In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1966: Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream & Other Delights
Sometimes I just don’t get it. The fun part about doing this blog is being able to discuss the hit songs and albums that the American public has gone crazy over. I get to discuss my thoughts as well as the backstories surrounding the artists, the songwriting, and the social context that allowed a song or album to become a big hit. Even when I don’t like something or the piece is from before I was born, I can usually understand how it managed to become big within the dominant trends of the day and figure out why people gravitated toward it. With Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass though, just fucking forget it.
Looking at the 1966 best-sellers list, American record buyers couldn’t get enough of the instrumental easy listening jazz courtesy of legendary trumpeter/music exec Herb Alpert and his band The Tijuana Brass. What Now My Love placed at #5, Going Places placed at #3, and this post’s subject Whipped Cream & Other Delights topping the list. In between are The Sound of Music soundtrack at #2 and the Beatles’ Rubber Soul at #4. They were the second best-selling album act of the ‘60s with only the Beatles selling more. According to Herb Alpert’s website, “In 1966, they achieved the since-unmatched feat of simultaneously having four albums in the Top 10 and five in the Top 20.” They were such a commercial juggernaut in 1966 that they managed to outsell The Sound of Music and the Beatles. All of this is absolutely baffling to me.
Now there is some context that I do get in trying to understand why Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass were so big. As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan points out in his review of Hugh Masekela’s 1968 #1 “Grazing In The Grass,” jazz was still a viable commercial force during the ‘60s. Maybe not as big as it had been in previous decades but jazz music could still do big business.
Breihan also points out the popularity of instrumental easy-listening music. At the beginning of the ‘60s, easy-listening instrumentals such as Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place” and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” were massive #1 hits in 1960 and 1962 respectively with Billboard naming both songs as the #1 single of their respective years. Even in the late ‘60s, an era when we think of music being dominated by protest music and acid-fueled hard rock, easy listening/jazz instrumentals like Paul Mauriat’s “Love is Blue,” Masekela’s aforementioned “Grazing In The Grass,” and Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet” were still reaching the top spot.
Another big factor I can think of in explaining this massive success is the hard fact that there’s always going to be an audience for music that’s free of any excitement. Even in an era of exciting musical advancements like the late ‘60s, you’re still going to have people who want music that’s safe and unthreatening. Music that’s pleasant enough to listen to. Musical wallpaper basically. In the case of the ‘60s, many of the older record buyers, the pre-baby boomers, were people who didn’t have much to do with the rock and roll excitement of the period. As popular music and society got much more intense, they were still soothing themselves with largely inoffensive schlock.
I get all this context but hearing this cheesy background elevator music and knowing how much Americans ate this shit up back in the day makes me feel like I’m listening to something from some ancient civilization. I just don’t get this. How did people find this cool?
Despite the band name, Herb Alpert is not from Mexico or Mexican in any way. Instead, he was born in Los Angeles to Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents. Growing up in a musical family, Alpert began taking trumpet lessons at eight, and soon enough was playing at local functions. After graduating high school in 1952, Alpert joined the Army for two years playing in the Army band before enrolling at the University of Southern California playing in their marching band.
During his time at USC, Alpert met an upstart songwriter named Lou Adler and ended up writing songs together at the local record label Keen Records. Alpert and Adler wrote a few major hit songs in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s including Jan & Dean’s “Baby Talk” and Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” Alpert soon joined up with a friend named Jerry Moss to form their own record label. Initially called Carnival Records, Alpert and Moss changed the name after realizing that the Carnival Records name was already being used. In 1962, they renamed the label after the initials of their last names becoming A&M Records.
It was around this time when Alpert attended a bullfight while visiting Tijuana, Mexico taking note of the mariachi bands that would play during the match. Feeling inspired, Alpert soon began to create his version of that sound leading to his first song “The Lonely Bull” which also wound up being his breakout hit peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 at #6 in 1962. Soon after, Alpert released his first album titled after the song where he recruited a backing band he called The Tijuana Brass largely made up of session musicians.
The Lonely Bull album and the follow-up Volume 2 failed to make much chart impact but it was only the beginning. 1964’s South of the Border became the group’s first Top 10 album but still hadn’t had much of a Hot 100 impact since “The Lonely Bull.” The group would hit their stride with the next album, Whipped Cream & Other Delights, released in April 1965. It wound up selling over six million copies spending eight non-consecutive weeks on Billboard’s album charts from November 1965 to February 1966. The success continued with 1965’s Going Places spending six non-consecutive weeks atop Billboard’s album charts right after Whipped Cream & Other Delights. And after that, 1966’s What Now My Love followed spending nine weeks atop the album charts.
The albums all followed a formula with the music consisting largely of instrumental covers done in a chintzy fake exotic easy listening jazz style. The type of music that’s perfect as background noise. The albums also featured hilariously cheesy covers that played a big part in the group’s success. Whipped Cream & Other Delights’ cover that you see at the top features a woman all covered in whipped cream while making a suggestive pose. The woman in the cover is model Dolores Erickson who was three months pregnant when she shot the cover. In reality, Erickson was wearing a white blanket that was covered in artificial shaving cream. The cover became so popular that Alpert would tell people at his shows, “Sorry, but I can’t play the cover for you.” So that’s the album’s main cultural legacy: a naked woman covered in shaving cream. This is getting weirder the more I write about it.
There’s nothing exactly special about Whipped Cream & Other Delights that sets it apart from the other Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass albums that were out at the time. It just happened that this album was the biggest. Listening to the album, it sounds like business as usual for the group. Another album in a crazy streak of big albums. As with the rest of their albums, the music was performed by Alpert, the Tijuana Brass, and the Wrecking Crew, the legendary Los Angeles based crew of session musicians that played on so many of the era’s hit songs.
