By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Documentary filmmaker John Scheinfeld has made many documentaries over the years, many of which have centered on iconoclast artists including John Lennon (“The U.S. vs. John Lennon”), John Coltrane (Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary”), Harry Nilsson (“Who is Harry Nillson—And Why is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?”), Rosemary Clooney (“Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer—Songs from the Classic Television Series,” as well as notable people in other fields. His latest, a documentary on musician and record label founder Herb Alpert called “Herb Alpert Is …,” was inspired by someone close to his heart.
“It’s all my mother’s fault,” Scheinfeld quips by phone. “When I was growing up, she used to play Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass records all the time, and she would dance around the house.”
The prolific filmmaker says he couldn’t help but be affected by the music that so delighted his mother, noting that the distinctive music that emanated from the famed trumpeter and his band was inspiring and uplifting. So, when he finally had an opportunity to make a film about the noted musician, businessman, artist and philanthropist, it was a no-brainer.
Alpert’s story was unique in that he is one of the rare talents who emerged in the 1960s with great success in a short period of time, and yet managed to survive the pitfalls of fame and fortune that so frequently crippled other music geniuses. He’s also one of the rare record label producers who is roundly beloved by the musicians he has worked with over the years as many of them attest in the film. Now, in his mid-80s, Alpert continues to foster and support emerging artists through his Herb Alpert Foundation, in which he has given significant philanthropic support to educational programs in the arts nationwide, from the Harlem School of the Arts to the Los Angeles City College, CalArts and UCLA. To date, he has given away $150 million, and in support of the arts. He’s also a celebrated abstract painter and sculptor, whose works are installed in noted art museums around the world.
Born in 1935 in Boyle Heights, a multi-ethnic Los Angeles neighborhood of immigrant Japanese, Mexicans and Eastern Europeans, Alpert was the youngest of three in a family where his father played mandolin, his mother played the violin, his brother played drums and his sister the piano. Shy and introspective, Alpert discovered his love for the trumpet while taking a music class in elementary school. The instrument allowed the youngster to express himself in a way that he couldn’t verbally. Soon he was studying with Ben Klazkin, first trumpet with the San Francisco Symphony. But he preferred jazz over classical trumpet and soon was performing with his first band, “The Colonial Trio,” at high school dances and Bar Mitzvahs.
After a stint in the army, Alpert returned home to Los Angeles where he joined forces with Lou Adler and began writing songs for recording artists including Jan & Dean and Sam Cooke. He later teamed up with Jerry Moss, and turned Carnival Records into A&M. Inspired by a visit to bullfight in Mexico, he created the tone poem, “The Lonely Bull,” and recorded it with session musicians dubbed The Tijuana Brass. The single, A&M’s first release, reached the Top 10, and the album of the same name was on the charts for three years.
“Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Vol. 2” and “South of the Border” followed. His fourth album “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” hit No. 1 in 1965. He hit the Billboard Top 100 chart as both a vocalist (“This Guy’s in Love with You”) in 1968 and as an instrumentalist (“Rise”) in 1979. With the Tijuana Brass, Alpert earned nine consecutive Gold albums. After the band disbanded, he earned another six. In all, he has garnered total of 15 gold and 14 platinum records.
As Scheinfeld notes, “Nobody but The Beatles sold more records than Herb did during that time.”
In the film, Alpert’s story is mostly told from the perspective of his colleagues, including Questlove, Burt Bacharach, Sting, Richard Carpenter and Bill Moyers, as well as interviews with Alpert himself. The documentary goes beyond multi-hyphenate artist’s achievements as a musician and record producer, revealing his work as an accomplished painter and sculptor, whose work is on display at Chicago’s Field Museum and elsewhere. As for his philanthropic endeavors, Eric Pryor, head of The Harlem School of the Arts, speaks to the impact of Alpert’s contribution to that school.
Towards the end of “Herb Alpert Is…,” Scheinfeld asks colleagues and those who have been impacted by his remarkable talent and generosity to fill in the blank of the film’s title with Alpert himself humbly noting that he is very grateful.
Abramorama’s “Herb Alpert Is …” will have a world premiere Thursday Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Facebook Live. Viewers who want to watch it that night can sign up at herbalpertis.com. A live discussion with Alpert is slated to follow. On Friday, Oct. 2, the documentary will be available through iTunes and Amazon Prime. A film and collector’s edition box set (3 CDs, 5 LPs and a coffee table book) also titled “Herb Alpert Is …” will be available Friday Oct. 2 as well.
Q: You’ve made documentaries on other iconic musicians from other music styles What is it about Herb Alpert’s music that draws fans from around the world?
John Scheinfeld: The music has really stuck with me ever since I was a child, as it does with most people who hear it. It’s happy music; it’s upbeat. It puts a smile on your face. In our film, Questlove says whenever he’s having a bad day, he’ll put on some Herb Alpert because it’s the happiest music on the planet, and it makes him feel better. We need that these days.
Q: You said you remember your mom used to play his records and dance around the house. Has she seen the film?
