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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 (http://www.rockpopgallery.com) - All rights reserved.
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION