The LP has seen a steady revival in recent years. In this eighth decade of album cover art history the 12" record, or vinyl, has become hugely fashionable again. To get a sense of how we got here, we invited Richard Evans to take us through the story of album cover design in a series of exclusive extracts from his wonderful book, The Art of the Album Cover.
Words: Richard Evans
The repeal of prohibition in 1933 was to turn the record industry around. After years of Mafia-controlled speakeasys, clubs, and bars sprang up across America and the public, weary and exhausted from the Depression, took to them like veritable ducks to water. They wanted to sing, dance, hear recorded music, and just have fun. Only too eager to help them out were the newly formed companies of Rock-Ola, Seeburg, Wurlitzer and AMI with their latest shiny new invention, the coin-operated electronic jukebox. Music, too, was changing. 1935 saw the beginning of Swing era, the age of the big bands led by 'King of Swing' Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Band music was frequently broadcast on the radio and popular demand for records on jukeboxes and gramophones increased rapidly, not just in America but all over the world.
During the Depression several of the record companies had gone to the wall, but RCA Victor managed to survive, buoyed up by RCA's involvement in radio broadcasting. Others weren't so lucky: companies merged, companies floundered, and many household names disappeared. William Paley, head of radio broadcaster CBS, was persuaded to buy Columbia, sadly now just a secondary brand. Paley put his friend Edward Wallerstein in charge of Columbia and within a couple of years a rebuilt Columbia had become the leading player in the record industry.
In 1939 Wallerstein reluctantly agreed to a proposal by his newly appointed art director, Alex Steinweiss, to produce a collection of four, ten-inch, 78rpm singles in a book-format package with its own unique design on the front. This 1940 release, known as an 'album', was titled Smash Song Hits by Rogers & Hart.