One noteworthy song from Whipped Cream & Other Delights that still gets used today is “A Taste of Honey.” It was the most successful song off of the album giving Alpert his first Top 10 single since “The Lonely Bull” peaking at #7 on the Hot 100 and winning Record of the Year at the Grammys in 1966. You might not even know you’ve heard “A Taste of Honey” but you’ve heard it. If you’ve ever seen a transitional montage, technical difficulties poster, or hear people use background thinking music then you’ve heard “A Taste of Honey” and most of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass for that matter. I’ve heard this song used so many times in my life yet never thought much about it.
Another noteworthy song from Whipped Cream & Other Delights is “Whipped Cream” which is used for the same reasons as “A Taste of Honey” but in a more explicit way. Soon after the album’s release, the song and a couple of other Herb Alpert songs were used in the popular TV game show The Dating Game. On the show, “Whipped Cream” would get played when introducing the bachelorette. The show also played “Lollipops and Roses” from the album at the end when the contestant learns about their date as well as “Spanish Flea” from Going Places when they introduced the bachelor. The Dating Game cues have become such a cliche that “Whipped Cream” was used in 2001’s Shrek in the scene where Magic Mirror introduces the three princesses that Lord Farquaad has the chance to marry in a parody of the show.
I’ve stated my reasons above for why these albums managed to be so big but there is one more theory I have for explaining this success. Nowadays, we use this term mood music which is pretty much what the term describes. Music for a certain mood normally for when we want to chill out and relax. For rich people and middle-aged professionals, if they wanted to have on music that’s fancy but unobtrusive playing in the background while at work, at a party, or on some fancy outing then they could just put on one of those Tijuana Brass albums and play it nonstop. Just imagine the characters of Mad Men listening to this and you’ll understand. (And wouldn’t you know it, a song of theirs is used in an episode of Mad Men.)
For that purpose, I will admit the album serves it fine. After all, there’s nothing inherently bad about the album. It’s a very professionally made piece of music. In the ‘60s, you couldn’t go wrong with having the Wrecking Crew playing on your records. And Alpert’s trumpet playing stands out without overshadowing the rest of the players. Everyone knows what they’re doing. It all blends in nicely which is my problem. It sounds nice in a way that fails to leave much of an impact after listen which is true of many easy-listening instrumentals.
It’s also hard for me to view this album as a serious piece of music after a lifetime of hearing these songs be used as a cliche and a parody. When I hear songs like “A Taste of Honey” and “Whipped Cream,” I can’t help but think of background or game show music. The cheesy lounge tone of the songs also doesn’t help. It sounds like the type of music you see lame white people put on when they want to feel exotic. If you find any enjoyment in this album then good for you. For me, I just don’t get Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.
After the massive success of 1966, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass remained constant album sellers for a couple more years continuing to put out albums at a frequent pace. In 1968, Alpert reached a new and unexpected level of fame with his first Hot 100 #1, the easy-listening snoozefest “This Guy’s In Love With You” written by the legendary songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Unlike the rest of his music, Alpert sang on the song which was done for a TV special on the Tijuana Brass. It wasn’t planned to be released as a single but TV viewers liked the song so much that they called into CBS wondering where they could buy the song and it exploded from there.
The Tijuana Brass broke up in 1969 and for a decade Herb Alpert wouldn’t get anywhere near the top of the charts. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t active. Instead, his priorities shifted to running his label. During the ‘70s, A&M Records became a big powerhouse in the music industry thanks to the success of its acts that included The Carpenters, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Peter Frampton, Captain and Tennille, Styx, and Supertramp.
In 1979, Alpert scored a surprise comeback hit with “Rise,” a funky quasi-disco jazz instrumental that largely got big thanks to soundtracking a rape scene on an episode of the soap opera General Hospital. When it hit #1 that October, Alpert became the first, and so far only, artist to have a #1 hit both as a singer and as an instrumentalist. Nowadays, “Rise” is mainly remembered as the song sampled in The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 #1 rap classic “Hypnotize.”
A&M Records continued its success in the ‘80s thanks to big stars including The Police, Janet Jackson, Bryan Adams, and The Go-Go’s. Alpert would have one more major hit thanks to the 1987 Janet Jackson and Lisa Keith collaboration “Diamonds” peaking at #5 on the Hot 100. Soon after, Alpert and Moss sold A&M to Polydor Records for about $500 million. Both of them continued running A&M until stepping down in 1993 over disputes with Polydor leading to a lawsuit.
At age 85, Alpert has remained active. He still puts out albums with his last one Over The Rainbow coming out just last year. He created the Herb Alpert Foundation with his wife supporting educational programs in the arts and the environment. He and Jerry Moss were inducted as nonperformers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. And in 2012 President Barack Obama awarded Alpert the National Medal of Arts. Despite my issues with Herb Alpert’s music, it’s hard to find anything bad to say about the guy. He’s lived a very accomplished life.
Honorable Mention: The Beatles netted two albums in the Top 10 for 1966: Rubber Soul and Revolver. Both albums are noted for beginning the era when the Beatles moved away from their teen idol phase toward the more groundbreaking albums that would get them recognized as the best band in history. Rubber Soul is a great album in its own right but I prefer Revolver, the #8 best-selling album of 1966, with the group getting into psychedelia and greater studio experimentation.
Next time: We go right into the thick of Monkeemania with More of the Monkees, a follow-up album put together and released so quickly that even the Monkees knew nothing about it