It’s a balmy Tuesday night and the patio is packed at one of Denton’s best hangouts, Sweetwater Grill & Tavern, a block south of the downtown square. A head-bobbing, table-drumming, mostly middle-aged crowd is grooving to A Taste of Herb, the only known tribute band devoted to the music recorded by the legendary trumpet player and bandleader Herb Alpert.
Center stage is John Wier, the group’s laid-back frontman, A Taste of Herb’s own Herb. He calls the next number on the set list: “The Lonely Bull,” Alpert’s first big single, a song that helped fuel the Latin-pop craze in the ’60s. The band’s rendition requires audience participation, and the people here know the drill. Wier and fellow trumpeter Danny O’Brien play the opening fanfare and, on cue, just like on the recording, the fans cheer.
“That’s the best ¡Olé! I’ve ever heard,” Wier says. It’s a practiced line, but no one seems to mind. He grins, and the crowd eats it up. Who says good music, a good band, has to be serious all the time?
Alpert didn’t. He made music for beach chairs and boat decks, soundtracks to having exactly one drink too many, songs that turned living rooms into dance floors and everyone who heard them into a fun aunt. You are familiar with at least a portion of Alpert’s vast catalog of recordings, even if you think you aren’t. You’ve heard the bouncy bachelor’s theme from The Dating Game or the jaunty “Casino Royale,” which Will Forte memorably danced to in a sketch when Peyton Manning hosted Saturday Night Live. You most definitely have seen the titillating record jacket of Whipped Cream & Other Delights, his fourth album, featuring a (presumably) naked model covered in a shaving cream “dress” with a come-hither look—the subject of many an adolescent boy’s fantasy.
Alpert and his band, the Tijuana Brass, culled from L.A.’s hottest session players, were as mainstream as it gets in the 1960s, as ubiquitous as yellow smiley faces. Their music was piped into department stores, supermarkets, and elevators, and “Mexican Shuffle” was turned into a commercial jingle for Clark’s Teaberry gum. Alpert and the Tijuana Brass appeared in TV specials, and, at one point, their albums actually outsold the Beatles, two to one. In 1966, four Tijuana Brass albums were on Billboard’s Top 10, five in the Top 20—at the same time. Alpert is also the only artist to have ranked No. 1 as both a singer and instrumentalist.
After the Tijuana Brass ran its course, Alpert went solo, sliding into adult contemporary and smooth jazz. “Rise” rose to No. 1 in 1979 and won a Grammy for best pop instrumental performance. (It gained popularity from repeated exposure on the ABC soap General Hospital, during its popular Luke-and-Laura run.) During his career, Alpert has collected nine Grammys, 14 platinum albums, and 15 gold records, and has sold more than 72 million records worldwide.
Even given all of that, one could argue that Alpert’s greatest musical contributions came as a music industry exec. His $200 garage-studio recording of “The Lonely Bull” spawned the powerful A&M Records (A for Alpert, M for his partner, Jerry Moss). The influential label paved the way for hundreds of musicians—including Burt Bacharach, the Carpenters, Cat Stevens, Peter Frampton, Quincy Jones, and Sting—until the two men sold it to PolyGram in 1989, for a reported $500 million.
At 84, Alpert still plays the trumpet. He and his wife, singer Lani Hall, are philanthropists and live on the California coast near Los Angeles. Alpert paints and sculpts in addition to making music. His 58th recording, Over the Rainbow, came out in September, and Music Volume 3: Herb Alpert Reimagines the Tijuana Brass was released a year ago. He’ll be at the Majestic Theatre on October 12, performing with Hall as part of their nationwide tour.
Or you can stop by Sweetwater Grill & Tavern on October 15 from 7 to 9 pm for A Taste of Herb.
A Taste of Herb got its name from Alpert’s hit “A Taste of Honey.” It was the brainchild of Joe Cripps, former percussionist with the self-styled “nuclear polka” band Brave Combo. His gregarious personality was as big as his bushy handlebar mustache. “Joe was an idea guy—some were crazy and some were good,” Danny O’Brien remembers. “If he found someone who showed interest, he was also a good salesman.” O’Brien admits that, while Cripps was the spark, he wasn’t the guy to see it through. He convinced John Wier, the hot new trumpet player in town from Arkansas, to make it happen.
“I basically became Herb Alpert,” says Wier, who took charge as A Taste of Herb’s leader. Like Alpert, Wier is long and lean with wavy salt-and-pepper hair that brushes the top of his high forehead. While Alpert’s eyes are dark and penetrating, Wier’s are pale blue-gray and his gaze seems faraway. He’s blind, the result of his diabetes. It’s not obvious at first, and, except for needing some help getting around, he manages fine.
Until recently, he had other worries. He needed a double kidney-and-pancreas transplant, which he received last May. Amazingly, now he no longer needs insulin injections, granting him newfound freedom and more energy to focus on the band. He books the dates and chooses the tunes, which he and the band learn off recordings and YouTube videos.
“While Alpert’s eyes are dark and penetrating, Wier’s are pale blue-gray and his gaze seems faraway. He’s blind, the result of his diabetes.”
A Taste of Herb’s first gig took place during happy hour at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton seven years ago. Cripps provided the musicians, a wrecking crew of Denton locals. In addition to Wier and O’Brien, the first incarnation of ATOH included bassist Bubba Hernandez and guitarist Robert Hokamp from Brave Combo and keyboardist J. Paul Slavens, the KXT DJ and Ten Hands frontman, who still occasionally performs with the band.
“We showed up with, like, nine songs, which in Herb Alpert-speak is about 25 minutes of material,” O’Brien recalls. The band played what they knew and took a break, but the crowd wanted more. So the guys shrugged their shoulders, went back out on stage, and performed the exact same set again.
After that, Cripps shifted to percussion and his buddy Tex Bosley—who had lent him his drum kit for that first gig—slid into the drummer’s seat. Alan Emert now plays bass, Paul Metzger replaced Hokamp on guitar, and Tony Donate joined on percussion. Fans can get their ATOH fix regularly at Scat Jazz Lounge in Fort Worth, The Common Table in Frisco, Dan’s and Sweetwater in Denton, and various annual festivals around North Texas.
Metzger is the newest member of the band, with four years in. “The music sounds so easy. But it’s not,” he explains. “There’s very little improvisation. It’s very prescribed.” That, for a jazz musician used to sight-reading charts on the spot, isn’t typical. Bosley agrees: “The first gig costs you 100 hours,” he says, meaning that the musicians have to sit down and learn the musical roadmap ahead of time. Even so, ATOH rehearsals are a rarity. “Odds are if you’ve been to more than one or two shows, you’ve seen us put the wheels on something and push it down the hill for the first time,” Bosley says.
“It’s not like somebody’s listening for cracked notes or you’re playing over crazy changes,” O’Brien says. “It’s just really fun music.”
Alpert’s upbeat style has helped the band members get through tough times. Cripps struggled with health issues and alcoholism, and, in 2015, he moved back home to Arkansas, presumably to get clean. The band continued on. “Everybody kept the door open for Joe, always,” O’Brien remembers. Cripps’ many friends were rooting for him. “I thought he was going to get healthy. I fully expected him to come back because Joe always did.” But this time he didn’t. Cripps was last seen three years ago leaving no trace, his friends and family in shock, still.
“It’s brought a very real gravity to the band whose hallmark is this lighthearted, quirky, kind of wonderful music,” Bosley says. “This was a good thing that Joe did, and we carry on the best part of his legacy every time we take the stage.”