A&M Records' Greatest Hits - Rolling Stone
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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.

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!"

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