Monday, December 27, 2010

James Brown's Original Disco Man album cover by Bill Levy

UnCovered Interview - James Brown's Original Disco Man album cover by Bill Levy

Subject - the making of the cover of the James Brown album titled Original Disco Man, released in 1979 on Polydor Records.

After enjoying a career powered by a never-ending run of smash-hit singles and sold-out live shows, by the early 1970s, many members of James Brown’s classic line-up had left to start up their own acts (only Bobby Byrd remained) and so Mr. Brown set out to add some new life to his own career. He began this effort by putting together a new backing band called The J.B.’s, which included new musical director/trombonist Fred Wesley and musicians Bootsy and Catfish Collins. After releasing the hit single “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” in 1970, Brown took the band and his record catalog to a new label and distributor, Polydor Records, in 1971.

Brown also launched his own imprint – People – as a way to promote the talents of a number of his band-mates, including Lyn Collins, Hank Ballard and Fred Wesley & The J.B.’s, and he also demonstrated another aspect of his talents by scoring the 1973 film Black Caesar. More hits followed, including The Payback in 1973 and Funky President (People It’s Bad) in 1974, but when Fred Wesley left to join Parliament-Funkadelic and disco slick dance beats became the most-wanted style of popular music, record buyers began to lose interest in Brown’s hard funk focus and, as a result, his star power began to fade a bit.

Now, if you would ask any musician (or music critic) at the time about their feelings about The Godfather of Soul/Hardest-Working-Man-In-Show-Business, they would undoubtedly tell you that he was a major influence on their music/song-writing efforts, with composers from many genres – from jazz, rock, disco, world beat and others – all citing JB as one of their principal influences. His success and stature inside the record business made him both a desirable and precious commodity and one that his record label wanted handled with the same professionalism and respect he expected from all those who worked with him. To that end, they asked Art Director Bill Levy to bring his considerable talents, experience and ability to manage the sometimes-delicate egos of the musical acts he worked with to the table when it came time to produce the cover image for JB's 1979 release titled Original Disco Man. It is that story of creative endeavor and the mutual respect between two artists that is detailed here today in this UnCovered interview.

In the words of our subject, Art Director Bill Levy (interviewed in September and October, 2010) -

In 1979, I was the Creative and Art Director at Polydor Records. Our offices were at 810 Seventh Avenue in New York City and we had the 33th and 34th floors, linked via a circular stairway. James Brown and his People Records company had a production deal with Polydor and a suite of offices in the same building, a few floors below. Although James and his staff pretty much kept to themselves, we’d routinely have combined staff meetings to discuss any product that might be in the pipeline, etc. Prior to my arrival, James relied on his staff to work with various design studios for packaging.

Before coming to Polydor, I had worked with many artists and managers at Columbia and Decca / MCA, a highlight which included working hands-on creating the packaging for Jesus Christ Superstar with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, along with a full-blown multimedia presentation for an 8-city radio/press tour we did to promote Superstar. We booked time in churches in each of these cities to present the new rock opera in its proper classic context.

My role at Polydor /Mercury initially included working with artists such as John Mellencamp and a young Billy Joel - along with his manager/producer, Artie Ripp - when they were readying Billy’s first album, Cold Harbor, for release. I remember casually asking Billy how he was feeling, and he answered with an eye-rolling, “How would you feel being re-mixed for the thirty-somethingth time?” Artie had a production deal with Polydor /PolyGram for so many releases per year so, needless to say, he would grind them out for the production money, referring to some of the releases as “slices of salami.” Since I wondered why he'd want to spend so much time promoting "salami slices" - as opposed to music he was really proud of - I suggested to Artie, "how about if we use a little code to let me know if you consider a release 'real music' or merely 'another slice of salami'. Since record labels at that time included an “M” for mono and an “S” for stereo, I said, why couldn’t that be a code: “M” for music and “S” for salami? Instead of getting pissed at me for being sarcastic, we shook hands and developed a good working relationship.

The roster of artists I’d work with later on at Polydor would grow to include Bon Jovi (and his manager, Doc McGee), Kool & The Gang and Yoko Ono, and I also worked on a lot of soundtrack packages, including Tommy for The Who and movies such as Chariots of Fire with Vangelis, A Chorus Line and two records for The Godfather, including one built around the wedding music they used in the original score. My team regularly included such talented people as Fred Marcellino, Bob Heimall, George Cursillo, Ernie Cefalu and John Kosh.

