There was a time when the cover of an album was almost as important as the music inside.
An African-American woman’s profile, perspiration dripping from her perfect skin, covered Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” Wild psychedelic caricatures fronted The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” and the Rolling Stones, the quintessential bad boys of rock ’n’ roll, focused on, well, certain anatomy in a pair of blue jeans on their “Sticky Fingers” album.
The art was meant to catch the eye of the buyer and tease to the artist’s music.
The best of the best made an indelible first impression.
Even today, that bold gold real working zipper on the Stones’ 1971 album immediately conjures up the iconic cover, which is now part of a new exhibit, “The Art of Vinyl,” at the Gallery at the Manship Theatre.
The show, which runs through Aug. 2, celebrates album art as an expression and connection to the music and cultural trends of its era.
Some of the covers in the display have become classics, while others hold a special meaning to the exhibitors who chose them: Kerry Beary’s Atomic Pop Shop, Lagniappe Records, Capital City Records and collectors Alex Cook, Eric Babin, Lee Barbier and Paul Dean.
No doubt, there are some who don’t remember when albums were recorded on vinyl discs as big as Frisbees, their 12-inch-square cardboard covers inked by artists and illustrators, such as Andy Warhol and Heinz Edelman.
So the show is as much history as it is a celebration.
“And we always try to incorporate some element of performance in our exhibits,” says Liz Goad, the Manship’s director of development and gallery director. “We’ve been talking about the idea of a vinyl album show for awhile. We loved the idea of an exhibition celebrating this art in pop culture.”
To bring in the current, the now, the gallery looked to local artists Paul Dean, Scott Finch and TJ Black, who either designed or chose pieces to complement the album art.
And though some of these pieces are large, none overwhelm the album covers, which are clustered into seven groups.
“We left it up to each individual as to what to include in their collections,” Goad says. “We wanted to see which albums were important to these people now.”
The Manship Theatre began advertising the show in vintage records stores in April, hoping to attract the attention of collectors.
The result is an eclectic mix of easily recognized covers and some that aren’t quite so familiar.
There’s a group of Wonder Woman-like characters on the cover of The Kings’ 1981 “Amazon Beach” not far from Benny Goodman’s 1955 “This is Benny Goodman and His Orchestra.”
Jim Flora created the art for the Goodman album. His figures, angular and childlike yet somehow ghoulish and daring, were distinctive among jazz albums.
Exhibitor Beary writes in her show explainer that she and her husband have been collecting Flora’s LP covers for years.
“So we were psyched to be able to share them with a broader audience,” she writes.
But, she says, she at first struggled to find a direction for her display.
“Because the possibilities are endless,” she writes in her collection’s description. “I thought about focusing on a single theme or genre, but that was still too broad. So I decided to go with what I know best — art history and contemporary artists. It helped me narrow it down to selections that were actually painted or designed by visual artists, like Dali, Warhol, Ryden, Flora, etc.”
Barbier says he chose pieces that “stood alone as illustrations or photographs and as art works or graphic art.”
“I guess nostalgia played a part in it, too,” he writes, “as they’re mostly things I first saw when I was a kid in record stores, where I would spend hours just looking through covers on family shopping trips to the mall.”
Barbier drew from the artwork that made the strongest visual impressions paired with his fondness for the music on the albums. Then he searched his collection to see what he had.
“People used to see most records before they heard them,” he writes in his show statement. “That’s changed, the experience is different … Are people still tempted to listen to records they’ve never heard because of the CD artwork or the tiny graphic next to a download button? Most of my favorite older acts and records were things that visually intrigued me, and I listened to them as a result.”
Goad says it was fascinating to see what the collectors decided to show.
“Some focus on color and form, some focus on subject matter and others on the artists,” she says. “And it’s exciting to see Baton Rouge taking part in this vinyl renaissance. It’s about more than just an album. It’s an experience. It’s an iconic token of a multimedia experience.”