Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass was not only a band that borrowed the city’s name: their sound became synonymous with a desire for a metropolitan Tijuana, a city that might be similar to San Diego, yet one that maintained its Latin roots with south-of-the-border charm. During the ’70s, the band’s music became the soundtrack for a couple of local TV shows, including Tijuana Window to the South.
Tijuana was growing at an accelerated rate due to the maquiladora program that began in 1965 and lured migrants from the southern states of Mexico and Central and South America. Tijuana grew from 165,690 in 1960 to 340,383 in 1970. The image and collective urban memory of the city morphed from utopia to dystopia…or from modern metropolis to the poster child of informal development.
The Tijuana sound climaxed with the TJB and gave way to other musical manifestations such as norteño, influenced by the musical tastes of migrants from southern Mexico who were more in tune with the realities of low-wage labor, haphazard planning, and squatter communities. A prominent local rock-and-roll scene was in the making and gave way to Tijuana groups such as the Tijuana Five, Dugs Dugs, and Javier Bátiz, longtime friend of Carlos Santana. Later came the narco corridos, musical tales that depicted the lives and misdeeds of drug cartels that began to set up shop in the ’80s.
In 1965, Alpert released one of their most recognized albums, Whipped Cream and Other Delights, with model Dolores Erickson wearing nothing but whipped cream on the cover. Alpert continued to write hit after hit; he won seven Grammys and sold more than 72 million records worldwide with Tijuana Brass, a band that did not include Mexicans or musicians from Tijuana.
The band’s inspiration from Tijuana was more atmospheric than physical. Alpert remembered in a 1979 interview that one day in 1962 he came down to Tijuana from Los Angeles to watch the Mexican bullfighter Carlos Arruza and was inspired by the sounds of Mexico and not so much by the music. The bullring band of the time was led by Miguel Bravo, a well-known local musician who was good friends with Rafael Mendez, one of Mexico’s most famous trumpet players and an inspiration to Alpert. Mendez would show up for the bullfights and sometimes play with the band. Mendez’s virtuoso sound might have been in the air when Alpert made that trip to see the great Arruza swing his cape.
The TJB broke up in 1969; their last record together was The Brass Are Coming. But the Brass never came back to Tijuana. So began the legend of Alpert and his muchachos that circulates to this day. Some of the stories relate that Alpert was Brazilian or that the Tijuana Brass was all mariachi players from Plaza Santa Celia, where — on the corner of Revolution Avenue and First Street — mariachi bands eagerly await to be hired for a gig. One still-prominent rumor is that Herb Alpert is a tijuanense.
The Brass reunited in 1974 with new musicians, but the band played only for a year and a half before calling it quits. The traces that we have of the TJB in Tijuana are their promotional images, album covers, and music videos shot among the city’s most emblematic architecture. The music video for Alpert’s first hit (“The Lonely Bull”) was shot in 1962 with an empty Toreo de Tijuana as stage and ghostly recordings of large crowds. He returned to shoot a few more videos for the songs “Spanish Flea” and “Mexican Shuffle,” with large Tijuana crowds and bullfights and great shots of the city, which in those days was expanding toward the east.
The video for “Tijuana Taxi” was shot at the Caliente Racetrack, probably when Mr. Johnny S. Alessio ran the place and made it into the biggest legal gambling business in North America. Alessio was also the “A” of Mr. A’s, the famous San Diego restaurant. (Alpert was the “A” of A&M records, a very successful independent record company he created with Jerry Moss in 1962.)