LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Think about this, for a minute. Janet Jackson, The Police, Suzanne Vega, Joe Cocker, The Carpenters - they all recorded for the same record label. We're not talking about a major, but one of the most eclectic and powerful independent labels from the early '60s, to the late '80s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of A&M Records, and NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has their story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONELY BULL")

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Trumpeter Herb Alpert says it all began with a song he recorded in 1962 with his band, The Tijuana Brass, inspired by the bullfights he used to go to in Mexico with his friend Jerry Moss, a records promotion man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONELY BULL")

HERB ALPERT: I was intrigued with the brass band in the stands, announcing all the - bullfight. And I was trying to capture that feeling. Jerry came up with the name.

BARCO: "The Lonely Bull" was the first hit for their fledgling record label, A&M - the initials of Alpert and Moss - the company they started out of Alpert's garage in West Hollywood.

ALPERT: I built a room inside the garage so I can - you know, go out there in the middle of the night and start blowing the horn, and nobody would bother me.

JERRY MOSS: We kind of wired it up a little bit, in the sense that there was a two-line phone in there and Herb's - was it a two- or three-track Ampex tape recorder?

ALPERT: I had two tape recorders. When I heard Les Paul doing his multitracking on "How High The Moon," I got intrigued with that sound. And I recorded the trumpet in one tape recorder; and then went to the second tape recorder, and overdubbed the trumpet again. And that was kind of the start of the Tijuana Brass sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BARCO: Alpert says from the start, he wanted A&M to be something different from the cold, corporate record labels where he'd recorded before, something more personal.

ALPERT: Jerry and I were in sync, not wanting to find the beat of the week. We wanted to find artists that had something to special to say, in a unique way. We were just thinking about, how could we put out great records? How could we put out records that we would buy, ourselves?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSE TO YOU")

BARCO: Herb Alpert says he wouldn't necessarily have bought a Carpenters record, himself, but A&M signed the duo in 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSE TO YOU")

THE CARPENTERS: (Singing) Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? Just like me, they long to be ...

BARCO: The Carpenters went on to score 12 Top 10 singles. Their success - and that of other middle-of-the-road acts, like Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 - allowed the label to sign or license less well-known artists, like Joe Cocker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS")

JOE COCKER: (Singing) What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me...

BARCO: And Fairport Convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOTHERINGAY")

FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) How often she has gazed from castle windows all, and watched the daylight passing within her captive wall, with no one to heed her call...

BARCO: A&M had a remarkable reputation for both picking winners, and for its eclectic tastes, says longtime music journalist Dave Di Martino, who is now executive director of Yahoo Music.

DAVE DI MARTINO: Every record was worth picking up and paying attention to. Track for track, and numbers for numbers, and artists for artists, A&M's accomplishments were fairly staggering. If you wanted smooth stuff; intelligent, folksy stuff; if you wanted hard rock - particularly in the '70s; they had a lot of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMBLE PIE SONG)

BARCO: The British band Humble Pie, featured guitarists Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton. When Frampton decided to go solo, he stuck with A&M.

PETER FRAMPTON: If there was ever the perfect label for a musician, at that time, it was A&M.

BARCO: Frampton says Herb Alpert - the musician - and Jerry Moss - the music lover - were always available whenever he wanted to drop in and talk. And they pretty much gave him carte blanche in the studio.

FRAMPTON: I mean, word on the street was, we've never had it so good here. They never once said, you should do more of this; or don't do that. They just let us do our thing. We made mistakes, and we learned by our own mistakes. And that's sort of unheard of now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOW ME THE WAY")

FRAMPTON: (Singing) I wonder how you're feeling, there's ringing in my ears...

BARCO: "Frampton Comes Alive" became the best-selling album of 1976. It was his third for the label. And just as it did with Frampton, A&M stuck with another artist until she finally scored a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND AFFECTION")

JOAN ARMATRADING: (Singing) Make love with affection. Sing me another love song but this time, with a little dedication. Sing it, sing it, sing it, sing it. You know that's what I like...

BARCO: From her home in England, Joan Armatrading says success, for her, didn't come until her third album with A&M.

ARMATRADING: If you think about that today, after that first album, I don't think I would have had the second album made. And then the second album came; and then they'd probably be saying, well, you've cut two albums and you haven't done it. (LAUGHTER) So A&M were very much into nurturing artists.

BARCO: The label helped launch the careers of Joe Jackson, Suzanne Vega and The Police.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Just a castaway, an island lost at sea-o. Another lonely day, no one here but me-o.

BARCO: A&M continued to produce hits through the 1980s. But finally, in 1989, Moss says he and Alpert decided to sell their label to Polygram Records, for half a billion dollars.

MOSS: We really wanted to make it bigger. And they bought the company and they said, no changes; there will be no changes, and you guys can run it the way you feel like. And then the first thing you hear is, um, we're gonna close the Paris office.

BARCO: Then, A&M's New York offices were shuttered. Moss says he and Alpert managed the label for three more years before bowing out, unhappy with their new bosses.

MOSS: All of a sudden, they were taking away, from us, our individuality. And we thought, that's what you were buying - was the fact that we were different, and unique.

BARCO: Moss says they knew it was all over when Polygram executives did away with murals painted outside the recording studios.

MOSS: We had these incredible murals that were painted by Mike Cotton and Prairie Prince, of the group called The Tubes; the A&M logo and - beautiful, all around those studios. And the week we left, for some reason, they just whitewashed it. And it was like, OK, that's - that's - that's who they are.

BARCO: Moss and Alpert filed several lawsuits against their label's subsequent owners, over contract disputes. All were settled. Today, the label launched in Herb Alpert's garage is owned by the giant Universal Music Group, which has released a 50th anniversary collection of A&M artists. To this date, nearly 600 of A&M's original albums are still available.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Sending out an SOS, sending out an SOS. I'm sending out an SOS...

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