Before the late 1930’s record albums were said to have resembled tombstones: plain brown sleeves with the name of the artist stamped onto the cover.Then came a new direction, the formation of a new axiom that was not always true, but close enough. That is,if you can appreciate an album cover as good art, one is more likely to enjoy an album as good art. In other words, a visual language communicating, telling, beyond the banality of the moment to talk about something a bit more, real, enduring and significant that a hard sell. It means not telling everything but giving clues to a life, an attitude, a spirit…. Our present era is one of pitiful, aesthetic raping graphic design, representing the unlimited potential of Photoshop to lead pseudo designers to come up with completely atrocious work. But,with the onset of the the digital age of music and downloads, we have returned to the pre-1930’s where no one cares what’s on the front of a record when all the people who download it are not going to see. …
One of the first album artists was Alex Steinweiss who began in 1939. He was from beginning inspired by European poster artists, such as A.M. Cassandre, Jean Carlu and Paul Colin. Steinweiss’s stylized images, inventive typography and clever illustrations, have all the qualities of the great European poster art from the 1930s. By the mid 1940’s the influence of abstract artists such as Klee, and Kandinsky were to be seen.
Jim Flora was hired by Steinweiss to Columbia in the early 1940’s to be responsible for jazz covers. While Steinweiss,was a classical-music fan, Jim Flora was passionate about jazz. This resulted in brightly-colored cover art with caricatural and even quasi-primitive graphics that recalled Joan Miro and touches of other modernist art like Picasso in the prism of a new context. So, his illustrations were influenced by the European modern painters as well as pre-Colombian art, with inflections of what was becoming comic book art.
Neil Fujita was another of the post-Steinweiss designers at Columbia who developed the company´s album look. He was taken on by Rudolph de Harek, who was Columbia´s art director in the beginning of 1950s. This was pre-advent of television and record sales were booming, especially with the introduction of the LP and the beginning of stereo sound. Both de Harek and Fujita opted for a style which featured photography before illustrations, that could be said to have appropriated the urban look of photographer Helen Levitt. From mid 1950s Fujita was the art director. He was inspired of labels like Blue Note and Prestige and added a new, more hard-edged, attitude to Columbia.
Bob Cato represented the flowering of the modern era. He took over from Neil Fujita in 1960 as art director at Columbia and was a ground-breaking designer who helped turn the album cover into a significant form of contemporary art in the 1960s. Born in 1923, in the 1940s he studied under the Bahaus designer Lazlo Moholu-Nagy and then with the designer Alexey Brodovitch, who was the art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Cato then became his assistant at the magazine.
He stayed at Columbia from 1960 to 1970. His paintings, collages and photos illustrated a variety of musical styles, from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein, and he created or supervised some of thet iconic popular music covers of the decade which continue to be copied and knocked-off.
Cato was willing to experiment in any direction, as recounted in Al Kooper’s memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, published earlier this year. For a 1967 Blood, Sweat and Tears record Cato photographed the band with little children in their laps, each child’s face replaced by the face of the person whose lap they occupied and entitled it Child is Father to the Man. For the 1968 double-set Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Kooper recounts that “I called Bob Cato the CBS art director at home to ask if Norman Rockwell could do the cover.” Cato contacted Rockwell and the cover was thus created.
One of Cato’s most infamous choices was of Robert Crumb illustrations for Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills (1968). The recent Joplin bio by Alice Echols explains this had not been the original conception:
Columbia’s art director had planned a different cover, a photo of the group in bed in a hippie crash pad. The band arrived and discovered a bedroom done up in pink frills – like no hippie pad they’d been in. “Let’s trash it, boys,” Janis declared, and they did. The shot of them in bed naked, the bed covers pulled up only to their waists, was junked in favor of Crumb’s caricatures.
Crumb himself was excited by the project but stated; “When I meet Janis I want to be able to pinch her tit.” Months later they met at a party and Crumb grabbed her breast. Joplin looked at him and said, “Oh honey!”Read More:http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-bob-cato-1087287.htmla