Recovering and Discovering Album Cover Artists

Recovering and Discovering Album Cover Artists and Photographers

Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder are back again! In this post they discuss the illustrators and photographers behind the artwork of the many albums in their new book, Designed for Hi-Fi Living. Did you miss their first post? Read it here

At midcentury, album cover design emerged as an important arena for graphic design, and soon after, photography. In the US, artists such as Alex Steinweiss and Jim Flora at Columbia Records, Fran Scott at Impulse Records, Reid Miles at Blue Note Records, as well as Alvin Lustig, Andy Warhol, Ben Shahn, and Bob Cato contributed to the early art of album cover design. Following upon designer S. Neil Fujita’s innovative ideas, photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, William Claxton, Francis Wolff, Roy DeCarava, and Lee Friedlander participated in the burgeoning genre, as the album cover came to represent a significant forum for cultural expression.

In writing our book Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America, we included a few little-known album covers by well-known photographers, such as Friedlander and DeCarava, as well as a classic cover by renowned designer Saul Bass. However, we also encountered album cover artwork by lesser known figures, including artist and illustrator Mozelle Thompson and photographer Wendy Hilty, and the relatively obscure album cover photography of Hedrich Blessing, a celebrated modernist architectural photography firm. We came to appreciate the artistic talent, both celebrated and neglected, called upon to produce striking, memorable album covers for midcentury record companies. Here, we discuss some of our favorite discoveries.

The energy-evoking cover of the Capitol Records album, Jumpin’ on the Left Bank: Exciting New Vocal Stylings by the John Lasalle Quartet features a photo by Lee Friedlander, well-known for his “snapshot aesthetic” style of street photography. The Left Bank in the Jumpin at the Left Bank LP’s title refers to a nightclub on New York’s West Side. Friedlander’s cover shot, characteristically candid, shows the quartet mid-performance, formally dressed, yet casually close together on stage. His snapshot style fluently evokes the intimacy of a small nightclub, and the spontaneity of a live performance. Friedlander’s photographs adorn dozens of albums, including John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Ray Charles The Genius of Ray Charles, on Atlantic, and Dakota Stanton’s Time to Swing on Capitol. Friedlander often photographed musicians in and around New York City, many of which are collected in his 1998 book American Musicians.

Roy DeCarava came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s photographing jazz musicians and everyday life in Harlem. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952, and published a book of his Harlem photographs, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, with text written by Langston Hughes, in 1955. On Columbia’s album Big Bill Broonzy’s Big Bill’s Blues, DeCarava gives us the lonely blue room. A turquoise blue wall and door – from what appears to be a traveling musician’s claustrophobic room that reveals a coat, a bottle of booze, and a guitar laid on a low daybed – compose two thirds of the cover photograph and provide the background for the LP title Big Bill’s Blues, in orange. The remainder of the photograph is black, as though a dark curtain has been drawn, providing a strong vertical line, and a graphic backdrop to the yellow letters spelling out “Big Bill Broonzy.” Known for a ‘lyrical visual style’, thick shadows, and sharp contrasts of light and shade, DeCarava creates a space of eerie isolation for Broonzy’s off-stage persona.

Big Bill’s Blues was part of Columbia Records “Adventures in Sound” series, launched in 1958 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the long-playing record. “Adventures in Sound” included LPs from around the world, creatively packaged to appeal to American consumers eager to hear an international selection of sounds. The series was promoted as “a revolutionary concept in recording designed especially for the adventurous listener,” included dozens of records, some of which might be considered collectible cult classics, such as Sorcery! Sabu. “Adventures in Sound” earned a reputation for authenticity and quality in recording and sound, as well as presentation of difficult to capture, rarely heard music.

Generally more ethnographic in approach than Capitol Record’s “Capitol of the World,” albums, and with more colorful covers than Folkways Records legendary “Music of the World’s Peoples,” LPs, the “Adventures in Sound” series was an adventurous effort to capture authentic performances and introduce new sounds and traditions to the American public. In a rare example of music from the United States being collected in a series like “Adventures in Sound,” Big Bill’s Blues captures the home country exotic with, say the liner notes, “original American Negro music.” DeCarava’s cover photograph strikes a balance between the documentary mode and an artistic, almost painterly, rendering of mood and musician.