Anyway, when I came on board at Polydor, I was asked by our president, Bill Farr, to offer James packaging assistance and to try and earn his respect in this effort. I knew this would not be an easy task because, by James’ own direction, he was known to everyone at Polydor as “Mr. Brown” and he in turn would refer to everyone, all the way up the corporate pecking order, the same way.

When it came to packaging the Original Disco Man, I offered to personally take over the project, and he agreed. I brought in two colleagues of mine – Bob Heimall, the well-known designer, and top photographer Joel Brodsky. We booked a photo session, using a vacant NYC disco house as our set, and when I say "vacant", I mean during the day when a disco’s in its 'empty resting mode'.

The concept for the Original Disco Man way pretty basic. With James being a well-known personality trying to sort of reinvent himself by taking advantage of the disco craze, we thought that having a "throne" - which was actually a retro-fitted wingback chair - on the dance floor would be a nice touch. The shot would not necessarily show him sliding into action, but rather relaxing as the “man in charge” that he was. The session itself went pretty quickly.

When it came to final approval of the cover image, it was my style to show an artist or manager a tight comp with lettering done on a full-sized color print, etc. My thinking here was not to leave anything up to the imagination of those approving the cover. This approach had worked for me, over and over again, but when I showed Mr. Brown the finished Disco Man art and mechanical before releasing it to the printer for separations, he made it clear that he had his own idea of something he wanted added to complete the package.

'Mr. Levy,' he said, 'this is what I want. Because this album is going to be so big, I want to have a promotional 'belly band' around every copy that will say, ‘This will be the first hundred-million-selling album!’' I went on to list the reasons why we could not do what he was asking - first and foremost that it would be so obviously misleading that we’d be giving dealers a reason not to carry the album! He thought about this for a moment and added, 'Okay, then how about if we say 'This could be the…etc., etc.' I held my ground and explained further why I felt that it wouldn’t work. After a few moments of silence he stood up and I figured that was his way of saying that the meeting was over and it was time for me to leave. Instead, he came around to my side of his massive desk and put his hand on my shoulder. 'Mr. Levy,' he said, 'from now on, you’re ‘Bill’ and I’m ‘James.’'

I've been told that I'm the only one he ever extended this courtesy to, and I'm proud of that distinction to this day.

About the subject of this interview - Bill Levy (in his own words) -

As for some bio points - I started my career at Columbia Records after having been introduced to the GM there, Bill Gallagher, by a mutual friend. I was brought on as a trainee, which meant I was expected to help out any way possible. Since the company was still small at the time, I did a bit of everything - A&R work, writing, graphics and also producing a regular mailer to give our promo teams information on all of our new releases. Soon after, I was moved to a job in the promotions department, where I worked as the Creative/Art Director for Special Products, where I had clients such as Goodyear and American Airlines.

I then spent time at MCA (where I lead the project on Jesus Christ Superstar) and then followed Bill Gallagher to Gulf + Western's record group. This is the company ultimately morphed into Mercury/Polygram/Polydor Records, and I worked there until 1989, when I left the Isle of Manhattan for the Oasis of Scottsdale, Arizona.

I have been nominated 4 times for Grammy Best Package awards (in 1973, 1984 and twice in 1986). In fact, there’s a story there - in 1971, I tried to lobby the Grammy office to recognize JC Superstar as a candidate for Best Cover. They felt it was too ‘classical’ looking - which was the whole point - but resulted from this meeting was for the Academy to take my suggestion and change the term “Best Cover” to “Best Package.” It was at that same meeting that the famed music historian John Simon (of the Carly Simon family) that John asked me if I’d run for President of the NY NARAS Chapter. To quote John, he said, “Bill, you bring creative stability to a meeting.”

Since moving here, I’ve written a baker’s dozen of screenplays and novels, mostly in the entertainment / humor genre, and a basketball humor book for the Phoenix Suns. I also wrote a treatment for a TV game show based on everyone’s love affair with the movies (we pitched this to Blockbuster and there was serious ‘conference call’ interest…).

I've also served as the Production Designer on a full-length movie called Desert Snow, and am currently consulting on a documentary about J.C. Superstar.

I’m also producing a series of old world art reproductions based on manipulated images of Tuscany (printed on hand-made paper) and have also started to sell limited-edition prints of the many photos I've taken of musical acts I've worked with, including concert and studio shots of Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company and The Who during performances of Tommy live at the Fillmore East.

