MAGNET & STEEL Walter Egan 1978

“For you are a magnet, and I . . . am a refrigerator”

Bill Murray guest starring as a substitute teacher on “Square Pegs”

 

“For you are a maggot and I am veal,”

an eight-year-old Walter Egan fan, mishearing the lyrics

Ex-Kingsman John Stewart produced a hit single titled “Gold” about the ’70s music scene in Southern California. Sharp-eared listeners may recall Stevie Nicks singing backup on “Gold,” which included the plight of “my buddy Jim Bass/ he’s a workin’ pumpin’ gas/ makes $2.50 for an hour.” In the mid-1970s, the California sound enjoyed a significant market share of the airwaves, thanks to such sunkissed deities as the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt (who was then dating California’s Governor Moonbeam, Jerry Brown), Toto, Bob Welch, Nicolette Larson, Andrew Gold, Jackson Browne, and Fleetwood Mac (but, alas, not Jim Bass). This month’s “Bringing Out the Dead” puts the spotlight on one song from that era that wove its charms tightly and forever around my heart: Walter Egan’s enchanting ballad “Magnet & Steel.”

It was Egan’s only hit, but it has recently resurfaced on a number of soundtracks (movie and TV), sounding as fresh and lovestruck as the day it was minted in 1977. It’s a simple love song, a gently arranged number that opens with a trio of female voices swooning “Oooooooooooh. Oooooh. Ahhhhh.” There’s an earnest declaration of love from Egan, who doesn’t think he has a shot at anything lasting with his objet d’amour, a tender guitar solo with a bit of rockabilly quiver, and something like sweet little chimes in the chorus. It’s a great number for a slow dance. And yet, in researching the song, I have learned that there’s quite a bit more to it than I ever imagined.

First of all, I had no idea that Fleetwood Mac was tied up in the genesis of this song. That’s Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham on the backing vocals (okay, so it’s two female voices and one dude swooning “Oooooooooooh. Oooooh. Ahhhhh.”), along with Buckingham on guitar and Mick Fleetwood on drums. The vocals are so beautifully blended and I’ve been so besotted with their texture for 23 years that it hasn’t ever occurred to me to identify the voices until now. In seeking to identify them, I’ve unearthed the following history.

Born in 1948 in Jamaica, New York, Egan spent the early part of his music career zigzagging up and down the East Coast in a surf band called The Malibooz and a folk group called Sageworth & Drums. He hooked up with Emmylou Harris when she recorded Egan’s “Hearts on Fire” with Gram Parsons on the “Grievous Angel” album. Following Harris to Los Angeles, Walter Egan became noteworthy on the L.A. scene after being offered Andrew Gold’s berth on Linda Rondstadt’s band and jamming with the likes of John Belushi at Hoot Night at the Troubadour. What Egan hankered for, though, was a solo career, which he found when he was introduced to Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in 1976.

On the threshold of their own superstardom with Fleetwood Mac, Buckingham and Nicks co-produced Egan’s first album, “Fundamental Roll.” Nicks, Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood subsequently worked on Egan’s second album, “Not Shy.” Nicks, who was experiencing some turbulence with Buckingham at the time–

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RETRO HELL REVIEWS

HERB ALPERT
Definitive Hits
MCA/Universal

alpert

As I’ve been prepping to review Herb Alpert’s “Definitive Hits,” the word “synaesthesia” has been knocking around in my head. Synaesthesia is one of those arcane-ass literary terms tossed out to sophomore English majors during their introduction to poetry fundamentals. For some reason, the term stuck with me like a poetics spitball. Imagine my happy surprise when I found the following entry for synaesthesia in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: “The phenomenon wherein one sense modality is felt, perceived, or described in terms of another, e.g. describing a voice as velvety, warm, heavy, or sweet, or a trumpet-blast as scarlet (“To the bugle,” says Emily Dickinson, “every color is red”).” Now, my ear doesn’t see color when I listen to Herb Alpert’s instrumentals. It tastes flavor. Alpert’s music is a gustatory experience. How apropos for the work of a man whose chosen instrument requires a strong and lissom tongue. Apparently, I’m not the only who thinks so. Jerry Moss (the M of Alpert and Moss’ A&M; Records label) decided that the Tijuana Brass’ fourth album should contain exclusively songs with food titles. That album, “Whipped Cream and Other Delights,” made a sweet topping for the Billboard Albums chart for eight weeks in 1965. Several tracks from that particular licorice pizza (“Whipped Cream,” “Lollipops and Roses,” “A Taste of Honey”) appear on DEFINITIVE HITS.