We first thought that Wendy Hilty represented one of the few female photographers working for the major record companies of the era, but it turned out Wendy was the nickname of Wendelin Hilty, who was from either Switzerland or Liechtenstein (our sources disagree). Hilty came to the US in the 1930s and was a ski instructor before he became a successful photographer. His atmospheric photographs, which emphasized clear focus, saturated colors, and often rather theatrically posed models, appeared in high profile magazines, such as Argosyand Esquire, and he produced a series of ads for Canadian Club whisky that ran in Life magazine. Our attention was focused on the dozens of classic, glamorous LP covers that he produced for RCA Records during the 1950s, including iconic covers for recording artists Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, and Perez Prado. He moved to St. Croix in the late 1950s and entered the tourism and real estate business. He died in 1978.

Hilty brought his staged and stylized aesthetic to his album cover work. We especially like his distinctive cover photography for RCA’s “Dinner Music” series that we discuss in the book, which captures stereotypical, yet appealing, images for Music for a German Dinner at HomeMusic for an Italian Dinner at Home, and Music for a Back Yard Barbecue (which functions as the “American Dinner at Home”). We think of the “Dinner Music” albums as precursors to television cooking and decorating shows, or YouTube videos, perhaps designed for newly housed suburbanites with few fine dining options nearby. The cover of Music for a Back Yard Barbecue presents two large, char-grilled steaks atop a suspiciously shiny grill, with a set of yellow sauce bowls adorned with skewers of mixed fruit and vegetables in sharp focus in the foreground; several partygoers anchor the background. In the end, the “Dinner Music” series included only five LPs, but together, they present a window into earnest postwar strivings for cosmopolitan lifestyles. Like the steaks on the cover, Hilty’s staged tableaux provide a perfectly done accompaniment to the LP, serving up a tasteful and appealing vision of a midcentury meal.

Henry Blessing and Ken Hedrich founded their photography studio in Chicago in 1929. The firm became well known for their imagery of modernist architecture projects by Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen, and produced iconic imagery of their home town’s burgeoning skyline. As modernist notions entered into the lives, lifestyles, and landscapes of post war Americans, Hedrich-Blessing became known as a “communicator” of related spaces and ideas, and their conceptualizations leap out, in brilliant hues, from their photographs for Columbia Records “Music for Gracious Living” albums. This appears to be the only album cover work by the firm, and is marked by the appearance of models in four of out five of the LPs from the series; most of their work does not include the human figure.

The Hedrich-Blessing album cover photographs capture evocative and pedagogically purposeful staging of the modern American home, offering subtly instructive pictured scenarios to answer the uncertainties of gracious living. Liner notes provide parallel hints for hosting and successful exploration in “themed” culinary arts, including details of how to have a “buffet”, a “barbecue”, or a party “after the dance.” Which sort of centerpiece might create the right mood for an event? What’s the best way to lay out silverware and salads? What type of furniture or equipment such as grill, serving table, or coffee pot, could be required, or at least desirable?

The “Music for Gracious Living”Foursome LP’s notes begin, “An important part of gracious living is certainly the joy of gracious entertaining.” In the cover photograph, the game room is stylish, tidy and colorful. A card table looks carefully arranged, the cigarettes plentiful, the snacks in their bowls, with signs of the evening’s game underway, but where has everyone gone? Foursome’s cover resembles Hedrich Blessing’s classic interior shots of midcentury buildings such as Chicago’s Marina City Towers and John Hancock Center.

A bit different from the other LPs in the “Music for Gracious Living” series, Do It Yourself focuses on the needs of the nuclear household, and echoes the DIY movement that was sweeping the country during the postwar boomIn an era of expanding possessions with rooms built, designed, or repurposed for enjoying and showing these off, the album encourages, “Get out your tools, for here are some ideas for utilizing your house more efficiently-and for doing it yourself.” The cover shows Dad and Junior working intently on a project, with Mom, across the room, busy sewing. Two large visible windows with roll down blinds provide a leafy, suburban view.

