07/22/11

Alex Steinweiss, Album Cover Art Pioneer, Dead at 94

Artist designed first sleeves for Columbia Records in 1939

Alex Steinweiss, the man credited with creating the record album cover [see addendum which disputes this], died July 17 at age 94, in Sarasota, Fla. When Steinweiss was hired by Columbia Records in 1939 as an ad designer, he took a more artistic approach to the packaging that housed recordings than had been taken before, adding artwork to the sleeves that contained the 78 RPM records.

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Alex Steinweiss
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Benny Goodman album cover by Alex Steinweiss
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Bing Crosby album cover by Alex Steinweiss
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Jazz Then Till Now album cover by Alex Steinweiss

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According to an obituary in The New York Times, “His first cover, for a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs performed by an orchestra, showed a high-contrast photo of a theater marquee with the title in lights. The new packaging concept was a success: Newsweek reported that sales of Bruno Walter’s recording of Beethoven’s 'Eroica' symphony increased ninefold when the album cover was illustrated.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Steinweiss attended the Parsons School of Design and became Columbia’s advertising manager during World War II. A company executive showed Steinweiss its first long-playing record, and after being asked to design a new type of sleeve in which to house the records, Steinweiss took out a loan and secured a patent for the first standard outer jacket for recordings. According to The Times, “Under his contract with Columbia he had to waive all rights to any inventions made while working there.” Steinweiss left the music business at the dawn of the rock era, in 1955, after which album cover art became increasingly important to sales of music.

All of the album covers displayed in this article are works created by Steinweiss.

Addendum: According to two emails received by JazzTimes following the publication of this news item, from Cary Ginell and Michael Biel, Steinweiss did not actually invent the album cover. Wrote Biel, "There were some notable artistic jazz album covers prior to Steinweiss. Two albums by Lee Wiley, Willie the Lion Smith, Bessie Smith, Blackbirds revival cast, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Symposium of Swing, are just a few of the jazz albums with illustrated covers that came out before Steinweiss, let alone over a hundred others of all types."

Ginell concurred, crediting Biel with discrediting Steinweiss. Ginell wrote, "Dr. Michael Biel of Morehead College blew this legend out of the water with a presentation at last year's ARSC conference in New Orleans which is available on the ARSC website, complete with pictures of several hundred pre-Steinweiss illustrated album covers. Decca alone had over a hundred albums before Steinweiss' first. He was an inventive, talented, and colorful artist, but he did not originate the idea as Heller believes."

JazzTImes regrets spreading any inaccuracies but we believe Steinweiss was an important enough figure to merit an obituary on our on site. As we received all of our information from the Times obit, we inadvertently carried over any falsehoods published in that original article.

3 Comments

  • Jul 22, 2011 at 11:10AM Cary Ginell

    This obit is the same one from the New York Times written by Steven
    Heller who is the one who originated the falsehood that Steinweiss
    Invented the IDEA of illustrating album covers. Dr. Michael Biel of Morehead College blew this legend out of the water with a presentation at last year's ARSC conference in New
    Orleans which is available on the ARSC-audio.org website, complete with
    pictures of several hundred pre-Steinweiss illustrated album covers.
    Decca alone had over a hundred albums before Steinweiss' first. He was
    an inventive, talented, and colorful artist, but he did not originate
    the idea as Heller believes.

  • Jul 22, 2011 at 02:55PM mjb784533

    Jeff -- You can at least remove the obvious false statement from your article "Prior to Steinweiss’ innovative design, recordings came in plain brown sleeves." You do yourself no service as a journalist to continue to spread this falsehood -- especially since you write for a jazz magazine -- there were some notable artistic jazz album covers prior to Steinweiss. Two albums by Lee Wiley, Willie the Lion Smith, Bessie Smith, Blackbirds revival cast, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Symposium of Swing, are just a few of the jazz albums with illustrated covers that came out before Steinweiss, let alone over a hundred others of all types.

  • Jul 22, 2011 at 04:57PM Jeff_Tamarkin

    Thanks, Michael and Cary. I've removed the offending sentence and published an addendum at the end of the piece crediting you two. I'm certainly no expert on the history of album cover art and defer to you.

    Nonetheless I do feel that Steinweiss' contribution to jazz and the recording industry in general merits his inclusion in our pages. Even if he was not the first he did some wonderful work and I'd hate to see him not get credit for that.

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