Classic LP Covers and Why They’re Still So Fresh Today

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Before records had covers they were sold in plain brown paper wrappers
Before records had covers they were sold in plain brown paper wrappers

In 1938, Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover. It’s almost unimaginable that there was a time when records didn’t have covers (up until that point, they were sold in relatively plain brown paper wrappers advertising the record companies. See photo at right). Steinweiss’s idea was a huge marketing success which exploded into a new and exciting world of art and design. Now artists could explore their creativity in more expressive ways in a new commercial market. During the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s Jim Flora, Ben Shahn, Rudolph de Harak, Reid Miles, Steinweiss, and even Andy Warhol were major contributors to album cover design.

The mere innovation of illustrating for music – the intangible, ethereal nature of music itself – and the spread of abstract expressionism and surrealism into popular culture opened a wide array of new ideas to explore. It was an exciting time for design and to this day, album design continues to be one of the most exciting markets out there, constantly pushing the envelope of possibilities.

The 1st album cover, created by Alex Steinweiss
The 1st album cover, created by Alex Steinweiss

Here is the first album cover ever, created by Alex Steinweiss (For more detailed info click here). It’s kind of funny that this first album cover was kind of literal with the marquee background, but it didn’t take long for Steinweiss to go wild and crazy. The Brahms and Bob Sharples albums are great examples of where he went with his design. The Sharples LP was very contemporary in its day.

During this time, lots of color was almost as popular as limited color (although sometimes the limited color was meant just to save costs in printing). The Vivaldi Gloria is perhaps the most abstract example shown, with non-literal crosses made up of small, colorful squares. It’s a very sophisticated execution of a religious piece of classical work. Who says classical music has to be “square”?!

The Jim Flora covers (Mambo Cats, This Is Benny Goodman and His Orchestra and Inside Sauter-Finegan) are probably my all-time favorites due to the illustrative nature of the work. Flora used his unique style to catch the spirit of popular jazz music of the day. The colors and imagery work together to let you in on a little secret about what the music is like when you listen to it. Flora’s work influenced animation in his day and is widely imitated today.

Then there’s the Blue Note style. Blue Note designs used a limited number of colors, using two-color tones for a fantastic photo and deceptively simple typography juxtaposed in creative ways. See the Kenny Dorham album. Reid Miles used intense cropping of the photo to create a large amount of negative space. Add to that the great touch of putting the title inside the fingers of the photo and it’s quite striking. The “Us Three” cover is also a stunning balance of positive and negative space with great rhythmic play on numbers and time. Blue Note was just simply cool, man cool, and it is often imitated today but rarely equaled.

The very desire of artists today to imitate and expand upon what already is known to look great is a testament to why these old LP covers are so amazing. One seldom imitates something because it’s bad. Here are some examples of present day covers to compare with the old:
Present vs Old
As you can see, there are obvious similarities here, but there’s a certain quality missing that the masters knew how to achieve. What do you think makes those old covers so great? Is it because they were created and pasted up by hand? Is it the finessing of type or merely subtle differences in color? Or is it all these things put together? There could be many answers, but the difference to me partially lies in how they give me pause at the mere sight of them. It’s when everything in me agrees that I’m experiencing pure magic.
Classic Covers
For more examples of great Blue Note covers click here.

Article by Gina Stewart, an Art Director in our Design Studio.

21 thoughts on “Classic LP Covers and Why They’re Still So Fresh Today

  1. The book “Sessions with Sinatra: The art of recording” credits Sinatra with having the first actual “album”. It was like a photo album for records that you could slide your 78rpm singles into….not sure if it had any artwork. But, that’s where we get the term “album”.

  2. There are several important factual errors. First of all, the Rodgers and Hart cover that Steinweiss credits as his first was not done until 1940, so the 1938 date is WRONG. But it is equally incorrect to credit Steinweiss with “INVENTING” the illustrated album cover. HE DIDN’T. Decca Records had been issuing albums with illustrated covers since 1934 and had reached 200 by the time of Steinweiss’s first cover. TWO HUNDRED ILLUSTRATED ALBUM COVERS BEFORE STEINWEISS’S FIRST. There also were many other illusttrated album covers dating back to before 1910. This is a falsehood that has been promulgated by several writers misunderstanding Steinweiss’s statement that he had convinced his record company to issue THEIR first illustrated cover, not THE first illustrated cover. The author of this article obviously does not have her own collection of records nor has gone to a major archive of records and done FIRST HAND PRIMARY research of the subject before publishing this. Steinweiss is a very talented and innovated artist, but he was not the inventor of the modern illustrated album cover. He just borrowed the idea from Decca and others for his record company.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I can tell you are very passionate about the subject. The research I did and all the sources I’ve seen over the years do attribute Steinweiss to the first album cover, but the fundamental difference was in that it promoted the artist and the music and not the record company. If this is incorrect, that’s unfortunate. Perhaps you can give me sources to check out?