One DIY suggestion promotes the leading role of LPs in gracious living: “In every modern home there should be a music room, devoted to the enjoyment of Columbia’s superb radio, phonograph, and television equipment – to say nothing of Columbia’s fabulous library of classical and popular records. If you don’t know off-hand just where that separate special room might be – try your summer porch, your attic, your basement, your guest room, or the room you still call “Bob’s” or “Julia’s,” even though by now they may be either away at school much of the year, or even married.” Agreed. A room for records rates top priority.

In 1958, RCA Victor released a set of “Holiday Abroad” LPs, “recorded in Europe by leading continental orchestras” and featuring “musical trips to cities serviced by Sabena, Belgian World Airlines.” Each title showcased a different orchestra, with watercolors by Pittsburgh-born African-American artist Mozelle Thompson, who designed at least 100 album covers, dozens of these for RCA, as well as Broadway posters and children’s books. Thompson attended Parsons School of Design on scholarship and studied in Europe, his travels “documented in the February 1949 issue of Ebony Magazine” (What’s Next for Pittsburgh,Baron, 2014). He finished out his career as a professional artist and also teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

One of the few African-American artists at a major label in the 1950s and 1960s, Thompson produced well-known covers for RCA’s 1951 version of Porgy and Bess and MGM’s The Lonesome Sound of Hank Williams, as well as the five volume “Black America” spoken word series for Buddha Records. Thompson’s album cover art for RCA Victor’s 1967 recording of Charles Ives Symphony No. 1, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Album Cover: Graphic Arts, competing with the winning Beatle’s Revolver cover. (The Ives record won the Grammy for Best Classical Album).

Despite his profile as a prolific album cover artist and book illustrator, we could find frustratingly little information on Thompson. However, in 2014, Thompson’s record cover art, brought together in the collection of Jason Molyneaux, formed the basis of a Pittsburgh art gallery exhibit. Reported an article in the Pittsburgh City Paper at the time, “Ranging from jazz and blues to country, classical and theatrical, the designs show stunning colors and expressive figures” (Keppler, 2014).

Thompson’s illustration for the cover of Holiday Abroad in Dublin pictures a touring redhead with blond beau in tie and boating blazer peddling on a bicycle built for two – umbrella and tiny Sabena bag in tow – gliding alongside the River Liffey across from the Four Courts at Inns Quay, with the arches of O’Donovan Rossa Bridge in the background. The Dublin locals watch, momentarily intrigued.

Our redhead in pink ball gown and white gloves, stood on a horse drawn carriage near the coliseum, throws open her arms to the eternal city, as her beau with Sabena bag and cast-off umbrella attempts to capture a photo as they continue their Holiday Abroad in Rome. The carriage driver looks on and two dark-haired ragazzi stand by, one staring directly at the viewer, creating some good-natured uncertainty about the free-spirited foreigner’s behavior.

On Holiday Abroad in London, the Tower Bridge looms in moody greys over the Thames as men in bowler hats stroll along the river.  The young couple endeavor to find their destination – he wrangling an immense red map with camera and Sabena bag hanging from his arm, and she attempting with white gloved hand to point out their goal.

The now familiar couple continue their travels with Holiday Abroad in Paris, as the young woman in yellow ball gown, white gloves, and red shoes gazes dreamily over her drink as her beau negotiates with a flower seller who has approached their outdoor café table. The blue Sabena bag sits unattended near her feet. The red, yellow, and green awning above them provides swathes of bright color; and a lightly sketched in Eiffel Tower emerges from behind a poster covered kiosk and leafy green branches.

Despite Mozelle Thompson’s accomplishments and the considerable success of his work, he faced racial discrimination. He apparently avoided meeting with the people for whom he created his beautiful art work: If commissioning employers saw that he was black, he was fired, or his wages were suddenly reduced. In 1969, after completing his cover art assignment for the “Black America” series, that included spoken word albums featuring Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, and that dealt with the struggle of blacks for dignity, and even human status, Thompson somehow fell from his NYC apartment window and died.

Thompson’s use of color, keen architectural drawing, and intimate detail in rendering the young travelers in the Holiday Abroadseries allowed him to create an innovative album cover travel diary and a continuity of characters that tied the LPs together in a human, humorous narrative. With so many covers in diverse genres, Mozelle Thompson’s work deserves greater attention, and we look forward to celebrating it further.