Don’t know much about Alpert’s history? Born in L.A. in 1935, Alpert took up the trumpet at the age of eight, studying with a succession of private teachers. He graduated from Fairfax High, served a stint in the army band, then did a year and a half of study at USC. Landing his first job at Keen Records in A&R;, he briefly managed Jan and Dean, then hooked up with Keen’s biggest star, soul prince Sam Cooke. Barely 25, Alpert penned “Wonderful World” for Cooke in 1960, which became one of Cooke’s most enduring hits. Alpert then set up a studio in his garage and experimented with his own music, searching for the sound he could call his own.

A trip to Tijuana in 1962 with his pal Jerry Moss provided Alpert with his inspiration–a bullfight in which the matador rode a snow white horse into the ring while five mariachi trumpeters played from the stands. Hoping to capture the essence of that afternoon (lucky for Alpert, not lucky for the poor bull), Alpert cobbled together a melody with some crowd sounds and created his first hit instrumental, “The Lonely Bull.” In so doing, he caught the final, more westernized wave of exotica that was so popular with post-WWII audiences. Skirting the fruity Polynesian sounds of Martin Denny, ixnaying the Sumac Ixtabay, and Venturing away from the surf craze, Alpert concocted a zesty blend of mariachi harmonies (this by adding a second, slightly tipsy trumpet part to his lead horn) punctuated with such elements as Dixieland, polka, a dash of Spanish fly, and some inoffensive pinches of rock. He called this distinctive brew the “Ameriachi,” which left a lively, pleasurable, and permanent aftertaste with American pop culture. Jim Lange and THE DATING GAME had their soundtrack, and Alpert had a sound so definitive, so distinctive that Miles Davis claimed he could identify Alpert’s work within three notes.

First recording with session musicians, then forming a band to play live in 1965, Alpert and his Tijuana Brass (all top session men, several of whom would stay with him throughout his career) became a top-grossing sensation, racking up unprecedented sales (advanced orders of the album “What Now, My Love” surpassed one million). With fifteen albums, numerous Grammies, plenty of gold and platinum wall candy, TV specials, a surprise number one vocal single (“This Guy’s in Love With You”), and collaborations with such luminaries as Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Hugh Masekela, Waylon Jennings, and Jimmy Jam, you’d think that a man blessed with Alpert’s movie-star good looks would know when to give it a rest. But nooooooooooooooo! With Jerry Moss, Alpert formed A&M; records, ultimately stockpiling an eclectic roster of pop indelibles: The Carpenters, Cat Stevens, The Sandpipers, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, Amy Grant, The Baja Marimba Band, Peter Frampton, Liza Minnelli, Quincy Jones, Captain Beefheart, Pablo Cruise (um, dubbed a “20th Century Master,” Herbie?), Carole King, Procol Harum, The Captain and Tennille, Bryan Adams, The Police and Sting solo, Janet Jackson, Joe Cocker, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, to name a passing few. Disbanding the Brass in 1972, Alpert focused on running A&M; and embarked on a solo career (“Rise,” “Highway 101”) that put him at the top of Pop and R&B; charts with a new generation of fans.

When Alpert and Moss sold A&M; to PolyGram (for about half a billion dollars), they founded another label, Almo Sounds, and promptly hit pay dirt by signing Garbage. He has continued to record, all the while expanding his entertainment enterprise into radio and television. A generous arts philanthropist, he helped fund the first production of Tony Kushner’s Tony-winning theatrical masterwork, “Angels in America.” Herb Alpert Foundation supports the CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts, which grants annual fellowships of $50,000 to five artists, one each, in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theatre, and the visual arts. And dammit, at the Brasilian age of 66, the man is still unspeakably good looking!

