Tijuana bull ring. The song title was changed to "The Lonely Bull" and it was a big hit. Instrumental hits were not unusual at the time – "Theme from 'A Summer Place' " by Percy Faith may be the best example – but the Tijuana Brass came up with one after another.

A song originally titled "Shocker" was released as "Spanish Flea." Most of the group's songs were written by Alpert's friends after he tapped out the rhythm he wanted. He tacked on Mexican titles after the songs were recorded.

Alpert said he never claimed the group was Mexican, but he kept the image alive with album covers that featured Mexican settings. The group's only vocal effort – on "Hello Dolly" – was performed with a Jose Jimenez-type accent.

For two years after "The Lonely Bull" hit the charts the Tijuana Brass existed only in Alpert's Los Angeles recording studio. He'd assemble musicians only when he wanted to record. Alpert was the entire trumpet section, dubbing in all the parts.

"I felt at first we had a West Coast sound that wouldn't catch on anywhere else. After one of the songs from our 'South of the Border' album – 'Mexican Shuffle' – became a hit, thanks to a TV gum commercial, I decided I'd better assemble a permanent group to take on the road.

Since then the success of The Tijuana Brass – known to their fans as The TJB – has been phenomenal. So it has been for A&M Records, started in 1961 by Alpert and his partner, Jerry Moss, on a total investment of $200. The company's roster of artists includes the Baja Marimba Band, which also existed only in a studio for two years.

Alpert, 28, certainly has come a long way since he was solo trumpeter with the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco.

"My duty as to play taps for funerals," said Alpert. "One day I counted 18 funerals."

When he was discharged he returned home to Los Angeles and worked with singers Jan and Dean on their early hits. Alpert also arranged for Sam Cooke and helped a group called Dante and the Evergreens on their only hit, "Alley Oop."

After that Alpert and Moss struck out on their own. Alpert had that song, "Twinkle Star," but kept experimenting to find the right sound. The more he played the song, the more he thought he'd find what he was looking for in a Tijuana bull ring.

Alpert has no explanation for his success. He calls his sound Ameriachi – one part jazz, one part mariachi and one part rock and roll. Twin trumpets carry the melody and the beat is proved by a trombone, drums, piano and two electric guitar.

He doesn't believe his success will trigger a return of the big band sound.

"Those days are gone forever. There are seven in our group and that's about as large as is practical these days."

 

Back in the early days of rock 'n' roll there were touring shows that packaged a dozen or so singers for one-night visits to cities from coast-to-coast. Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars was the most famous package, and the line-up of performers changed from year to year.

In 1964 the Caravan included Gene Pitney and one of the stops must have been Akron. That's how I met the singer; at least, that's how it must have happened, unless he was brought into town solo for an appearance in the annual Soap Box Derby in Akron – with one of those touring shows that featured a dozen or so pop parade.

Anyway, Pitney and I breakfast together in the restaurant of an Akron hotel in the early '60s. The singer was best known at the time for two hits, "Town Without Pity" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." The first was nominated for an Oscar as best song and Pitney sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards program. The second was written for the John Wayne-James Stewart movie of the same name, but some legal squabble prevented it from being used in the film.

Pitney's voice was distinctive – raspy, pleading, often dramatic, perfect for story-telling songs such as "Liberty Valance." In a way he was his generation's answer to Frankie Laine. Unlike popular young singers of his era, Pitney was not interested in doing films, or vice versa. He did, however, compose a lot of music, which was something most singers of his time did not do. His hits for other artists included "He's a Rebel" for The Crystals, "Rubber Ball" for Bobby Vee, and "Hello, Mary Lou" for Rick Nelson.

Soon after I met Pitney his career tapered off in the U.S. and he worked more and more in England. When he died in 2006 it was just after he had finished performing a concert in Wales.

My most vivid memory of our interview involved two teen-aged girls who approached our table and asked for singer's autograph. Pitney, who seemed a pleasant young man, quickly obliged. The girls then looked at me, cocked their heads slightly, and asked, "Are you anyone famous?"

