In our last article (Issue 160), I presented some of A&M Records’ earliest recordings beginning in 1962, featuring the breezy California pop and instrumental music styles they ultimately became associated with. (A&M stands for Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the label’s co-founders.)
As the musical landscape evolved with rock, folk, blues, and the British Invasion towards the end of the 1960s, Jerry Moss realized that to stay relevant to record buyers, he had to find talent that was more aligned with what was people were listening to. From the United Kingdom, Moss made licensing deals to release albums by such artists as Procol Harum, Spooky Tooth, Free, Tramline, and others, on the A&M label. On the US side of the pond, rock and folk artists like Phil Ochs, Shawn Phillips, Lee Michaels, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and the Merry-Go-Round (featuring Emitt Rhodes) would fit the bill. At the same time, the sounds of early label successes like the Baja Marimba Band, the Sandpipers, Claudine Longet, Chris Montez, and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass were falling out of favor with the record buying public; well, almost, as we’ll see below.
Part Two of our A&M Records 60th anniversary tribute takes us from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, as A&M’s artist roster was shaped by then-current musical trends.
While organist and singer Lee Michaels would debut on A&M in 1968 with his Carnival of Life album, it wouldn’t be until his fifth album, 5th, in 1971 when he would finally break into the Billboard Top 10 with the hit “Do You Know What I Mean,” which would be his career peak. After two more albums for A&M and a couple more for Columbia, he would go into semi-retirement from the music industry by the end of the 1970s.
The short-lived Los Angeles band the Merry-Go-Round had one claim to fame – multi-instrumentalist Emitt Rhodes collaborated with the band, who recorded the 1967 hits “You’re a Very Lovely Woman” and “Live,” the latter of which is featured below.
Humble Pie was born out of Steve Marriott’s frustrations in trying to get his young friend Peter Frampton into the Small Faces. Marriott quit that group to focus on Humble Pie, and after two albums released in the UK, the group signed with A&M. Their fifth album and their third for A&M, Smokin’, became their highest-charting album. While “Hot ‘n’ Nasty” would be their highest-charting A&M single, the B-side would become a staple of album rock radio: “30 Days in the Hole.”
Shawn Phillips began his musical career collaborating with such artists as Donovan (and even singing backing vocals on “Lovely Rita” by the Beatles), but was signed to A&M in 1970 and released his first album for the label, Contribution, from the remains of a three-LP collaboration with the members of Traffic. While primarily a folk-rock musician and singer (with a four-octave range), he often traded off between different musical styles on his records. The success of this first album would result in Phillips recording a total of ten albums for A&M. In the mid 1990s, he semi-retired from the music business to become an emergency medical technician, and today balances his time between his EMT work and writing, recording and touring. Here is “Man Hole Covered Wagon,” his auspicious debut for A&M.
Looking to take a new musical direction, protest singer Phil Ochs would leave Elektra and join A&M for a handful of records that placed him in different musical settings with ensembles and orchestral backings. The albums were not a complete success, but the closest brush Ochs had with the Hot 100 was the song “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” which was featured on his 1967 A&M debut, Pleasures of the Harbor. The song would reach Number 119 on Billboard’s “Hot Prospect” listing, until some radio stations pulled it from their rotations because of its controversial lyrics.
Perhaps the rarest A&M album, the self-titled 1970 album by Spirits & Worm had a very short shelf life, being pulled from stores over fears that the album cover would be associated with the occult. (It features two goats resting on a grave.) It has since been reissued in recent years, and is a classic psychedelia album in the style of Jefferson Airplane. Here is “She” from this rare recording.
Taking a clue from the blues-oriented rock popular in the late ’60s, Jerry Moss licensed recordings from the Island label in the UK. One of A&M’s releases was Tramline’s Somewhere Down the Line. The band Free was another of A&M’s Island licensing deals. From the group’s third album Fire and Water, here is one of their best-known songs, “All Right Now,” from 1970.
Years before changing his name to Yusuf Islam, Cat Stevens recorded a series of acclaimed albums for Island as yet another artist licensed through A&M in the US, with the Tea for the Tillerman (1970) and Teaser and the Firecat (1971) albums selling millions of copies each. Here is “Peace Train.”
Joe Cocker was another success for A&M, having hit records with his Beatles cover, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “You Are So Beautiful,” and the title track from his 1974 album I Can Stand a Little Rain, featured here.
With folk, rock and blues becoming more popular in the music industry, A&M still had one trick up its sleeve. An A&M single, at first a true anomaly that was firmly seated in MOR (middle of the road), stormed up the charts. It told of angels sprinkling “moondust in your hair of gold and starlight in your eyes of blue.”
Enter Richard and Karen Carpenter, a talented brother/sister duo born in New Haven, Connecticut. Based on their demo, Herb Alpert heard something promising in the group’s sound and especially in Karen Carpenter’s voice. While their first album, Offering (later retitled Ticket To Ride), sold poorly at first, Alpert gave the group another chance (as he often patiently did with other groups he felt had potential), and asked composer Burt Bacharach if he had a song he could have the Carpenters record. Richard Carpenter worked up an arrangement and declared that if the record wasn’t a smash hit, it would be the biggest stiff that A&M ever had.
As history played out, “(They Long To Be) Close To You” was that smash hit A&M was looking for, giving A&M (and composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David) their second Billboard Number 1 hit. It not only launched the Carpenters’ career, the duo’s run of hits took A&M to the upper reaches of the chart many times in the ’70s, and today they remain one of the label’s best-selling groups.
While fans may argue what is “best” in the catalog, many agree that the Carpenters’ definitive album is A Song for You, featuring solid songwriting and production that defined their sound for years to come. From that album, here is “Hurting Each Other.”
Regrettably, it is hard to find original Carpenters recordings. The original LPs are the best bet (provided you can find clean copies), as are any of the CDs in the Remastered Classics series from the 1990s. Most of the compilations have remixes and re-recorded parts so, if those songs don’t sound quite the way you remember them, you are probably listening to a remix.
In the next installment of our A&M 60th anniversary tribute, the label finds more success in popular music with bands who would sell millions of records and bring A&M’s artists into arenas around the world. Who knows? You may even find a stalker in our next article.