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You Can See the Music By Its Cover - Part 2

ART TIMES Nov 2003

In our last essay, we took a look at how a single company, Naxos in this case, designs its CD covers by using (for the most part) paintings that accomplish several things at once. They attract the eye of the potential buyer and they give some hint about the composer or the style of music or the period in which it was composed or the mood of the music or any of the above.

This month, I would like to dedicate my comments to the man who is said to have invented the commercial recording cover, Alex Steinweiss. As I mentioned last time, I like to frame covers from old 78 rpm or LP sets; and as time went by, I began to notice that I had more covers by a particular artist than all the rest combined. His name was always printed in a very tiny font and was difficult to make out, but I finally deciphered it as Steinweiss and let it go at that.

But when the idea for this mini-series came to me, I decided to purchase a book about this man's work and career: "For the Record: the life and work of Alex Steinweiss, Inventor of the Album Cover" (Princeton Architectural Press: New York, 2000) And how wonderful it was to see all those old covers that once protected LPs in my old collection, most of which disappeared after the advent of CDs.

His background is simple enough. Born in 1917. Grew up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. Inspired by his father with a love of music. Attended Abraham Lincoln High School, where he joined with Gene Federico, William Taubin and Seymour Chwast to form the Art Squad. Had his work featured, at age 17, in PM magazine. Eventually found his way to a job at Columbia records.

In 1937 or 1938 (accounts differ), he convinced his bosses at Columbia that he could boost sales by designing attractive covers. Now, you would think this would have been self-evident; but Columbia used to package its single 78s in a plain heavy paper holder with a hole in the middle so you could read the label and its albums showed only the composer, piece, orchestra and conductor on the cover in a plain little box that came to be known as the Tombstone Style.

Well, Steinweiss designed a cover for an upcoming release featuring the music of Rodgers and Hart. It shows two sides of a theater marquee against an abstract disc of concentric red lines. To left, above the marquee, COLUMBIA RECORDS is spelled out in bulbs. Below that, the side of the marquee reads IMPERIAL ORCH UNDER RICH. RODGERS, while the front reads SMASH SONG HITS BY RODGERS & HART. This album with its Steinweiss cover sold a lot more than did albums without Steinweiss covers. Conclusion: Steinweiss was assigned more covers.

He was able to justify the financial output it would take to set up new equipment to print these covers. But he could not overcome the improvements in this equipment that would allow photography to do the work his ink was doing; and his departure from Columbia was inevitable.

Even as I type these words, I can look up and see framed on my wall his cover for the old 78 rpm recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." The bottom third shows only a small, lonesome-looking white piano under a street lamp that is really a distorted trumpet. Half of the lamp intrudes into the upper two-thirds, which are dominated by a black shape that we recognize as the towers of Manhattan but could be a jagged mountain. From the upper left corner we see a diagonal that reads in white print COLUMBIA PRESENTS GERSHWIN'S while across the middle we see RHAPSODY IN BLUE in bright yellow. Smaller print across the bottom informs us that the records inside are conducted by Andre Kostelanetz and played by his Orchestra featuring Alec Templeton. Then the Columbia logo and the catalogue number. I have yet to see a recording of this piece better symbolized by any other cover art.

For an album of music by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, Steinweiss gives us a slightly swaybacked brown piano with a derby hat perched on the upper left of the piano, a bottle on the right, and a blue trumpet sitting on a white piano stool just under middle C, while just to the right of the keyboard is a smoking cigarette. As Larry Hart puts it in one of his song lyrics: Who needs people?

More next month.

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