Sometimes, life has a way of simultaneously bringing a wistful smile to your face while throwing you for the proverbial loop. So it was with me and my just turned twelve-year-old daughter recently. Said female child is known in my household as the ‘fierce one’. Certainly, the experience I’ll allude to was enough to inspire another forgotten song post (something I’ve not done in a while).
Whenever I drive alone with my children, and we’re not listening to an audiobook, I’ll set my iPod to shuffle through my music library and play whatever comes up through the car’s speakers (my wife won’t tolerate this practice if she’s in the vehicle, btw). This is how I’ve indoctrinated mine to the old tunes of their father’s youth (to the everlasting chagrin of their mother, I’d add). Casting back now, just before the moment floored me, a ‘ye old instrumental track popped up.
The scene then went something like this:
Fierce One: “Foo-fa, turn that up.”
[dad obediently did… but please don’t ask why my daughter refers to me as Foo-fa]
Fierce One: “What’s the name of this song again?”
Dad: “Zorba the Greek, by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.”
Fierce One: “I love this. I’m going to have it played at my wedding.”
Pin-drop moment, folks. I had no words…
If you think about it with any depth, a musical group like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass could only have come about here in the U.S., and in the specific time that was the 60s. Born in mid-30s Los Angeles, Herbert Alpert was the youngest of three children of musically talented parents — a tailor who had emigrated to America from Russia, and his California-born wife.
Later, he grew up with trumpet in hand, attended USC (my Trojan wife would be so proud) for a time and struck out to make a name for himself in music. That he did, playing gigs at night while songwriting. In point of fact, he co-wrote Wonderful World with the great Sam Cooke (my mother’s favorite singer, as it happens). However, why the consummate Alpert broke through I believe is because of where and when he happened.
Attending a bull-fight just over the nearby Mexican border in the city of Tijuana, Alpert heard and was struck by the distinctive sounds of a mariachi band. The inspiration came upon him to merge that same mariachi sway and mood (itself a romantic unique mix of rhythm, wind and string instruments) with the pop experimentation already going on in the music of the early 60s.
His horn play embraced that Mexican style, and with the initial success of The Lonely Bull, Herb Alpert hit it ‘Top 40’ big with a series of unexpected instrumental tunes few others could copy. Back then, AM radio was dominated by The Beatles (naturally), an ever-changing host of pop groups, and even legends of the previous decade like Elvis and Frank Sinatra. And Herb and the TJB were right there in air-play.
And not one member of this group was Hispanic. The session musicians hired as ‘the band’ have been famously described as, “Four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese” by Herb himself1. In other words, very American. So, in 1965 you could hardly be surprised this group took on the singular featured song from a 1964 movie in their Going Places album. It was the byproduct of our melting pot culture, too.
Look, it was a song written by Mikis Theodorakis for a UK film adaptation of a Greek novel, starring the great Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek (his second role portraying that nationality, following his stint in The Guns of Navarone from ’61) that was somehow covered by a unique amalgam of an ensemble trademarked by Latin influences2. It’s simply as American as it gets.
And it doesn’t stop there. This one has some coalescence in its own right. To be clear, I’m no music expert, but I daresay this remains an energetic and infectious tune, even now. If you listen to how the instrumental begins, the perceived Greek folk song tempo is there, followed by the pulse of intermixed mariachi horns. Early in the song, the blended rhythms build to a frenzy, only to be halted unexpectedly in the middle.
Edit, 7/17/17: The instrument in question was a bouzouki, a cross between a mandolin and a zither; used to a great extent in Greek music.
Then, Alpert’s languid trumpet bathes in and slowly builds it right back up again. All with a music medley of the Greek and Mexican (along with the traditional yells and claps that ratchet the song up), it remains a hell of a strange combination that somehow, in some peculiar way, works. And the kicker in all of this, internationally among the brass and string work going on, I’m pretty sure that is a harpsichord, of all things, in accompaniment.
The song, on the B-side of the “Tijuana Taxi“ single, reached #11 in 1965 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. What some used to term as a “double-A single.” And it seems my daughter and I fell for the tune at around the same age. Go figure.
- The LP featured members of the Tijuana Brass, with added strings for two tracks and help from some of The Wrecking Crew and others: Julius Wechter, Hal Blaine, Russell Bridges, Ervan “Bud” Coleman, Tommy Tedesco, Chuck Berghofer, Pete Jolly, Nick Martinis, Howard Roberts, Bill Pitman and Lyle Ritz. ↩
- This group disbanded in 1969. ↩