Gary James' Interview With John Pisano Of
Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass
They were one of the highest paid touring, recording acts in the mid-1960s. They won six Grammy Awards, earning fifteen Gold albums, fourteen of which went Platinum! To show you how popular this band was, in 1966 they sold over thirteen million albums, outselling The Beatles. Also in 1966, The Guinness Book Of World Records reported they set a new record by placing five albums simultaneously on the Top 20 of the Billboard Pop LP chart, an accomplishment that has never been duplicated. In April of 1966, four of those albums were in the Top 10 simultaneously. The act we are speaking about is Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass. We talked with John Pisano, who played guitar for Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass.
Q - You have a steady gig every Tuesday night at Viva Cantina with your wife? You're called The Flying Pisanos. Is that correct?
A - No. It's Guitar Night. Guitar Night is something that I started actually twenty years ago and I've been doing it not at that club, but we've done it at several different clubs through the years. But Jean and I still work as a duo. But that has nothing to do with Viva Cantina. That whole premise is I have guitarists locally and from different parts of the world that are interested in doing a night with me. Not necessarily all Jazz players. I have different kinds of players. People that I can relate to if I hear their music, but it's all basically Jazz oriented. I have a different rhythm section every week also.
Q - This isn't like an open mic night, is it?
A - No. There's rarely any sitting in and that might be for a tune. And that might be just somebody from out of town who comes in like George Benson or some really fantastic player. They're only in town for awhile. I'll ask them as a courtesy to play a tune or two. That's happened with various great players, people from different parts of the country.
Q - Given your musical background, having played some of the biggest venues in the world, how satisfying is it to be performing in a club?
A - Oh, in a way the club work is preferable if it's just a comfortable place to play and everything is correct. Actually, it's a lot more fun than playing a large venue because I like to be close and intimate with the people and have them close by and work for smaller audiences. Some of the clubs can fit up to two hundred people and we do that occasionally on special nights.
Q - What were you doing before you teamed up with Herb Alpert?
A - A lot of different things. I was doing studio work. I worked for a long period of time with Peggy Lee. Then after her I played guitar and conducted for her, but I recorded with many different people, Barbra Streisand, and I even did a session with Sinatra and on down the line. A lot of great stars, a lot of great people.
Q - You worked with people like Sinatra and Tony Bennett before Herb Alpert?
A - Well, it was before Herb. With Tony Bennett I actually recorded with him in the late '50s, so that was before Herb. (laughs) It's an album that he did called "The Beat Of The Drums", or something like that. I was working with Chico Hamilton, who was the leader of the famous Jazz group at the time. That's how I wound up in California. I had auditioned and came out here and I stayed with him for a couple of years. I left his group in 1958 and worked locally in a lot of clubs with Bobby Troup and his wife. She's the one who did "Cry Me A River". For the most part I've done Jazz. I'm connected in a way with Jazz and the last twenty years I've been doing a lot of teaching. I teach at Cal State, Northridge and I've been there for about twelve years and then prior to that at Valley College. So, I've always been active in teaching and just basically the guitar world and traveling with different groups and different people.
Q - Do your students know your background?
A - Oh, of course. (laughs) I'm always bragging about it. They do know.
Q - Given the popularity of Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass, we hear very little about the group and not much has been written about the group. I do believe there was a P.B.S. Special on the band.
A - We did about three or four specials while we were performing and active. After Herb split the group up, he would come back on the scene and would call me to join him and do a couple of tours here and there with basically around the same group and sometimes adding come people to it. Then of course he had A&M Records and I wound up working with a lot of artists connected to A&M Records.
Q - Where did Herb Alpert see you play? Was it in a club?
A - No. I was recommended by Bob Edmondson. They were trying to put the band together, the performing group. That included Nick Ceroli, the drummer, and at the time Tony Kalash, Lou Pagani and of course Herb and Pat Senatore, the bass player.
Q - When you heard the sound of The Tijuana Brass, did you immediately think it was something different?
A - Yeah. I thought it was a lot of fun. I heard it first time when I was working with Peggy Lee and after the gig one night we'd go with the guys and this guy played one of Herb's things and I hadn't heard it before and it just sounded like a lot of fun and a little more commercial than I was used to playing. I was more or less connected to Jazz. It was little departure from that. It turned out to be a lot of fun working with the buddies and Herb and doing a lot of composing. I have tunes on most of the albums.
Q - Did you realize the group would become as popular as it did?
A - Well, up to the time when the performing group was established, and that was in 1965 or 1966, they had been a big seller recording wise. They asked Herb to put a performing group together and that's how he got in touch with me and so I got in there. He had several of my buddies in the band, so it was a lot of fun. We had a great time.
Q - When you guys would finish a show and go back to your hotel room, what would you guys do? What would you guys talk about? Or were you on a plane headed for the next city?
A - It depended if we were staying there and doing more than one performance. There was always something to do. There were clubs in town where we'd go afterwards and listen to some music. Whatever was happening around town.
Q - What do you remember about going to England and meeting The Beatles at a party?
A - I just remember going up to their manager's house. It was just us and then. There wasn't anybody else. I'm not sure, one of the guys might not have been there, George Harrison. But everybody else was, Ringo, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. We had a great time. We probably had the same amount of records on Billboard and in the magazines. As far as sales at the time, we were kind of up there together.
Q - Are you still in touch with Herb these days?
A - We keep in touch about writing. We don't talk every week or so. Every couple of months he'll call just to see how we're doing.
Q - I've never heard anybody play the trumpet the way Herb did and still does. Jazz guys didn't play like that. The whole band was unique, but what was there about his trumpet playing that made it stand out?
A - Herb is quite good at knowing how to put an arrangement together. His sound comes basically and he'd be the first one to tell you, it comes from going down to Mexico and the sound that you hear there is very typical from the trumpet player you hear down in Tijuana. That's how the whole name came about.
Q - What is so strange is no one adapted or adopted that style before Herb Alpert.
A - I guess nobody thought about using it commercially. Herb's very good about his choice of tunes and material and knows how to put things together. That's all part of it. That's his forte.