The History of A&M Records, Part Seven: A&M Goes Latin

The History of A&M Records, Part Seven: A&M Goes Latin

Written by Rudy Radelic

Continuing our 60th anniversary celebration of A&M Records, our journey will now take us south of the border. A&M’s foundation was built on music with a Mexican flavor – the sound of the Tijuana Brass was founded on a single, “The Lonely Bull,” that drew its influence from the mariachi bands that performed in the bullrings in Tijuana. The spinoff group, The Baja Marimba Band, also used Mexican touches in their music but eventually leaned towards instrumental pop and even ended their A&M run with a bit of jazz.

Yet, a true taste of south of the border music would hail not only from Mexico, but also from Brazil. While bossa nova was still going strong in the mid 1960s, Herb Alpert had discovered the music of Sergio Mendes, and he and Jerry Moss signed him to the label. Mendes’ earlier albums were based in small-group jazz and bossa nova, arguably peaking with the Capitol album by Wanda Sá entitled Brasil ’65, which featured the Sergio Mendes Trio (with bassist Sebastiao “Tiao” Neto and drummer Chico Batera) along with guitarist Rosinha de Valenca, and Bud Shank on flute and alto saxophone.

Sergio’s band for A&M, Brasil ’66, combined all of his prior influences with modern pop, jazz, and, as the liner notes said, “a little sex.” It became famous for their debut album’s leadoff track, “Mas Que Nada.” For the group’s fourth album, Mendes changed the line-up, keeping Lani Hall on lead vocals but adding Karen Phillips as the second vocalist, as well as his long-time bassist from Brazil, Sebastiao (Tiao) Neto. One arguably unfortunate direction was the heavy use of strings and other accompaniment (arranged by Dave Grusin) in addition to the combo, which watered down the Brazilian sound.

When the band was renamed Brasil ’77, Lani Hall had left, and Gracinha Leporace took her place. (Gracinha has been Mendes’ wife for decades.) While their albums usually were a mix of Brazilian, pop and jazz, their atypical album Primal Roots, Mendes’ final album for A&M, was an exercise in pure Brazilian music, and has been long been highly regarded by fans of both Mendes and Brazilian music in general. Here is “After Sunrise” from that album.


While the later Brasil ’66 had shifted course, Mendes produced a group confusingly called Bossa Rio (as Mendes himself had named one of his earlier groups Bossa Rio). The group featured Gracinha Leporace as the co-lead singer with popular Brazilian vocalist Pery Ribeiro. While much of the album sounded like a Brasil ’66 knock-off, some of the best tunes on the album were the Brazilian-based tracks. Below is “Boa Palavra” from the A&M album Sergio Mendes Presents Bossa Rio. Bossa Rio recorded a second album, Alegria, that repeated the same formula as their debut but for Blue Thumb Records instead of A&M.


Sergio Mendes would later rejoin A&M and record the Top 5 hit “Never Gonna Let You Go” in the 1980s.

One of the most important composers to come out of Brazil in the early 1970s was Milton Nascimento. Nascimento came to the attention of many in the jazz community thanks to his appearance on Wayne Shorter’s 1974 album Native Dancer and has since collaborated with artists such as Quincy Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Paul Simon, George Duke, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and Cat Stevens, among many others. He has won five Grammy Awards as well. Nascimento had a couple of albums released on A&M, including the self-titled Milton which gave us this classic: “Raça (Hasa).”


Another important composer, Edu Lobo, has had his songs performed by many other artists in the A&M stable as well as on other labels. His career started later in the bossa nova era, but he would become a major composer in the Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) movement that followed soon after. Among the many artists who have covered his songs, Earth, Wind & Fire dedicated nearly an entire side of an album to the song “Zanzibar,” and below is Edu Lobo’s version, from the album Sergio Mendes Presents Edu Lobo. Any of Nascimento’s Brazilian albums are worth seeking out, especially his promising debut on the Elenco label, A Musica de Edú Lobo Por Edu Lobo, featuring the Tamba Trio as his backing group.


A&M was also home to Argentine Latin jazz saxophone player Gato Barbieri, who recorded a handful of albums for the label. While beginning as a jazz player, he eventually incorporated the sound of South American music into his style. Barbieri is well-known for his Grammy-winning score for the film Last Tango in Paris. His fiery style can be heard on the following track from his A&M album Caliente!, a cover of Santana’s “Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile),” one of Gato’s best-known recordings.


AyM Discos was a division of the A&M Records label for Latin America, and operated from 1982 to 1988. One of the label’s most popular artists through the mid 1980s was María Conchita Alonso. Her album Maria Conchita from which the single “Noche de Copas” was taken, was her first album nominated for a Grammy award. Most of the album’s tracks were composed by Juan Carlos Calderón, with José Quintana producing. Alonso would also enjoy an acting career in addition to recording music throughout her career.


After the Tijuana Brass disbanded, Herb Alpert veered into many different styles of music. After an obscure, self-penned album, Just You and Me, he recorded two Afro-jazz albums with African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, then topped the Hot 100 with “Rise” in 1979 and continued in a “funk lite” theme for his next few albums. Arguably most fans’ favorite post-Tijuana Brass album was Fandango, an album Alpert recorded partly in Mexico City. It shares a similarity to the aforementioned Maria Conchita album in that it was co-produced by José Quintana, and many of the tracks, including the following hit “Route 101,” were composed by Juan Carlos Calderón.


Actor, musician, composer and activist Daniel Valdez has the distinction of becoming the first Chicano to have an album released by a major record label; A&M, in this case. The album, Mestizo, was released in 1974. Valdez later appeared in films (such as Which Way Is Up? and The China Syndrome), as well as on Broadway in his brother Luiz’s production “Zoot Suit.” He also served as musical director of the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba. Here is a track from his A&M album.


While Paulinho da Costa was born in Rio de Janeiro, his appearances on so many American recording sessions have made him one of the most recorded musicians of all time. Despite having played on so many tracks, he has recorded only five albums under his own name, one of them being the Breakdown album from 1991 which was released on A&M. Here is “Let’s Stay Friends” from that album.


Our next part of the A&M 60th Anniversary overview will begin dipping into the many jazz recordings released on A&M and its associated labels.


Header image: Gato Barbieri, promotional photo.

Previous installments appeared in Issues 160, 161, 162, 165, 166 and 168.

Back to Copper home page

1 of 2