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A&M Records’ Greatest Hits

On the label’s 50th anniversary, founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss remember five decades of classic records

Biggest Hit Albums on A&M Records

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“As Dizzy Gillespie used to say, ‘The closer I get, the farther it looks,'” Herb Alpert says of how he’s feeling about the 50th anniversary of A&M Records, the label he founded in 1962 with partner Jerry Moss (the “M” to Alpert’s “A”). “The crazy part is how quickly it all goes.”

Alpert shouldn’t worry about A&M’s legacy disappearing anytime soon, as is made clear by the release last week of A&M 50: THE ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION – a three-disc, 60-song set that takes the listener through the hits that turned a tiny artist-driven imprint into one of the most important, era-defining names in popular music. “I was on a major label for a year and a half, and I had a real ‘a-ha’ experience,” says Alpert, a successful trumpet player and bandleader before starting A&M. “I didn’t like how artists were treated, and I filed that feeling away. I thought, ‘If I ever get a chance to have my own company, it’ll be a true artist label, and revolve around the artist.'” Once freed from his major-label deal, Alpert began the new label with a handshake deal with Moss in his garage. “We had a huge advantage,” Alpert says. “There was no board of directors – just Jerry and myself. We made decisions quickly, and signed artists we liked.”

The original plan was to release Alpert’s own single “Tell It To The Birds,” as well as Charlie Robinson’s “Love Is Back in Style,” featuring a trumpet solo by Alpert. They scraped together $2,000 to produce and manufacture the two songs. “Herb’s record was a hit,” Moss recalls. “It sold several thousand copies, which was enough to get us going.” A&M continued to be a vehicle for Alpert to release his music, from his breakthrough Sixties smash “The Lonely Bull” with his group the Tijuana Brass to the 1979 disco groover “Rise,” which rose to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and went on to win a Grammy. (Decades later, “Rise” was memorably sampled by Puff Daddy for the Notorious B.I.G.‘s 1997 smash “Hypnotize”). But A&M grew to be more than a record company – it was a cultural curator, home to many of the most innovative pop artists of the next few decades. In the Seventies, A&M released classic sides from powerhouse performers like Joe Cocker and singer-songwriter superstars like Cat Stevens and Carole King. In the Eighties, the label made household names out of New Wave mavericks like the Police and the Human League, and turned Janet Jackson into the megawatt persona she is today. In the Nineties, A&M joined the alt-rock revolution, signing grunge icons like Soundgarden.

That’s just a partial list of the platinum-plaque scoring, award-winning multitudes on the A&M roster, which grew so flush that Alpert and Moss’s initial $1000 investment turned into $500 million dollars when the company was sold to Polygram in 1989. (Further mergers later made it part of Universal Music Group’s lucrative Interscope-Geffen-A&M division, where it is now home to artists including Maroon 5 and K’naan.) Alpert and Moss stayed on at the imprint until 1993, when they signed their final artist – a then-unknown talent named Sheryl Crow. Through each period, however, A&M’s modus operandi remained the same, according to Moss. “The whole idea was to make great records,” he says. “We pursued whatever it took to make our releases the most incredible.” Here, Alpert and Moss take us on a tour of 15 crucial albums that would shape not just A&M’s history, but that of pop culture as a whole.

3. Joe Cocker, 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' (1970)

Joe Cocker, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ (1970)

Jerry Moss: "Joe Cocker is the greatest white blues singer ever. I had gone to England, where a lot of our rock stuff was coming from, and Joe was brought to my attention by Denny Cordell, who was producing Procol Harum. I got a tape in the mail of a single by Joe called 'Marjorine' that got me very excited. I became very much involved in Mad Dogs. I went on the road with Joe, and made a movie out of it! The album almost didn't happen: the tour was so taxing, I didn't see Joe for a couple years, and he was nowhere to be found. The man who saved the day was the great producer Glyn Johns. He took home all the music, and in four nights gave us a rough mix of a double album that was exciting. The song 'The Letter' was the first hit for Joe, and provided a tremendous glimpse of his amazing musical force. The record went platinum, and sold well; it also showed this incredible menagerie of musicians, like Leon Russell. That whole group was incredible, and it was an amazing experience – what they did live and on record was magnificent. After that success, we were able to get Joe back in the studio to make more great records."

4. Cat Stevens, 'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970)

Cat Stevens, ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ (1970)

Herb Alpert: "The first time I saw Cat Stevens was at [famous L.A. nightclub] the Troubadour. It was like, 'Holy shit, this guy is the real thing!' He was a unique, amazing artist that had that special 'hit' quality; he and his guitar just captured you with his songs. During 'Father and Son,' the audience stood up and gave him a standing ovation – in the middle of the song! People just didn't do that. He had tremendous appeal."

