Friday, December 21, 2007

Alex Steinweiss- Creator of Album Cover Art

At age 23, the “Godfather” of album cover art, Alex Steinweiss accepted a job to design promotional materials for Columbia Records. What would happen next would revolutionize the music industry, specifically vinyl records, when he invented the illustrated album cover. A rather obvious, but brilliant, idea was to create a titillating graphic package that would, not only protect the record, but advertise the artist and the music contained therein (prior to this, records were sold in plain, undecorated wrappers).

“Records used to be relegated to the back of the stores that sold refrigerators and stoves. You’d go to the counter and ask for the title you wanted,” recalled Steinweiss. “I needed to shake up the industry, we had to do something like European poster art to draw the attention of the buyer.”

And “shake up the industry” is just what Steinweiss did. Starting in 1939 with his first covers, for a collection of Rodgers & Hart’s Musical Hits, Columbia executives saw the sales of the illustrated albums skyrocket, including one by more than eight hundred percent. Soon after that 78 rpm albums were adorned with decorated covers and displayed in store windows.

A new medium was born, album cover art became the norm and attracted established artists and inspired many new artists to enter the arena. It allowed the record company and the artist to promote a visual image and identity with the music.

So who was Alex Steinweiss? Let’s explore his life in detail. Steinweiss grew up in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach area and he attended the Abraham Lincoln High School from 1930-1934 and that is where he started his graphic designing career. In a program taught by Leon Friend, Steinweiss and his classmates were known as the “Art Squad,” designing school publications, posters and signs. When he was seventeen, Steinweiss’ work was showcased in PM Magazine. He received a scholarship to Parsons School of Art and graduated in 1937. His first job was as an assistant to Joseph Binder, a position that lasted almost three years, before receiving a call about a new position at the newly formed Columbia Records. He designed all the covers for Columbia between 1939 and 1945, a period in which he developed and honed the graphic art of album cover design. In the period between 1945 to roughly 1950, he still did cover design for Columbia, but he was not the sole designer. He also began “freelancing” and began designing covers for other record companies.

As a freelance designer with such record labels as RCA, Decca, London and Everest, Steinweiss was considered peerless. Using his own unique format of blending eye-catching illustrations, vivid color schemes and playful typography, Steinweiss created album covers for such musical greats as Louis Armstrong, Bela Bartok, Count Basie, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Kate Smith and many others.

His album covers are considered iconic and he designed them as miniature posters with a distinct personality for each cover. His signature font, the “Steinweiss Scrawl,” first appeared around 1947 and his style and album cover design is synomonous with the Golden Age of Jazz, Classical and Popular music that was dominated by RCA, Columbia, Decca, Victor and London record labels.

In the 1950’s, Steinweiss added photography to his album cover design palette. His use of strange, garnish colors, inventive lighting techniques and numerous visual puns and reference points only added to his unique style of cover design and has made him an icon in the music industry. By his own admission, Steinweiss claims to have designed more that 2,500 album covers.

His later work, from 1960 through around 1973, was working with the Decca and London record labels. It was during this period that he developed die-cut designs and collage. He retired to Sarasota, Florida around 1974 and remains semi-active, having designed at least one book cover and several CD covers as well as having designed liquor bottles, posters, pamphlets and titles for TV shows.

All of us owe a hearty thank you to Alex Steinweiss and his contributions to album cover art and music. Can you imagine no art work accompanying a vinyl record? I can’t, and it is a great thing that Alex Steinweiss couldn’t either.

Author Robert Benson writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates, where you can pick up a copy of his ebook called
"The Fascinating Hobby Of Vinyl Record Collecting."
Contact Robert at

This Day In Music History

The late Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys was born in 1946.

Ray Hildebrand of Paul & Paula ("Hey Paula") turns 67.

Carla Thomas ("Gee Whiz") is 65.

Barry Gordon ("Nuttin' For Christmas") is 59.

Crosby, Stills & Nash are formed in 1968.

In 1994, Beach Boy Mike Love settles a dispute with Brian Wilson over authorship of 35 of the group's tunes (out-of-court settlement- receiving $5 million).

Elvis Presley is inducted into the Los Angeles Indian Tribal Council on the day his "Flaming Star" movie opens in 1960.

Janis Joplin’s first solo concert was in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash guests on ABC-TV's "Roseanne" in 1992.

In 1984, Prince hits #1 with "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy" and #2 with "Purple Rain.”

Elton John establishes the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992, aimed at AIDS prevention education and direct care services.

Elton John and David Furnish exchange vows and diamond wedding bands in 2005, during a civil ceremony (now legal in the United Kingdom).

In 1974, the song "Cat's in the Cradle," by Harry Chapin, topped the charts and stayed there for a week.

"Say You, Say Me" by Lionel Richie, topped the charts and stayed there for 4 weeks in 1985.

Shaquille O'Neal's "I Know I Got Skillz" single was certified Gold by the RIAA in 1993.

Just in time for Christmas of 1967, the Rolling Stones release the stoned-out “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” The album is recorded while Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones endure their drug arrests and trials.

In 1970, Elvis Presley drops in on President Richard Nixon at the White House with no invitation and no prior warning. Elvis is convinced drugs are ruining America’s youth and he offers his to help deal with the problem. The White House staff allows Elvis to see the President. All that really comes from the meeting is a picture of a very stoned Elvis shaking hands with a very uncomfortable Nixon.

“An Anthology,” a collection of late guitarist Duane Allman’s work, is certified gold in 1972.

To help promote Aerosmith’s “Love In An Elevator,” a couple gets married in an actual elevator at the Scope Arena in Norfolk (VA) during the group’s show in 1989.

In 1966, The Beach Boys receive three gold-record citations for the single "Good Vibrations" and the albums "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Shut Down, Vol. 2".

In 1969, Diana Ross and the Supremes make their final television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing "Someday We'll Be Together", which would be the last of their 12 number one singles.

One of Rock and Roll's strangest oddities happened on this date in 1969, when "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye hit number one on the Cash Box music chart. The same song was also a number one hit for Gladys Knight and The Pips exactly one year earlier. The tune would also turn up on the chart by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1976.

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas play their last show together at Cobo Hall, Detroit, Michigan in 1972.

In 1979, The Eagles, Chicago and Linda Ronstadt perform at a benefit show for the presidential campaign for California governor Jerry Brown, who also happens to be Ronstadt's boyfriend.

On this date in 1985, Bruce Springsteen's album, "Born in the USA" passed Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to become the second longest-lasting LP on the Billboard Top 10. It stayed there for 79 weeks. Only "The Sound of Music" with Julie Andrews lasted longer at 109 weeks.

The Beatles' "Love" was #1 on the European Top 100 Albums chart in 2006.

In 2006, Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, performed on stage before a live US audience for the first time in nearly thirty years. Mixing new songs with such old hits as "Oh Very Young" and "Peace Train", he sang with a gentle voice that had changed little from his heyday in the 1970s.