Pitney answered the question for me, and I think he was making a good-natured joke, though in print it can be interpreted as a bit of sarcasm. "Well, his mother thinks so," he said.

[NOTE: My interview with Pitney may have disappeared, but I did find an interesting question and answer exchange on-line.]

 

One of the most incredible careers was the one carved out by Petula Clark, who started singing before audiences when she was a young girl during World War II, when England's Vera Lynn was all the rage with nostalgic ballads that provided a catharsis for both the men fighting the war and their anxious families back home. It was only natural that Clark's performances at the time included songs Lynn had made famous.

Clark went on to become famous in England in her own right in the 1950s. She made a few movies, composed several songs, and also worked a lot in France. By 1962, however, Clark's career stalled. Two years later, when she was 32, she became a most unlikely pop sensation in the United States when she teamed up with Tony Hatch, who had written a song inspired by a visit to New York City. The song was called "Downtown." For several years thereafter everything Hatch and Clark touched turned to gold.

She starred in a couple of big budget movies, "Finian's Rainbow" in 1967, and a musical version of "Goodbye Mr. Chips" with Peter O'Toole in 1968. This was a time the pop music scene was more tolerant of a wide variety of styles. Clark could never be considered a rock star, but she was as popular as most rock 'n' roll groups, and popular with many of the same people.

I can't remember the reason – it may have been an appearance on Red Skelton's TV show – but Petula Clark did some phone interviews in 1966. By the time she called the Beacon Journal she sounded weary, perhaps tired of this very strange process. When I attempted a compliment, I went too far, suggesting that her latest album, "My Love," was so good that every song on it could be a hit single.

She clearly regarded that statement as ridiculous – I wish I had been able to see her face when she heard my words – and responded with a short lesson on the facts of life as they apply to the music business. She was proud of the album and appreciated that I enjoyed it, but she harbored no illusions. Nine of the 12 songs on the album were written by Hatch, with Clark sharing credit on some of them. Three of those songs on the album were hits – "My Love," "Hold On to What You've Got" and "A Sign of the Times."

Also on the album was "We Can Work It Out," a Beatles hit written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and "If I Were a Bell," written by Frank Loesser for 1950's Broadway hit, "Guys and Dolls," and recorded by several people.

Clark dropped off the charts a few years later, but kept performing and remains a star in much of the world.

Other singers on my list: Bobby Darin, Barbra Streisand, Della Reese, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.

 

 

Also . . .
Don Adams Patty Duke Ricardo Montalban
Herb Alpert Richard Egan George Montgomery
Dana Andrews Jack Elam Joanna Moore
John Astin Linda Evans Mary Tyler Moore
Frankie Avalon Pat Finley Ozzie and Harriet Nelson
Barbara Barrie Eric Fleming Hugh O'Brian
Bill Bixby Peter Fonda Pat O'Brien
George Burns Anthony Franciosa Gene Pitney
Michael Callan Annette Funicello Martha Raye
Richard Chamberlain Zsa Zsa Gabor Della Reese
Leslie Charleson Beverly Garland Carl Reiner
Petula Clark Jackie Gleason Barbara Rush
Dabney Coleman Merv Griffin Robert Ryan
Robert Conrad Mark Harman Henry Silva
Bill Cosby Patricia Harty Julie Sommars
Joseph Cotten Marty Ingels Barbra Streisand
Bob Crane Jack Jones The Three Stooges
Richard Crenna Jack Kelly The Supremes
Ken Curtis Dave Ketchum Dick Van Dyke
Bill Dana Sue Ane Langdon Jerry Van Dyke
Bobby Darin Sheldon Leonard Robert Vaughn
Sammy Davis Jr. Jack Lord Clint Walker
Richard Deacon George Maharis Ray Walston
Bob Denver Jackie Mason Betty White
James Drury Raymond Massey Andy Williams
  Martin Milner Henry Winkler
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