Moss: "Tea for the Tillerman absolutely exploded: it was a huge, amazing record. In 1970, between that album, Carole King and the Carpenters, we were really flying! Tillerman immediately went to Number One, and dominated both AM and FM radio. It was an incredible period, in the midst of the Vietnam War, with a country divided; the music played a big part in giving us some emotion about how we felt about what's going on. Cat Stevens songs like 'Wild World' really connected with that spirit: they occupied that space in a very important and influential way, but were also just so appealing. You could reside in 'Wild World' in a real sense."

5. Carpenters, 'Close To You' (1970)

Carpenters, ‘Close To You’ (1970)

Alpert: "An interesting part of the Carpenters' story is they laid an egg on their first album. It didn't even get a positive response from people in our own company! What turned them around was, I was in New York with [esteemed lyricist] Hal David, and asked him to send me every song he couldn't stop listening to; he sent me '(They Long To Be) Close To You." I recorded it myself, and thought I had a good record, but an engineer friend told me, 'You sound terrible singing this song.' Then Carpenters came along, I slipped 'Close To You' to Richard [Carpenter], and that was the one that did it for them. Richard had a feel for wonderful melody, and Karen [Carpenter] had one of those god-given voices. I closed my eyes as I sat on couch listening to her audition tape, and it sounded like her voice was sitting next to me. She had something magical, but didn't think of herself as a singer – she thought of herself as a drummer. It took a while to get her in front of the drums. Unfortunately, she didn't realize how many people she touched."

Moss: "Carpenters had ten gold singles in the Seventies. That kind of run doesn't happen very often, and it just didn't happen at that time. We sold millions of Carpenters albums on top of that – we even sold amazing amounts of sheet music for them! A song like 'We've Only Just Begun' still gets played at weddings and football games. They had an amazing run."

6. Carole King, 'Tapestry' (1971)

Carole King, ‘Tapestry’ (1971)

Moss: "Tapestry came out on Ode – [Los Angeles music impresario] Lou Adler's label, which we distributed for six years. When it came out, we clearly treated and promoted it as an A&M record. Of course, it did incredibly."

Alpert: "Tapestry was recorded in A&M's studio. Lou had a great concept: he wanted the album to let you hear a great songwriter in an honest way. At that time, a bunch of singer-songwriters were dominating charts – James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, our own Cat Stevens. Those people could write and perform songs on record in a stylish way: laid back and interesting. Tapestry came out of this trend. I remember going to a radio station with the album. The DJ played not one, but three tracks in a row! I saw that and thought, 'This is going to be amazing.' That's how quickly it was accepted."

7. Peter Frampton, 'Frampton Comes Alive!' (1976)

Peter Frampton, ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’ (1976)

Moss: "Peter left Humble Pie, and we supported him as a solo artist for four albums. He was writing some nice songs, but was pretty much staying a mid-level artist, selling around 200,000-300,000 records. But Peter was a huge live star in markets like Detroit and San Francisco, so we made a suggestion that he make a live record. What he was doing onstage wasn't like the records – it was outrageously better. I remember being at the mix of Frampton Comes Alive! at Electric Lady studios, and I was so blown away I asked to make it a double album. We put it out at a special promo price, and it just kept selling and selling…"

Alpert: "Peter was a great guitarist and amazing performer, and it didn't hurt he was a cute guy, too. The sales were abnormal: the day we put out Frampton Comes Alive!, we sold 50,000, and it just kept going. It was his time."

9. Supertramp, 'Breakfast In America' (1979)

Supertramp, ‘Breakfast In America’ (1979)

Alpert: "One of my favorite groups. Supertramp created something so pristine and clean, yet emotional, at the same time."

Moss: "They gave us an amazing album when we really needed one, and helped pull us through and save our ass. Breakfast In America was remarkable. It was an absolutely huge record worldwide – it even sold a million albums in France! From the sound alone of 'The Logical Song' or 'Take the Long Way Home,' you could tell it was Supertramp. The funny thing was, [Supertramp frontmen] Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies could walk down the street in New York, and nobody would know who they were."

10. The Human League, 'Dare' (1981)

The Human League, ‘Dare’ (1981)

Moss: "A very interesting album. My wife and I were in England to see the Police on [UK television show] Top of the Pops, and I heard 'Don't You Want Me' – I thought, 'What a fantastic record!' Virgin was putting it out there, and Richard Branson told me, 'I don't know if it's a hit.' I said, 'I'm telling you, it is.' It was an outstanding song – it still gets put in movies – and Dare proved to be an important record at the time."

