The Women Jacketed By Records
As I remember her, Erroll Garner was attractive and self-confident. Waves of reddish-brown hair swung skyward behind her left ear. Narrowed blue eyes peered from under thin, arched brows. Perhaps she wore too much lipstick, but the red oval circling neat white teeth almost matched the enhanced curve of her lashes. The record jacket squarely framed the slender face with a teasing hint of bare shoulders below. The album’s upbeat title? The Most Happy Piano. It floated above her in empty space, her name graphed along a keyboard that bordered the bottom edge.
I found the album the way most children discover new things, by rooting through their parents’ belongings. From around the age of 12, I would sit on the carpet in front of the cabinet, pulling out records that piqued my curiosity. Most of it was classical music: “Scheherazade,” “Swan Lake” and the “1812 Overture.” But other titles came from my father’s brief stint in the Columbia Record Club. It took me longer to investigate those artists—Brubeck, Ellington and others on exclusive samplers for club members—but the enchanting Erroll looked like fun, someone I could relate to, a chic and enticing example of the performer’s life.
As years passed, I came to recognize the sound of her swinging piano. “Mambo 207” was a favorite. For a while, she had some potential girlfriends: the unsuspecting Ruby Braff, Tina Brooks and Marion Brown. Unlike those cases of mistaken identity—ones that came to my attention as I got older and began to expect the male dominance of jazz—a TV broadcast of The Sea Hawk cast the initial doubts on the identity of my most happy pianist. Even dressed in tights, another Errol—Flynn—had a manly swagger, one that suggested a yet unseen Mr. Garner who preferred pants. My confusion lifted with a parting question: If Erroll was a he, I wondered, then what was she doing on that cover?
Between Britney Spears’ photogenic, alleged boob job and
J-Lo’s highly publicized, ethnic booty, using sexy girls to sell records is hardly novel today. They can be found in every genre, from the leather-clad classical violinist Lara St. John to smooth-jazz temptress Rachel Z, who fronted Love Is the Power down on all fours. In the early 1950s, however, women’s decorative potential—as performers and cover models—was still within virgin marketing territory. Cover art itself counted among the industry’s recent, eye-catching developments. Call it a late bloomer, but its debut makes sense in historical context.
Going back to the teens and 1920s, record companies had greater interest in selling phonographs than records, a cheap, ancillary item to a major, one-time purchase. The showrooms that sold the talking machines would carry them, often stocked behind the counter. So did mom-and-pop hardware stores and drugstores. Plain, brown paper wrappers sufficed. To better protect and organize the fragile shellac 78s, generic “albums” also became available, like those for family photos: cardboard covers sporting gold-embossed letters could accommodate Caruso as easily as honeymoon snapshots from Niagara Falls. Records sold as a series might come in an album with the artist, title, record label and record numbers printed on the front and spine, a straightforward and practical approach.
The whole industry took a nosedive following the Depression, hardly the time to rethink packaging. Why buy a record at all when the radio provided an endless supply of free music? Or spend 75 cents on three minutes’ worth of entertainment when half that much would finance an afternoon in a darkened movie theater? According to Brian Priestley’s Jazz on Record (Watson-Guptill), average record sales dropped from around 150 million a year in the late ’20s to a mere 5 million following the crash. Jukeboxes helped sustain some of the struggling companies.
Having toughed out the leanest years, Columbia hired Alex Steinweiss, their first advertising and promotional designer, in 1939. Cover art was his brainchild, one that increased production costs and therefore met with resistance from the top brass. When an initial run showed a dramatic jump in sales—proving that the graphics did, in fact, attract and influence consumers—the company deemed it a worthy investment. Steinweiss, a brilliant designer, went on to develop the standard jacket for the long-playing record, which Columbia introduced in 1948. Sadly, his designs and those of his peers would be rendered out of vogue in the LP era, casualties of the corporate success that they helped to generate.
