How Elvis Rediscovered Greatness

Why do artists lose their creative spark? And how do they regain their mojo?

To find an answer, I examined two famous artistic comebacks: Elvis Presley’s resurgence in 1969 and Johnny Cash’s return to glory in 1994. Both men have a lot in common. They started their careers in Memphis recording at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips in the 1950s. They suffered creative tailspins before experiencing triumphant comebacks (in Johnny Cash’s case, two comebacks).

Elvis and Johnny Cash also regained their creative powers by collaborating with the right partner.

Let’s take a closer look at Elvis’s story. I’ll follow up later with a post about Johnny Cash.

The Return of the King

In January 1969, Elvis made one of the most important decisions of his life when he chose to record music with producer Chips Moman in Memphis, the city Elvis called home. This was a crucial time for the King. He had pissed away most of the 1960s by making bad movies and recording horrible soundtracks. But in December 1968, he showed signs of greatness when the “Elvis” Christmas special showcased the raw talent and charisma that had catapulted him to fame in the 1950s. On the heels of that artistic and commercial triumph, he wanted to go back in the studio and record new music.

But he couldn’t pull it off by himself.

A Decade in Decline

Elvis was acutely aware of the creative decline that had taken hold after he’d returned to the States in 1960, at the conclusion of a two-year stint in the Army. The problem stemmed from Elvis’s Hollywood train wreck. He had started making movies in 1956 with Love Me Tender, and at first putting Elvis in the movies made sense. Movies broadened his reach globally, and they provided lucrative earnings from sales of tickets and soundtracks. Elvis had even made a few good films such as King Creole before he was drafted into military service in 1958.

But his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, flogged the formula. Between 1960 and 1969 alone, Elvis appeared in 24 films. And they were shlocky films with pointless plots. The titles alone said a lot: Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun in Acapulco, and Harum Scarum to name a few. The soundtracks were wretched, requiring Elvis to sing numbers such as “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad,” “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya,” “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and “Yoga Is as Yoga Does.”

He knew those movies and songs sucked. He coasted through soundtrack recording sessions as quickly as he could, arriving late for recording sessions, taking as few takes as possible, and leaving early. Every once in a while, he’d jump off the miserable creative treadmill and record gospel music, but gospel had limited commercial appeal. And there was always a new film and soundtrack to make. The ugly truth was that the allure of money was too great for both Elvis and the Colonel. Elvis needed the money. He spent it as fast as he made it. And he spent a lot — on himself, on his large entourage known as the Memphis Mafia, and on his family and friends. The Colonel lived extravagantly, too, and he was a notorious gambler. He needed his cash cow.

But did the movies and soundtracks have to be so bad, though? Well, when your goal is to crank out as many films as you can even though you are not a natural actor, standards are going to go by the wayside. In addition, Elvis’s own business interests got in the way. Elvis did not write his own songs. But through his publishing ventures, he collected a share of the royalties of the songs that other people wrote, an arrangement that the Colonel engineered to line the King’s pockets with more cash (and, by extension, the Colonel’s). The problem from a creative standpoint was that not every songwriter was willing to cut a deal to share the profits of their music with Elvis. So he was limited to the songwriters who would play ball with the Colonel. By limiting his choices, he hurt his creative range.

It must also be noted that when Elvis was in the Army, he began abusing Dexedrine pills (the start of a lifelong dependency), but it’s unclear how much his drug use might have impaired his creativity in the 1960s (although the impact of drugs would become painfully clear in the 1970s). He did not write his own songs. And drugs did not cloud his ability to recognize both bad and good material. He constantly expressed disappointment with the quality of the songs he recorded for his movie soundtracks. When he recorded gospel, where he had more creative control, his instincts were spot-on. It’s likely he would have deferred to the Colonel’s game plan with or without the influence of the pills he abused.

At first, it didn’t matter how bad the movies were; his early soundtracks sold tremendously well. But then the sales dried up. So eventually he had two problems: he was making bad music that no one was buying.

Elvis could have landed some good movie roles during this period were it not for the publishing entanglements and the Colonel’s lack of imagination. At one point, Elvis was considered for the lead role of Tony in West Side Story. But the Colonel shot down the idea, partly because he didn’t want Elvis in a movie about gangs — but also because Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, who composed the film’s songs, were not about to give Elvis’s publishing ventures a cut of their earnings.

Imagine spending nearly 10 years creating something you hate. Over and over. All you get is the money, and then less of it. Now imagine doing that knowing you’d once recorded some of the most important songs in popular music. You invented rock and roll. Now you were a joke.