For more information or just to say "hello", you can contact me via email at

Photo of Bill Levy in his studio in front of a copy of his Jesus Christ Superstar cover, signed by Rice & Webber.

About UnCovered -

Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at "The Making Of" the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.

In each UnCovered feature, we'll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. - all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.

We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you'll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art - and the music they covered - played in your lives.

All images featured in this UnCovered story are Copyright 2010 Bill Levy - All rights reserved - and are used with his permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2010 - Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery ( - All rights reserved.


New Album Cover Art, Music News & Notes

Ripple Music: 2011 Releases - Great Stuff in the Works

Venomin James to re-issue their debut album, 'Left Hand Man,' on vinyl! The album will be specifically mastered for the vinyl format and will include unreleased/live bonus material. Left Hand Man will be available in the first half of the year.

Poobah will be returning in 2011 with a brand new studio album entitled Peace Farmers. Originally self released by Jim Gustafson to a limited run of less than 500 copies, Peace Farmers acts as a great follow up to the re-issue of Let Me In and features a couple of updated renditions of some Poobah classics. Initially, Peace Farmers will be released on CD only, but as the case always seems to be, the door is open to press limited runs of vinyl to accompany the CD edition.

Stone Axe, will be releasing the Heavy Ripples compilation double 7”, which will include the return of Brooklyn-based stoner-fied punks Mighty High, the introduction of blues-based retro rockers from the UK, Grifter, and on loan from the incomparable Small Stone Records, Sun Gods In Exile. The 7” will be packaged in a double gatefold jacket featuring the glorious artistic touch of Wayne Braino Bjerke. Expect to see this monstrous beast of sonic debauchery in April.

For more new and information visit


URIAH HEEP Begins Recording New Album

Legendary progressive rock veterans URIAH HEEP have entered Liscombe Park Studios in Buckinghamshire, England to begin recording their next album of all-new material for a 2011 release.

URIAH HEEP recently announced plans to release a new live album, 'Official Bootleg Volume II – Live in Budapest, Hungary 2010, which contains recordings from the band's May 4, 2010 concert at the Petofi Hall in Budapest Hungary. The band said, "There are going to be many more recordings from around the world, as this will be an ongoing series, giving fans the chance to hear the band in many different countries.

"These recordings are true official bootlegs in every sense and they reflect that nights performance as it happened, totally untouched. You can almost feel that you are at the concert, so put the CD on, turn it up loud, close your eyes and enjoy a night in Budapest with URIAH HEEP."

"Celebration", the latest album from URIAH HEEP, was released in North America on March 16, 2010 via a new deal between DisManic Distribution and Knife Fight Media.

HEEP history has been an extraordinary journey and it was time that their greatest classics were recorded in studio by the lineup playing them live to fans all over the world for more than 20 years.


WHITESNAKE: New Album Cover Art Revealed

Legendary rock band WHITESNAKE has set "Forevermore" as the title of its new album, tentatively due at the end of March 2011 via Frontiers Records. Regarding the release's title, WHITESNAKE mainman David Coverdale stated, "Don't forget, 'tis ONE word. Otherwise it sounds like a bleedin' Valentine's Day card, which it ain't!"

WHITESNAKE's the follow-up to 2008's 'Good To Be Bad will be "a solid, natural progression from the band's last opus, which was awarded by the influential Classic Rock magazine as 'Best Album of the Year' in 2008."

"As always, we want to take it to the next level," stated David Coverdale. "I feel that with the last album we achieved a strong WHITESNAKE 'cocktail' that comfortably embraced and mixed all the previous musical aspects and styles of the band's history, while taking our identity a little further… all on one album."

"The new songs are in the very familiar and recognizable WHITESNAKE territory of soulful, bluesy, melodic power rock, with a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure," the singer said. "It can't be a WHITESNAKE album without ballads, mate!"


STRYPER: 'The Covering' Cover Artwork Unveiled

'The Covering,' the much-anticipated covers album from Christian hard rockers STRYPER, will tentatively be released on February 1, 2011 via Big3 Records.  The band has already released its cover versions of BLACK SABBATH's "Heaven And Hell" and KANSAS' "Carry On Wayward Son", which are available for download from iTunes.

Produced by frontman Michael Sweet, "The Covering" will be unlike any previous STRYPER recording in that it's a collection of cover songs from bands that inspired them and helped to shape their sound and musical identity, including hits from JUDAS PRIEST, IRON MAIDEN, LED ZEPPELIN, KANSAS and many others. "The Covering" will also include "God", a new original recording from STRYPER.

