Perseverance and Other Delights: Herb Alpert Is Still Going at 82

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Every thrift store I’ve ever been in has one.

You can see the cover of Whipped Cream and Other Delights‘ bright green background even deep in a stack. The real attraction, to a teenaged crate diver, is Dolores Erickson, covered in “whipped cream” (actually shaving cream), staring alluringly into the camera.

Herb Alpert‘s music, in the wild, is similarly inescapable: I have no statistics to back this up, but I would wager that roughly 99 percent of the world’s population has, at some point, heard “Spanish Flea,” if not directly, than through some kind of cultural osmosis. But Alpert’s credentials extend far beyond that: He’s notched five No. 1 albums on the Billboard Album chart (fourteen of them certified platinum), nine Grammy Awards and has sold over 70 million records worldwide.

Alpert and his wife Lani Hall — whom he met via Sérgio Mendes’ Brasil ’66 (Hall sang “Never Say Never Again” from the James Bond movie of the same name) are about to embark on a residency at New York’s famed Hotel Carlyle, on the heels of the release of his latest album, Music, Volume 1. PEOPLE caught up with him ahead of the occasion.

You’ve played probably every size venue imaginable. What’s the appeal of a room like the one at the Carlyle?
There’s an up close and personal-type feeling. You get to see the people. I’ve played in places where I’m on the stage and it’s dark in these arenas, and you can’t see anyone — in the old days when people used to smoke, you’d just see them lighting up — and that’s not as much fun.

You have so much to draw from in your back catalog. How do you go about assembling a set list for a run of shows like this?
Songs I enjoy playing. My whole premise has always been that if it’s fun for me to play, it might be fun for some people to listen to. I’m still not doing this for any reason other than that I enjoy it. I’ve been playing trumpet since I was 8. Now, working with a small group and my wife is a joy.

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You and Hall have been together since the ’70s. What’s it like being a married couple in show business?
Ah, we jumped over that hurdle a long time ago. I auditioned Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 in 1966 and Lani was the lead singer, and we had this great friendship for a while before anything else happened. So we had a great foundation. She changed my life; she’s a wonderful human being. She’s generous, sensitive … I just appreciate her on every level. We have a good time. This is something that we like to do together.

Your career has taken so many detours — you owned a label [A&M Records], you’ve had hits singing [“This Guy’s in Love with You”] in addition to your instrumental work. Has any of this been planned?
Oh, hell no. When I first picked up the trumpet, I couldn’t even make a sound out of it. When I finally did, the beauty of it was that the trumpet was talking for me. I’m an introvert and I was super-shy as a kid, so that trumpet did the talking for me. It was making the sounds I couldn’t make with my own mouth.

Did you ever get flack from other musicians who thought your music was too commercial or poppy?
No, I really didn’t. They all kind of, at the time, didn’t admit that they liked my music, but never went out of their way to dislike it. One of our first shows was with Dave Brubeck; we opened the show for them, and I remember walking offstage and Paul Desmond [Brubeck’s saxophone player] was standing in the wings and he was scratching his head, and he said to me, “Man, I don’t know what I just heard, but I think I like it.” I’ve had that reaction from a lot of musicians these days who’ll say, “You know I listened to your records growing up, my parents had them.” I never did anything to make hit records, I just did it to make good records.

What was it like going from musician to label owner with A&M Records?
We weren’t trying to start a record company, we were just putting out a record. Like so many other people did; people were operating out of the trunks of their cars in those days. Then one thing led to another and we got lucky. Timing plays the biggest part in anything. I totally believe that if we tried to start A&M Records in today’s environment, it would not have happened. It was another world.

Why did you sell it when you did?
It was just another lucky stroke. We were in that period where the major companies were offering lots and lots of money and we felt that if we made one mistake, we could sink the ship. Initially, they wanted to buy the whole company and I told my partner, “Well, let’s just sell 49 percent of it” so we could retain blah blah blah, and they kept coming back and upping the price and making it sweeter. And, man… I wasn’t a visionary, but I felt this internet thing could do some damage [laughs] and I thought we should just get out while the getting was good. I don’t miss the business for a nanosecond. When we started it was just the two of us in my garage and by the time we ended it we had 500 people around the world and I didn’t know most of them. I’m not a businessman; making money was never my pursuit.

You’re also an accomplished painter and sculptor. Do you have a book waiting? A short film?
No, it’s just more music. You never really get there, you know? Dizzy Gillespie was a close friend and he used to say, “The closer I get, the farther it looks.” And that’s pretty much how it is. You never get to a place where you say, “I think I got that one covered.” That’s the pursuit. It’s fun to chip away at the things you can’t do, and little by little your music morphs into something it wasn’t before you started.

I minored in jazz bass at school. Practicing is such a double-edged sword — you learn more, but you’re also basically always just learning how much you don’t know.
Look, the key — period — is: It ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it. You gotta find your voice. There’s a lotta bass players, just like there’s a lotta trumpet players. If I just sat around thinking about the trumpet players who were way better than me, I’d never play. I mean, when I heard Clifford Brown … holy s— man, you put the horn in the case and just shake your head and say, “This guy’s doing what I could never do.” But you realize that’s not the object. You know Miles [Davis] used to say, “You hear three notes, and you know it’s Herb Alpert.” And that’s a pretty great thing to hear. So I’ve just been going about my own thing, and if people like it, that’s great, and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter, because I’m still going to do it.

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