"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.
By Matt Diehl