      However, this article is really about how Steinweiss’s design itself broadened the horizons of art for the album cover and how his success inspired other designers, culminating in a “golden age” (for lack of a better term) of album art.

      Gina

  3. Primary reason I don’t buy digital music is that there’s no gorgeous evocative cover to fill my eyes while the music fills the rest of me.

    Love love the ‘Mambo for Cats’ cover.

  4. This article only makes me more dissatisfied, because I love album cover art. I had a heck of a time trying to get my artwork and liner notes onto the tiny spaces alotted by a CD case, and the options offered by Discmakers, great as those guys are, didn’t help. All I needed was ONE MORE PANEL (a tri-fold insert) like I’ve seen on other CDs that I own. But ultimately, the answer is larger packaging to allow for those historic words and works of art to have a proper canvas. Smaller is not always better. Who will be the glorious individual to do it? I hope they step up to the plate soon.

  5. Very nice article, especially about the hand lay-up vs computer lay-out which is one of the ansularie benefits of an analog approach to music to borrow a mixed medifor so to speak. We have 12 LP covers and contents that are framed above head height in our music room which brings the room to life. Several months ago we purchased the frames at Arron Bros during their 2 for 1 sale (2 at $16 or $8 each). They are wooden not metal and come packaged with all the mounting hardware, hindges, screws and clear bumbers.

  6. I really, really appreciated the topic, and loved this article- intelligent and fresh, plus I loved great seeing this design work again. Yeah, I have a dual life’s work in music and art too, and I sometimes forget other people care about and notice the same things. Much obliged!

  7. Great article. Thanks!

    Even though iTunes and other sites are trying to recreate the LP experience online, there’s nothing like holding the album cover or flipping through a CD booklet. I know it may sound funny, but I feel a deeper connection with the artist when I can physically hold the materials.

    Dave Lopez – Mixing and Mastering Specialist / Emerging Music Producer
    Cr@zyEye Music Services
    Marketing Music Online

    1. It doesn’t sound funny to me at all. 🙂

      I agree about the physical feel of the album art. And yes, that LP experience online is a nice idea, but
      not quite the same. There definitely is a “connection” when holding the album or flipping through a CD booklet. After all, the artist specifically goes through the effort to put the package out there in the real world and share whatever liner notes, insight or information was meaningful to the music and him or her (or the band). It’s kind of like a letter to the listener.

  8. Hi, Gina:

    Whatever became of the original artwork for many of these incredible graphic creations?

    Why do you think I own about 10,000 lps these days?

    First and foremost, it is the music and recording quality, but then, you have something to look at and not have to squint, as you do with those miniature CD graphics, let alone the microscopic type!

    OUCH!

    1. Hi Richard,

      There’s something I haven’t looked into. That’s a very good question. I’m guessing that the original artwork may have been kept by the record companies because most companies would consider it “work for hire,” which means that when you create art for a company, you don’t own the copyright. Some companies will allow the artist to keep the art, but they can’t use the art for publication elsewhere. I could see large companies like Columbia keeping the art or worse yet, just destroying it when it wasn’t needed anymore.

      10,000! My goodness! How do you keep track of them?

  9. Wonderful, well-researched and written article on one of my favorite subjects!

    Thanks very much!

    I Tweeted this and also posted it to The Vinyl Asylum

  10. I missed the days of LP Album Covers. This is what Inspired me to be a Graphic Artist / Designer. Also, it was my first initial education about the Music Industry. Back then, EVERYBODY got loved and recognized for a product; The Recording Artists (Singers & Musicians), The Visual Artists (Cover Designers, Photographers, Illustrators), Literary Artists (Songwriters, Linear Note Writers), and Production Artists (Producers & Engineers).

    Even though the Recording Artist was the main feature, EVERYONE was showcased.

    Thanks for the Article. AWESOME!

  11. These are great choices! I’m a huge fan of the Blue Note classic jazz covers – they influence my own design work and as a jazz singer, I have a lot of the music in my collection. I recognize the Steinweiss covers, but never knew the designer by name – thanks for posting this!

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