Eric Kohler’s In the Groove: Vintage Record Graphics 1940-1960 (Chronicle) beautifully surveys cover art from its beginnings through these transitions. As the author/designer points out, the designs generally shared traits with advertising graphics: in the ’40s, use of flat colors, bold type (lettered by hand) and central themes with stylized images—two giant hands playing boogie woogie or a flared skirt to represent Gypsy melodies. Photographs were rarely used—color shots and hand-coloring costs were still prohibitive—or appeared sparingly, in ways that served the design concept.
In the postwar years, design took on a grittier, more realistic style. Major labels had growing budgets and access to better, cheaper printing methods that complemented their high-tech stereophonic sound. By 1956, they had all but abandoned design—too individualistic for a modern corporate look—in favor of slick, color photography. Covers became more graphic—and sexual.
Venerable jazz producer George Avakian attaches no particular significance to the cover of The Most Happy Piano, an album he helmed in 1956. “She was just a stock photo used to give a ‘happy’ impression,” he says, surprised that my alter-Erroll would warrant an inquiry. In general, he gives little import to the “cool chicks” on covers, a trend that had “nothing whatever to do with the music.”
Nonetheless, he did help ignite the fledgling fad. As the head of Columbia’s popular album department, Avakian launched a mood music series under the heading “Quiet Music” in 1950. The covers would count among the earliest graced with women’s photographs—that is, women who weren’t musical talents. Back-catalogue on 78s yielded almost all of the material, a potpourri of classical selections that comprised around a dozen volumes. The specific performers meant little, a point driven home when some sides proved too scratchy for transfer and some songs needed rerecording.
“‘I can’t think of any other artist who recorded those pieces for us—but George, is your wife on tour?’ asked Goddard Lieberson, then head of Masterworks,” Avakian says. “I had just been married—and still am, for the last 53 years—to concert violinist Anahid Ajemian. ‘She’s home,’ I said. ‘Good. Record her tomorrow in the same songs.’ ‘But I don’t want people saying I played favorites and chose to record my wife,’ I protested. ‘Make up a name,’ he said. ‘We’re selling girls in nightgowns.’”
Apparently, the strategy required no marketing research, not that any would have been possible in the day. Common sense dictated that no single artist could be used on the covers of multiartist compilations. And male intuition concluded that pretty girls would make guys look twice at the records—or at least one and a half times. The approach already seemed to be working in other corners of the marketplace, the advertising graphics and cover art for Esquire (“The Magazine for Men”) often cited as examples.
“The period we’re talking about,” adds designer Paul Bacon, “was the same when all pocket-sized books had what they called ‘bodice busters’ on the covers.” In addition to album covers for Riverside and Blue Note, Bacon designed thousands of book jackets, including the originals for Catch-22, Ragtime and Slaughterhouse Five. “It almost didn’t matter what the hell the book was,” he chuckles. “It could have been Mansfield Park, but it’d still be some dame getting out of a carriage with a lot of leg showing. Also movie posters: You look at some great movies and see how vulgarly they were sold. They thought, ‘Well, it’s a movie. Let’s not make it art.’”
By comparison, Avakian thought Columbia’s more conservative photos were innocent enough. “If you see those old covers,” he asserts, “you will realize that they were all girls your mother would have been delighted to have you bring home.” No matter that a handful of retailers refused to carry the products, offended by the new method of salesmanship. The “Quiet Music” series became a bestseller “despite,” Avakian kids, “or more likely because of the cover girls who looked so fetching in languid poses.”
Perhaps the models should have worked like other salesgirls—on commission. String bikinis topped saccharine strings in the wave that followed, one that included the recordings of Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Esquivel, Rudolf Friml, Jackie Gleason, Andre Kostelanetz, Mantovani, Lawrence Welk and the unimaginatively named 101 Strings. Vixens of Vinyl, a new collection from Chronicle Books, surveys the era. No doubt, the features of any young lady would be an improvement over Friml’s aging puss or Gleason’s rubbery double chin.