Scheinfeld: She passed away while we were making the film, but I suspect that she would have been proud. What happened was Herb had been approached by many filmmakers over the years to tell his story but it was never the right time. Mostly, Herb’s the kind of guy who’s always looking forward, never backward. But something happened, and he decided it was finally the right time (to agree to participate in a documentary). I went out to his house and met with him and his wonderful wife, Lani Hall, who used to be the lead singer in Sergio Mendes’s Brasil ’66. I laid out my vision for the film.
I didn’t want to do a straight-ahead biography or look at just the music, but to really take a deep dive into what I consider to be a real Renaissance Man. He’s not just a performer that had extraordinary success in the 1960s. He wasn’t just a discoverer of talent who signed Sergio Mendes, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, Sting and The Police, all of whom had been on the A&M label. He was an entrepreneur who co-founded with Jerry Moss arguably the most successful independent record label in the history of the music business, A&M Records.
Q: What do you think viewers will be surprised to learn from “Herb Alpert Is …?”
Scheinfeld: For some, it will be that he’s an artist as well. He paints and sculpts every day, and his work has been shown in galleries and museums around the world. Also, he’s a philanthropist who has decided to share the benefits he has received from his career with others. In the last 10 years, he’s given away more than $150 million to arts and education programs around the country.
A lot of people know his name but not much more about him, which is what we were trying to accomplish with the film. Hence, the title (“Herb Alpert Is …”). He is many different things to many different people. Over the last three or four years, there’s been a lot of darkness in this country; a lot of celebrating the wrong kinds of things and the wrong kinds of people. I just look at the life that Herb has lived and see a person who has done things the right way.
Q: What set Herb Alpert apart from other successful musicians?
Scheinfeld: He wasn’t the type of rock star that threw televisions out of hotel room windows or had big drug problems, or anything like that. He lived life the right way. I’ve found his life to be very uplifting, very inspiring to others about what can be done with a life, the very least of which is chase your dream and don’t let it anybody tell you that you can’t. All of those values and the things he’s done with his life make him really worth celebrating. Given what’s going on in the world, with the pandemic, this is the right film at the right time because it’s going to make people feel good.
Q: He decided at the peak of his career that he wasn’t going to let money and fame consume him, which sets him apart from a lot of famous musicians. Did he tell you how he managed to stay grounded?
Scheinfeld: There’s a word I would use to describe Herb, which is “authentic.” I spent time with him three months before we started production on the film so I could get a sense of who he was and how best to get him to help tell the story. With Herb, what you see is what you get. In his life, he was determined that he was going to pursue success on his own terms. I admire that. Most of the people I’ve made documentaries about have that same instinct. Herb makes decisions based on his gut. It’s not monetary considerations, it’s not commercial considerations, it’s not anything more than if it feels good to him, if it feels right to him, then he will do it.
It’s all about feel, much like his music. As he says in the film, he never sets out to make a hit record. He sets out to make a good record that makes him proud. If other people find it equally terrific, so be it. I found that all really interesting.
Q: How is “Herb Alpert Is …” different from the other documentaries you’ve made?
Scheinfeld: As a filmmaker, I’ve often made documentaries about people who are dead. So, this was a bit unusual for me to have a live subject. What we discovered with Herb is he is walking and talking as opposed to just sitting down—in the traditional sense—for an interview. That’s where his personality comes out.
We took him back to where he grew up. We took him back to his elementary school where a very significant event happened to him. We took him back to the A&M lot, so we could “feel” what that magic was all about. He felt so comfortable in all of those places that he opened up and the stories just flowed—the observations and all of that.
Anybody who get a chance to see “Herb Alpert Is …” is going to feel like they’ve gotten to know him as a person. It’s not anything that he put on; it’s just who he is.
Q: What has been the reaction to the film?
Scheinfeld: I’ve heard from a few friends of Herb’s who have seen the film. The words vary but the thought has been the same, which is: “That’s the Herb that I know.” So, I’m pleased that we could capture that, but what I’m really pleased about is that he felt safe opening up and allowing us to see the real Herb.
Q: One of his elementary school teachers discouraged him and made him an introvert. But through that experience, he became interested in music. Then there was his mentor Ben Klazkin, the San Francisco Orchestra trumpet player, who became his tutor when he was 13.
Scheinfeld: We’ve all had that experience whether it was a teacher or a parent or a friend who just didn’t believe in what you were doing. But somehow, the great ones find a way of being persistent in the face of that, and stick with pursuing their dream. Herb was very much one of those people.
As we see in the film, he was not at all shy about describing some of the tough challenges that he experienced in the course of his adult life, even after he achieved some success. I was grateful to him for opening up in that way, and adding richness and texture that helped make the film even better.
Q: Have you been in touch with him lately? How is he doing?
Scheinfeld: We just talked this morning. He’s doing great. He hasn’t left his home since March. He’s 85, so he’s a prime target for the virus. But his spirit remains up and positive. He paints, sculpts and makes music every day. That’s to be admired.