Album art gems from our LP collection

Due to the rarity and vulnerability of some of our LPs, their shelves are necessarily closed to the public for browsing (though if you find something in the catalog that you want to hear, just ask Media Services desk staff). However, there are some fantastic items in there that deserve to be seen. So we begin now with a new series of posts highlighting some of the beautiful and bizarre album art from our collection. Click on the images below for a larger slideshow.

First pictured is Ben Bagley’s Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke Revisited Vol. II. Broadway producer Bagley founded his own record label, Painted Smiles, which released around fifty albums over his lifetime. Most of these feature semi-to-very racy sketches of burlesque dancers on the cover, but this one has some very proper cat-headed women (sphinxes?) modeling fur-lined coats. The artist for this and most of the other Painted Smiles covers was graphic designed and Broadway composer, Harvey Schmidt, Tony winner for Best Composer for the Fantasticks. I’m not sure what, if any, meaning the cat women have. On the back cover, Bagley is pictured with his cat, Fogerty, and asks listeners to write to them both, so maybe it’s no more complicated than this: the guy liked cats.

Continuing clockwise, we have an album of works by Swedish composers Ingvar Lidholm, Wilhelm Stenhammar, and Hilding Rosenberg on the Caprice label, a long-running, government-subsidized label specializing in contemporary Swedish music. The cover is a watercolor (I think) by the artist Gunnar Erkner shows the outline of a woman walking along a field of green, which I assume to be the icy Swedish sea, with a deep green, black, and brown sky. It reminds me more than a little bit of the Werner Herzog version of Nosferatu.

Nosferatu - beach sceneErkner also has several smaller works in a similar vein inside the gatefold.

Next up is a record from Decca’s short-lived, and much-loved Headline series, which specialized in music composed after World War II. This particular record contains works by Witold Lutoslawski, Lennox Berkeley, and David Bedford, and like most other records in the series, has an outstanding over. This one was done by Decca staff artist Bill Picknell, who also did other Headline covers, as well as for rock artists like the Rolling Stones. It has a very ’70s pop art feel with the bright colors and simple shapes painted over a photograph of a man in profile with his neck craned, but the black background and the man’s uncomfortable posture give it a somewhat ominous aura as well. Or maybe that’s just because it reminds me of the poster for Altered States.

Altered States posterLastly, I have three images from the same item, because it’s such an incredible and unique object. The album is Circus in Town! by Merle Evans and his Circus Band. Evans was the bandleader for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for fifty years, and released a number of recordings, which I assume were aimed at children and other circus lovers. This one from 1958  has one of the most inventive and bizarre covers I’ve ever seen, with a gatefold that opens at the center of the album, and liner notes stapled as a mini-booklet at the top of the open gatefold. The opening for the record is at the top of the of the sleeve, meaning that either side could be the front cover.

We’ll start with the garish clown photo. Now, a photo of a clown entertaining a child with some uninflated balloons is certainly not out of place on an album of circus music, but what’s striking about this particular photo is how slovenly everything looks. The clown’s makeup is smeared, and the lines are sloppily drawn – check out the mess to the left of the fat, wet sliver of tongue. He doesn’t appear to have shaved that morning, and the lace trim on his outfit is being held on with safety pins. The boy is cheerful enough, but GOOD GOD how did he get that much dirt underneath his nails. The album credits Seymour Green for the photo.

The open gatefold, however, is marvelous. It features a small portrait of Merle Evans in his concert finest: a red and gold horse head hat with long plumes of feathers, and a bedazzled pink jacket with gold curlicues and a multitude of large tassels hanging from the epaulets. The large stock photo of trained lions, tigers, and bears is a little depressing to modern sensibilities, but must have thrilled the kiddies when it came out. Finally, the closed gatefold features several small photos of circus acts. All the circus photos were done by circus fan and researcher Sverre O. Braathen of Madison, Wisconsin – just down the road from Ringling/Barnum headquarters and winter home, Baraboo, now home of the Circus World Museum.

Hope you enjoyed this brief look into our LP collection. We’ll be back soon with more great and/or bizarre art.