But after this lovely bait was taken, mood music and related forms held an attraction for men—and women—that was deeper seated, if only slightly more meaningful. The records provided a perfect, unobtrusive backdrop for dinner parties or romantic evenings, impossible in the three-minute-per-side 78 era. The titles more than hinted at such usage: Music for Dining, Music for Dancing, Music for the Bachelor Pad and, for the morning after, Music for Your Hangover. Along with fondue sets and martini glasses, they counted among lifestyle accoutrements that flourished with burgeoning middle-class consumerism. Their covers, smacking of easy leisure and intimacy, symbolized the lives aspired to by many consumers.
That goes for the ladies, too. Helen Gurley Brown offered advice to the brave new world of bachelorettes—some who stayed single by choice. Under the heading “Hi-Fis” in Sex and the Single Girl, she writes: “Of course, you’ll want music both to tame him and inflame him, but don’t go overboard on equipment. You’re no symphony conductor and there are many other places to put your apartment dollar…. Don’t have too many records. If a man gets tired enough of Fred Waring’s Glee Club and [Offenbach’s] “Gaité Parisienne,” he may just bring over some new platters.”
As puritanical notions about sex were fading, the girls became visual emblems for the style along with a number of closely related, easy-listening subgenres: film scores; instrumental pop, based on the already familiar melodies of popular song; lounge, which drew on latter-day swing; and exotica, all kinds of ethnic music in comfortably Westernized versions. Some conductors made forays into several areas—including classical music. Kostelanetz might record his own bland compositions, show tunes or movie themes alongside “Bolero,” some years before Bo Derek gave it a new backbeat in 10. The girls almost exclusively appear with “pops” and light classics, most likely an attempt to reach wider audiences and meet the standards for aural wallpaper.
Ballet music—often pooh-poohed by serious classical listeners—needed no excuses to put women on its covers; my childhood copy of “Swan Lake” featured a rather buxom Swan princess.
Can-can dancers became Offenbach’s ever-present envoys and harem girls the standard for “Scheherazade.” Bodice busters took many forms, from corsets on saloon wenches to dirndls on beer-slinging, polka dancing German frauleins. Peasant blouses, veils and grass skirts made revealing costumes while lending the flavor of Hollywood fantasy. Like the movie posters, covers for film score albums often made provocative use of leading ladies.
The covers, like the music, offered an inauthentic, safely familiar replica of the real thing. That belly dancer was really someone named Betsy, Mary or Sue. “You couldn’t be ethnic,” says Peggy Moffitt, one such harem girl who also posed as Egyptians, Indians and cowgirls. Although she modeled steadily for avant-garde clothing designer Rudi Gernreich, Moffitt enjoyed the world of make-believe associated with the covers. She describes the prevailing look for models as “a very country club, white bread, station wagon kind of elegance. It was an era when unusual types were not used.”
Moffitt, as articulate as she is beautiful, refuses to be viewed as some passive object. “I’ve expressed myself for years in photographs. I used a lot of my training in other arts; I had studied art and sketching, acting, dance at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. As a model, I thought, ‘Why not use what you’ve got? Here I am in limbo on white space. I can design it.’” Still, for all her intelligence and skill, who would see her as more than a pretty package?
“I didn’t put a lot of mood music covers in my book because I didn’t think the designs were very good,” says Kohler, with a touch of elitist pride. “Just a picture of somebody with some type is not very interesting design. A mood music album is suited for that. You wouldn’t put a picture of a woman on the cover of a Benny Goodman record.” Bacon concurs with this assessment, women’s characterization as the weaker sex being generally consistent with the quality of designs that framed them. Cheesecake, in many minds, became synonymous with cheesy.
The same could be said of most jazz albums peddled with girls in scanty sleepwear. Like their stringed counterparts, many such albums were part of the mood music phenomenon. Ballad and songbook compilations were ideal for passive listening. Jack Montrose, Barney Kessel or Herbie Mann—whose Sultry Serenade was designed by Bacon—recorded lighter material destined for mass-market appeal. Vocal albums by Chet Baker, Herb Jeffries and even an ill-advised project by Kenny Dorham gave listeners more accessible and explicitly romantic material thanks to the lyrics.