So, back to the hot licks from the “Definitive Hits” collection. Dubbed a “20-track Career Retrospective” (with the tracks remastered with “tube equipment from the original tapes,” whatever that means), “Definitive Hits” samples extensively from Alpert’s vast career, managing to be both eclectic in its flavors while consistent in conveying the whole idea of the man’s music. From “The Lonely Bull” through the “Whipped Cream” entries past “Casino Royale” to “Rise” and “Diamonds,” the listener/snacker can trace the development of Alpert’s sound. The audio collage of “The Lonely Bull” (with a bass line and jungle siren vocals so keenly characteristic of the early ’60s) is certainly the same work of the man who shuffles through the ’80s-slick, but playful “Route 101.” There’s no question that the sleek and sexy man in the matinee jacket of “What Now, My Love?” from 1966 is the same dark stranger coaxing at our loins to step out on the disco dance floor with 1979’s “Rise.” Each piece has its own flavor (from the cinnamon tweak of “Mexican Shuffle” to the near butterscotch perfection of “Lollipops and Roses”–and I ain’t gonna tell you what I think “Rise” tastes like), but the intensity of each flavor is held tastefully in check by the fullness and smoothness of Alpert’s playing, the elegance of his instrumentations, and the confidence of his arrangements. One song illustrates how an Alpert arrangement can completely transform a song. “A Taste of Honey” was originally set in waltz time (3/4); listen to the Beatles’ version to hear exactly how waltz-like the durned thing is. Alpert intuited that the song would be a kick in a 4/4 arrangement, and voila! An indelible instrumental charts at #7.

Hugh Masekela once said about Herb Alpert, “Where once I’d play 15,000 notes to get an idea across, I’ve learned from him how to do it in five.” Alpert is a man of hundreds of fun, sweet, tender, and clever musical ideas–all of them delightful. The 20 sampled here will tell you much about the man, although I also recommend you nab a copy of “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” to indulge in some true, high-calorie fun.

Some Herb Alpert and TJB Trivia:

1) “Mexican Shuffle” first became popular as the Clark’s Teaberry Gum jingle, giving the Tijuana Brass its first major exposure via TV commercials.

2) Dolores Ericson, the sumptuous, dark-haired lass creamed so demurely on the cover of “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” was, in fact, covered with shaving foam and was three months pregnant.

3) Any self-respecting “General Hospital” fan can point out that “Rise” was the music throbbing in the background when Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) raped teenaged Laura Webber (Genie Francis) on the floor of the disco where she worked. That violent encounter would blossom into daytime television’s most immortal romance (only daytime TV could offer such a twisted version of “meeting cute”). The hypnotic strains of “Rise” would haunt Laura for a long time afterward.

4) Can’t you get up any faster? When “Rise” was released, most European 12″ singles were recorded at 45 rpm. Because those wacky Euro-DJs didn’t notice the speed difference, they played the larger disks at 33 rpm, and “Rise” topped the European charts at the wrong speed.

5) Before warming up his chops each day, Alpert rises at about 6:00 a.m. to paint or sculpt for a few hours.

6) Herbie Goes Postal: after Alpert and the TJB gave a command performance at the 1966 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Postmaster General J. Edward Day gushed to Newsweek, “I wish there were more like them and fewer of those weird and kooky groups.”

7) Our hero dabbled in movie acting for a spell and actually landed a bit part in “The Ten Commandments.”

8) I knew somehow that they’d Muppet up! The quaint Charlie Chaplin movie lot on La Brea just below Sunset that housed A&M; Records remains in capable entertainment industry hands: it’s now the headquarters of Jim Henson Productions.

9) Throughout the early part of Alpert’s career, he played a Benge trumpet. The Benge trumpet is named for its creator, Eldon Benge, whose brilliant, eccentric son, Donald, inherited the Benge Trumpet Company. Benge the Younger, among other things, was a master chess player, classic board game designer (he created Conquest), magician, championship fencer, exotic coin collector, and one of the founders (along with the recently departed Dr. Donald Reed) of The Count Dracula Society. I recall that, when I was all of six, I spoke to him once at the Benge company Christmas party, and I had to call him “Uncle Donald.” The reason that I was at the Benge company Christmas party was because the man who often repaired trumpets (including, frequently, the valves on Herb Alpert’s well-worn horn) was my father, Benge employee Lawrence Frank. Whenever Alpert brought the trumpet in for a tune-up, he would hang around and shoot the breeze with my dad while he did maintenance on the valves.