"The Covering" cover artwork, which was recently described by Michael Sweet as "modern, powerful, edgy and thought-provoking."   You forgot weird.....


Teena Marie Dies At Age 54

Teena Marie, real name Mary Christine Brockert, passed away in her sleep at her home in California. The singer’s death was confirmed by her manager Mike Gardner, reports BBC News. The details and cause of death have not been announced, but the website has said that her 19-year-old daughter found her body and that Marie had suffered a serious grand mal seizure about a month ago.

Teena Marie was one of the rare white artists signed to the Motown label and won four Grammy nominations. After initial scepticism, she won huge acclaim from the black audience, who dubbed her “ivory queen of soul".


New record stores in Istanbul keep old music format spinning

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News

Far from becoming obsolete in a digital era, as many expected, the record format for music has remained popular enough for brand-new stores to be opened in Istanbul specializing in new and used vinyl.

Though sales can be slow, the collectors-turned-entrepreneurs who own these stores believe records will keep spinning well into the future.

“Vinyl records can be used for approximately 60 years,” longer than any other format, Mete Avunduk, owner of Vintage Plak in Istanbul’s Kadiköy district, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. A record collector since the mid-1980s, Avunduk said opening the store was “a natural result of collecting” and the best way to get introduced to more records.

Vintage Plak sells every type of record, at prices ranging from 3 to 300 Turkish Liras. Avunduk purchases records from antique shops domestically and from flea markets and tucked-away little stores abroad.

Read the rest here: New Record Stores in Istanbul


90 Notable Album Covers From 2010
(Various Labels)

Notable Album Covers From 2010

Artwork by Kai Wong, freelance illustrator and graphic designer, and member of Drum Eyes.


The Worst Album Covers Of 2010

See more of the Worst Covers

This gets my vote.....


Vinyl never sounded so good.

By Gary Brown
GateHouse News Service

A vision of the Christmas celebrations of long ago came to me last weekend in a Best Buy store.

I had wandered down an aisle in the store — obviously some musical portal to my past — and artifacts from it were snuggled between iTunes or Napster gift cards and CD gift boxes of the best of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Vinyl record albums.

I had stumbled upon the music of my youth. I received record albums as Christmas gifts when I was younger. I bought vinyl LP albums for siblings and friends.

“Do we even have a turntable anymore?”

Read the rest here

This Date In Music History - December 27


Scotty Moore - He played on the first Sun Studios session with Elvis Presley and went on to a lengthy career with Presley, playing on many of his most famous recordings including "Baby Let's Play House," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Mystery Train," "That's All Right," "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." (1931)

Les Maguire - Gerry And The Pacemakers (1941)

Mike Pinder - Moody Blues (1941)

Mike Jones - Foreigner (1944)

Larry Byrom - Steppenwolf (1948)

Terry Bozzio - Missing Persons (1950)

Karla Bonoff (1952)

David Knopfler - Dire Straits (1952)

Youth - Killing Joke (1961)

Jeff Bryant - Ricochet (1962)

Matt Slocum - Sixpence None The Richer (1972)

Hayley Nichole Williams - Paramore (1988)

They Are Missed:

Blues guitarist Freddie King died of heart trouble and ulcers in 1976 (age 42). Eric Clapton covered his "Have You Ever Loved A Woman" on his Layla album. Major influence on British and American blues-rock musicians such as Jimmy Vaughan, Ronnie Earl, Peter Green and Eric Clapton.

American composer, pianist, singer, actor, and bandleader Hoagy Carmichael died in 1981 (age 82). Composer of "Georgia On My Mind," (covered by many acts including Ray Charles), "Star Dust" and "Lazy River,"

Walter Scott, lead singer of Bob Kuban & The In-Men, who scored a 1966 US hit with ‘The Cheater’, was seen alive for the last time in 1983. On April 10th, 1987, his badly decomposed, bound body was found floating face down in a cistern, he’d been shot in the back. Scott's second wife, Jo Ann Calceterra, pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution in his murder and received a five-year sentence. Her boyfriend (whom she married in 1986), James H. Williams Sr. was found guilty of two counts of capital murder in the deaths of Walter Scott as well as his previous wife, Sharon Williams. James Williams received two life terms.

