Classic album covers : Smash Song Hits – Rodgers and Hart
In 1939 a twenty-three-year-old Alex Steinweiss (1917–2011) was working at Columbia Records when inspiration struck. He quickly grabbed a photographer, and the pair headed down to New York’s West 45th Street and stood outside the city’s famous Imperial Theatre. Looking up at the building’s distinctive marquee, they both agreed — it was perfect!
The young Steinweiss had only just landed a job at Columbia Records, where he worked as the label’s first art director. CBS had recently opened a new headquarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut and their advertising manager was eager to hire someone to design promotional displays and advertisements for the label. It was a dream job, but Steinweiss already had greater things in mind
At the Imperial Theatre Steinweiss convinced the owner to briefly change the signage of the marquee. As evening arrived, they swapped out the letters and then lit them up: ‘Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart’, it proudly announced. The photographer snapped a picture and, in doing so, he captured a little bit of history. This image would go on to become the world’s very first album cover
These days, we tend to take album artwork for granted, yet before Steinweiss, the record industry really didn’t have much of a graphic tradition. When the 78 RPM emerged during the 1910s, they were all sold separately. Each record would last just three to five minutes, and each one was typically packaged in dull paper or cardboard sleeves that either had the name of the producer on it or the name of the retailer who was selling it
By the 1920s, record labels began to offer special ‘record albums’. These were dark-coloured books with leatherette bindings and empty sleeves (quite similar to photo albums). A record album would offer more protection for a collector’s records and allow for them to build a personal record collection. By the 1930s, some record companies were expanding on the album idea by issuing specially pre-assembled albums. These albums could include recordings from a particular artist, a genre, a suite of classical music, or even a hits compilation. Despite this novel idea, all of these collections generally looked the same and offered very few visual clues to help consumers tell each one apart
“To my mind, this was no way to package beautiful music,” Steinweiss remarked in the fantastic book Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover. For him, these indistinguishable covers had to change. Eager to do something about it, he walked into management and insisted that they adopt a new way to sell records. Initially, Columbia was reluctant to get on board (a $2,500 investment was a lot to ask for), yet when they did eventually give in, record sales increased by almost 900%, and the idea was quickly heralded as an indisputable success
His first cover, and therefore the first album cover, so it has to be considered a classic, was for a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs performed by an orchestra, showed a high-contrast photo of a theatre marquee with the title in lights. Please note the word “smash” on the cover!
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
“It was such a simple idea, really, that an image would become attached to a piece of music,” said Paula Scher, who designed record covers for Columbia in the 1970s and is now a partner in the design company Pentagram. “When you look at your music collection today on your iPod, you are looking at Alex Steinweiss’s big idea”
Steinweiss preferred metaphor to literalism, and his covers often used collages of musical and cultural symbols. For a Bartok piano concerto, he rejected a portrait of Bartok, using instead the hammers, keys and strings of a piano placed against a stylized backdrop. For a recording of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, he used an illustration of a piano on a dark blue field illuminated only by an abstract street lamp, with a stylized silhouetted skyline in the background
After the war, Steinweiss freelanced for Columbia. During one lunch meeting there, the company’s president, Ted Wallerstein, introduced him to an innovation that the company was about to unveil: the long-playing record. But there was a problem. The heavy, folded kraft paper used to protect 78 r.p.m. records left marks on the vinyl microgroove when 33 1/3 r.p.m. LPs were stacked
Steinweiss was asked to develop a jacket for the new format and, with help from his brother-in-law, found a manufacturer willing to invest about $250,000 in equipment. Mr. Steinweiss had the original patent for what became the industry packaging standard (he didn’t develop the inner sleeve, only the outer package), but under his contract with Columbia he had to waive all rights to any inventions made while working there!
Steinweiss died in June 2011, aged 94. See more of Steinweiss’ cover art here