Pianists occupied a special niche, carved by the likes of Ferrante and Teicher, Roger Williams and Liberace. The cover girls could relegate Garner, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans to the same commercial pile as Cy Coleman, Vince Guaraldi and André Previn. George Shearing boasted the most infamously attired beauties. The blind musician picked them himself—so he’s said—using braille. Even drag king Billy Tipton got into the act, tickling the ivories for a pair of longhaired lovelies on Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano.
African-American women appeared on covers of soul-jazz and organ-trio records, social music for dancing and good times. Rejecting the faces of mainstream white culture, they could also be interpreted as political symbols—ones that asserted black is beautiful. Miles Davis had Columbia recall the original cover for Miles Ahead, which featured a white woman in a sailboat. His wives and girlfriends adorned the records to follow: Frances Davis on Someday My Prince Will Come, Friday and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk, E.S.P. and Porgy and Bess; Cicely Tyson on Sorcerer; Betty Mabry on Filles de Kilimanjaro; and Marguerite Eskridge on At the Fillmore.
Since the mid-’50s were very competitive years for the revitalized, postwar industry, some of the newly formed independent jazz labels deployed cover girls as a survival tactic. “Back in 1956, ’57, everyone was overrecording because of the advent of long-playing records,” explains photographer William Claxton, Moffitt’s husband and a co-founder of Pacific Records. “My boss, Dick Bock, said, ‘Sales are way down. We got to do something to sell records and stay in competition. People are starting to put great looking chicks on these covers. How about you start doing it?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I like to photograph girls, but this is a dumb way to sell things.’”
Since artists and labels considered jazz “serious music,” girls appeared on a small minority of the covers. Ruth Lion, wife of Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion (and owner of the sexy ankles on Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’), describes the reasoning in Blue Note: The Album Cover Art, Volume 1 (Chronicle): “[T]hese new artists they were introducing, so many of them were leaders for the first time, so maybe the public in Harlem knew about them, but across the country they didn’t...and they felt it was very important to put these men’s photos as prominently as possible on the covers and they got a lot of flak from distribution across the country who felt a pretty girl would have been better.”
Some labels returned to illustration: David Stone Martin worked steadily for Verve and Andy Warhol did a few Blue Note covers. Others went for abstraction; the work of Bacon and Ken Deardoff for Riverside shows the influence of Swiss modernism, as does some of Tom Hannan’s work for Prestige. Most, however, used photography and design to represent more literally the rugged, no-nonsense blowing sessions—black and white images paired with bold lettering or tinted with a single color. At Blue Note, designer Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff produced incredible covers from recording sessions and live dates. When these designers did use female models, they sought a level of quality comparable to their other work.
Claxton chose high-caliber models like Jan Curry and Jimmy Mitchell, the duo featured on Music to Listen to Barney Kessel By and the Lennie Niehaus Octet’s Zounds! So did Reid Miles, who sometimes booked models for shoots, then paired the resulting photos with albums; one such session with Moffitt would yield the unusual cover for Lou Donaldson’s Alligator Bogaloo. Given the indies’ low budgets, they avoided using agencies and favored girls they knew—including friends and lovers.
“There was a woman who kept coming by the sessions who wanted to be on a cover, so we put her on the cover,” says Lou Donaldson in reference to Good Gracious!, shot by Ronnie Brathwaite and designed by Miles. “I never knew her name exactly—we called her ‘the Black Rose.’ She was a hairdresser and her place wasn’t so far from the place we played up in Harlem called Connie’s at 144th and 7th avenue. And sometimes after the shop closed late at night, she’d come there. She was friendly with one of the guys.” One reissue credits her as Rose Nelmes, from the suspiciously named “Grandassa Models.”
Practical reasons sometimes influenced the use of cover girls. They provided last-minute replacements for failed cover concepts or simply a change of pace from an artist’s visage. When Bobby Timmons recorded Sweet and Soulful Sounds for Riverside, he had posed for several covers in a row. Orrin Keepnews, co-founder of the label, says a woman was chosen for the sake of variety.
“With [Evans’] Waltz for Debby,” Keepnews remembers, “it was the second album that came from the Village Vanguard sessions, and we didn’t want it to look too overtly like Village Vanguard, Volume Two—in other words, the stuff that didn’t work out so well, so we’re scooping it into another album. You go for an effect that doesn’t emphasize that. The title may even have been part of the idea. And another problem: Bill Evans, for personal reasons, generally looked like hell during much of the period he was recording for me.” The brooding Evans shown on How My Heart Sings! hardly conveys the sentiment of that album. Great artists, Claxton adds, didn’t always have the knack for being in front of the camera.
To jazz aficionados, of course, only the music mattered. “I had two types of customers,” recalls Ira Sabin, JazzTimes founder and former owner of Sabin’s Records in Washington, D.C., “ones who were really hip to the music and would come in for the latest Trane, and others who would come in and say, ‘Gee, I heard something and I liked it and I really don’t know much about it.’ So we would try to figure it out. The covers meant nothing.”
Standing in the Soho gallery Exit Art last July, I had a hard time believing that the covers meant nothing—then or now. Curators including Kohler and installation artists John Zorn, Thurston Moore, Christian Marclay and DJ Spooky troubled themselves to assemble 2,500 LP covers, a substantial portion of which hailed from the 1950s and ’60s. Onlookers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, seemed intrigued—perhaps because such images evoke an era that they don’t remember. They can view these novelties with fashionable irony and distance.
For Abbey Lincoln, that is still impossible. “They used my youth and innocence and the beauty I got from my family to sell the album,” she says about Affair: Story of a Girl in Love, her first and only recording for Liberty. Lincoln’s presentation bears comparison to labelmate Julie London, whose Calendar Girl cover is remembered better than the music. “I wasn’t supposed to be a great musician—I was a pretty woman, they said, and that’s what they were selling,” Lincoln recalls bitterly. “So, I walked away from that. I have a lot more to give than selling a few damn records.”
Because the jazz tradition lionizes its elders—heroes emulated by younger musicians—the negative stereotypes faced by Lincoln still hinder female musicians today. So, too, persist the objectifying images. Some older musicians, like soul-jazzers Houston Person and Charles Earland, continue to wrap their wares in the same “greasy” covers, to borrow a term from HighNote label boss Joe Fields. Reissues—many of which enjoy better sales than contemporary recordings—keep older albums and their dated covers in stores and on CD shelves, something not likely to change soon. As Tom Evered, Blue Note general manager, puts it: “They’re part of the history. Only the Neanderthals in the ’70s had the audacity to change them.”
One only has to look at Ted Nash’s Sidewalk Meeting or Dave Douglas’
A Thousand Evenings to see the same visual motifs resurfacing—a coincidence in his case, says Douglas, who simply loved the photograph and chose it to reflect the sensuality of his music. Compilations and series like 32’s popular Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon, BMG’s Falling in Love With... and Verve’s Jazz ’Round Midnight share much with the ’50s mood music covers: they depict young couples or elegantly dressed single girls in softly focused shots. But the most egregious throwbacks to the era come from its closest musical correlative: smooth jazz.
“The music is purely recreational,” says Shanachie producer Danny Weiss, responsible for compilations such as Sexual Healing, the cover shot by well-known erotic photographer Anthony Barboza. “The smooth-jazz format doesn’t play anything that isn’t completely listener-friendly and, let’s say, nonintrusive. A lot of people play these records as background music, the soundtrack to their day, their evening or their dinner. It’s either fun or it’s sexy or it’s groovy.” Here, too, the covers are not supposed to be taken seriously, relying on tongue-in-cheek sexuality.
While some high-minded traditionalists are bothered by the aesthetics of light music and its girl covers, others oppose the approach on philosophical grounds—the same argument from decades before. “To this very day,” says Keepnews, “I really think that a jazz album cover or CD cover—whatever the hell we’re using now as terminology—that does anything other than bring your attention to the identity and likeness and forcefulness of the artist is kind of dubious, kind of specious.”
As much as the covers make us wary of what is on the inside, perhaps we should think more about the women who have been left on the outside. If Erroll Garner really had been a gorgeous redhead, the cover would have been as far as she’d got.
Originally published in December 2001