In 2003, Dick St. John, one half of the singing team of Dick and Dee Dee, who recorded such hits as "The Mountain's High" (1961), "Young And In Love" (1963) and "Thou Shalt Not Steal" (1965), died from complications suffered in a fall from the roof of his home two weeks earlier. The 63 year-old singer had continued to record and performed regularly until his death.

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, Delaney Bramlett died in Los Angeles in 2008 from complications after gall bladder surgery. Was a member of Delaney, Bonnie & Friends and worked with George Harrison, The Everly Brothers, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, J.J. Cale, and Eric Clapton.


In New York City in 1903, the barbershop quartet favorite, "Sweet Adeline," was sung for the first time.

The musical "Showboat" opened in New York in 1927.

Radio City Music Hall opened its doors to the public for the first time in 1932.

'The Glenn Miller Show,' also known as "Music that Satisfies," debuted on CBS radio in 1939.

In 1957, 20,000 fans begin lining up at 5:30 in the morning for Alan Freed's Christmas show at Brooklyn's Paramount Theatre, set to kick off at 9:00 AM. The average ticket price was $1.85.

In 1958, Buddy Holly made his first appearance in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas since he became a major star. Along with broadcasting 'live' over KLLL radio from a fruit and vegetable store, he will return to the station's studios to record "You're The One," a song that station management challenged him to write in half an hour.

In 1960, the Beatles appeared at Litherland Town Hall Ballroom in Liverpool. Added to the bill at the last minute, the Beatles were not advertised to appear, so banners had been pasted onto advertising posters, saying "Direct From Hamburg, The Beatles!" Since The Beatles were playing in an area they'd only played in once before, most of the audience assumed they were a German group.

In 1963, the music critics of the London Times name John Lennon and Paul McCartney as The Outstanding Composers of 1963. Two days later, the Sunday Times' music critic Richard Buckle proclaims the same two songwriters "the greatest composers since Beethoven."

The Supremes made their first appearance on TV's "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964.

Having taped “Light My Fire” and “Moonlight Drive” just days earlier (12/24) for the Jonathan Winters Show in 1967, the Doors wheel a TV on stage during their concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom so they can watch themselves on the Winters Show (and the audience can watch the band watching themselves). When the segment is over keyboardist Ray Manzarek turns off the TV and it’s rolled off the stage. Far out......

Led Zeppelin II was at #1 on the US album charts in 1969, it went on to sell over six million copies in the US alone. Still a great album!

Diana Ross and the Supremes went to #1 on the US singles chart in 1969 with "Someday We'll Be Together," the group's 12th US #1.

Miles Davis was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1969, on sale for 35 Cents.

"Hello, Dolly!" closed on Broadway in 1970 after an astonishing run of 2,844 performances.

In 1971, after a trial run as a summer replacement series, 'The Sonny and Cher Show' began its four and a half year run on CBS.

Former Gospel group, The Staple Singers, scored their second Billboard number one hit in 1975 with "Let's Do It Again." They had earlier topped the chart with "I'll Take You There."

The Four Seasons, "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" was released in 1975. I still hate the song to this day......

The Faces split became official in 1975. Rod Stewart had severed all connections with the group to work as a solo artist, Ron Wood was on permanent loan to the Stones, Ronnie Lane went on to form Slim Chance and drummer Kenny Jones joined The Who.

In 1975, future Smiths singer Steve Morrissey had a letter published in this week’s music magazine the NME, complaining about the lack of media coverage for the New York Dolls.

John and Yoko's 'Double Fantasy' album started an eight-week run a t#1 on the US chart in 1980. "Just Like Starting Over" started a five-week stay at #1 on the singles chart the same day.

In 1983, the Police played the first of four sold-out nights at Wembley Arena in London, England, on their Synchronicity world tour.

In 1989, a former chef at the Chuck Berry owned restaurant Southern Air started court proceedings against Berry alleging that the singer had installed secret video cameras in the ladies toilets. A further 200 other women also took action claiming that the recordings were used for improper sexual fetishes. Pigs......

Harry Connick Jr was arrested at Kennedy Airport, New York in 1992 after police discovered a 9mm pistol in his hand luggage. Ummm...DUH!

Mario was at #1 on the US singles chart in 2004 with "Let Me Love You."

In 2008, thieves broke into a house belonging to Allman Brothers Band singer and keyboardist Gregg Allman in Georgia and stole a coin collection, knives and unreleased concert recordings. Two men where charged with the burglary two days later.

Taylor Swift started a seven-week run at #1 on the US album charts in 2008 with ‘Fearless.'