11. Joe Jackson, 'Night and Day' (1982)

Joe Jackson, ‘Night and Day’ (1982)

Moss: "Joe Jackson would change all the time into different configurations. On his first album, he registered as a punk rocker; the next time around, he'd be working with girl violinists. On Night and Day, he really stretched out, and wrote great songs. The main hit, 'Steppin' Out,' was just beautiful. Some of his punk outings met with moderate sales, but he was well known as such a great musician, so when he came up with something you could put your arms around like 'Steppin' Out,' everyone jumped."

12. Squeeze, 'Singles - 45's and Under' (1982)

Squeeze, ‘Singles – 45’s and Under’ (1982)

Moss: "Squeeze was a quality group that always had interesting material. They did well, and sold records for years as catalog, but we never sold with them what we wanted to: 'Tempted' came close, and 'Black Coffee In Bed' was great, but they never gave us that one big song. Still, they were a clever, tremendous band that would make any label proud to have them, as we were."

13. The Police, 'Synchronicity' (1983)

The Police, ‘Synchronicity’ (1983)

Alpert: "Right from 'Roxanne,' we realized we had something special with the Police. Then we saw them at the Whisky A Go Go, and it sounded like eight guys were onstage. Sting had this energy that made him such an incredible performer, but with the loose sensibility he had as a jazz player – and on top of that, he writes such great, indelible songs."

Moss: "The Police were so different and exciting, unlike anything else on the radio – which made them perfect for A&M. Seeing their development over a five or six year span was amazing. Synchronicity was when the Police became icons. I remember their manager showed me the lyric sheet for 'Every Breath You Take' – I didn't even need to hear the melody to understand that song was going to be huge. Just for fun, because they were blondes, they did a show for blondes only. There was a tremendous turnout, almost 40,000 people. It was almost Beatlesque."

15. Sting, 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' (1985)

Sting, ‘The Dream of the Blue Turtles’ (1985)

Alpert: "The first solo album by Sting meant a lot to me. It was a natural continuation for him after leaving the Police; he didn't seem lost without them, but confident in what he could do. On The Dream of the Blue Turtles, he surrounded himself with great players like Branford Marsalis. The sound represented his approach to being freer musically, and not confined in a rock group. Sting needed that freedom – and his numbers were even more successful as a solo artist."

17. Janet Jackson, 'Control' (1986)

Janet Jackson, ‘Control’ (1986)

Alpert: "We signed Janet when she was 15, through her father, when she was on the show Good Times. While she sold some records off the strength of being on TV, we knew there was a great artist there. Control was the record that broke Janet – one of those great moments where it all came together. [Producers] Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had the unusual talent and energy she needed. It was amazing she could up with a record like this at just the age of 18. I thought we'd sell two million copies, but I was wrong – we ended up releasing four or five big singles, and ended up doing seven million. From that, she emerged as a huge star."

18. Suzanne Vega, 'Solitude Standing' (1987)

Suzanne Vega, ‘Solitude Standing’ (1987)

Moss: "When Suzanne came to the label, she was immediately intriguing – a great person, and very creative. At the time, international sales were very important, and she was an immediate success in London. 'Luka' was already a hit, and 'Tom's Diner' was a tremendous record. The big decision was, a couple of disco guys had remade the track, and some people questioned whether we should put that version out. I said, 'Of course we should put it out – it's a another hit!' It was good for her as an artist, and a lot of fun to see her have that big success."

19. Soundgarden, 'Badmotorfinger' (1991) and 'Temple of the Dog' (1991)

Soundgarden, ‘Badmotorfinger’ (1991) and ‘Temple of the Dog’ (1991)

Moss: "Soundgarden was this tremendous band out of Seattle, which had become the center of the world in the wake of Nirvana's success. We were grateful when they came our way. Everyone on the lot was into Soundgarden, and really believed in the band. Theirs were records we would've bought if we didn't help make them; we weren't going to give up until we'd promoted them as well and reached as many people as we could. They made challenging music, and Chris Cornell had a voice of the ages. In any period, that voice would've been successful. We also put out the Temple of the Dog project, which was made up of members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. I didn't realize it was the first record Eddie Vedder ever appeared on. It was just an amazing effort, sold a million copies, and took Soundgarden to a new platform. It was the right band, the right label, at the right time."

20. Sheryl Crow, Tuesday Night Music Club (1993)

Sheryl Crow, ‘Tuesday Night Music Club’ (1993)

Moss: "Sheryl was brought in by [producer] Bill Bottrell. She was the last artist Herb and I signed. She had already made a full album [that didn't get released], but we decided to make another one after we heard 'All I Wanna Do.'"

Alpert: "What did I see in her? A good artist. Sheryl was real passionate, played good guitar, looked good, and had good songs. She had the whole tool kit!"

In This Article: A&M Records, Herb Alpert, Jerry Moss

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