The Beginning of the Comeback

But the jokes stopped — temporarily, at least — in December 1968, when the Elvis Christmas special reminded the world he was still relevant as an artist.

The Colonel had wanted Elvis to sing a bunch of Christmas carols for the show. But fortunately for Elvis, the show’s producer, Bob Finkel, and director, Steve Binder, had other ideas. Elvis had not performed in front of an audience for many years. They decided it was time to reintroduce him to the American public by having him sing the hits of his glory years in front of a hand-picked audience. To pull it off, Elvis would need to get physically trim and rehearse. Matched with someone who challenged him creatively, Elvis rose to the occasion. Dressed in a stunning black leather suit, he practically seduced his audience in the studio and on TV. The show was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the Number One show of 1968.

But a one-off TV special relying on his past hits was one thing. Could he actually record great music again? He and the Colonel knew they needed to strike while the iron was hot. He might not get another chance at credibility if he blew it. The easy and predictable choice was to go into the studios in Nashville, where Elvis was comfortable recording, and work with producers and musicians who would never challenge him. He was, after all, still the king of rock and roll, and the king operated by his own rules.

But Elvis had a good friend named Marty Lacker, who had recorded with a hot shot producer named Chips Moman over at Moman’s own American Sound Studios, also located in Memphis. Lacker told Elvis that Moman was someone who understood how to make hits — and great ones. Moman had produced the first-ever hit single for Stax Records, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” for Carla Thomas. He cowrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which had become a phenomenal success for Aretha Franklin, and Elvis needed someone who could write good songs. As a producer, Moman worked with stars such as Joe Tex and Dusty Springfield (Moman produced her iconic version of “Son of a Preacher Man” that would enjoy a revival when it appeared in Pulp Fiction years later). He was working with Neil Diamond on a single, “Sweet Caroline,” that would become a hit later in 1969. He also employed a crack studio band, the Memphis Boys, who could go toe to toe with the great studio bands of Motown and Stax.

The Memphis Boys consisted of guitarist Reggie Young, bassists Tommy Coghill and Mike Leach, keyboardist Bobby Emmons, drummer Gene Chrisman, and pianist Bobby Wood. They could play anything from rock to soul (still emerging as a musical form in the 1960s). Tommy Coghill had played a celebrated bassline on “Son of a Preacher Man” and had performed with King Curtis. Reggie Young had opened for the Beatles in 1964 when he played with the Bill Black Combo. Bobby Emmons would go on to work with superstars like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. In 1977, Emmons would co-write, with Moman, one of the biggest hits of Jennings’s career, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” The Memphis Boys never sought the spotlight. They chose to elevate other more famous musicians with their considerable talents.

Elvis knew he couldn’t afford to play it safe this time. And besides, when he’d collaborated with Bob Finkel and Steve Binder on his Christmas Special, he’d achieved both artistic and commercial success. Finkel and Binder had brought skill, passion, and vision to the Christmas special. If Moman could do what they did, maybe he’d score another success.

So he headed to American Sound Studios. He brought plenty of company including his longstanding producer, Felton Jarvis (technically there to assist but mostly there to keep an eye on Moman); a suit named Harry Jenkins from his record label, RCA; Tom Diskin, the Colonel’s right-hand man and spy; and, of course, Memphis Mafia. In addition, other members of Team Colonel Tom Parker would occasionally surface at the studios to Moman’s annoyance.

Welcome to American Sound Studios

Now, there was something else about Chips Moman that Lacker probably kept to himself. Moman was a king, too, and he was not to be trifled with. American Sound Studios was his empire, and the Memphis Boys ruled along with him. The Memphis Boys had their own opinions about how a song should sound, and they were not afraid to share them. Moman and the Memphis Boys didn’t need Elvis. He was a guest in their house.

Elvis walked into American Sound Studios for the first time at 7:00 p.m. on January 13, 1969. Right away he knew this experience was going to be different. For one thing the studio felt different. The place was located in a dangerous, run-down neighborhood. You could hear rats scurrying in the rafters.

“What a funky place,” he said. “I like it. It reminds me of Sun.” Which was a very good sign. Sun Studios was where he had invented rock and roll with Sam Phillips.

At first no one knew what to make of Elvis. From the moment he walked in with his Memphis Mafia, he exuded star power. He was slender and beautiful, like some sort of Greek god, and he took command of the room before he’d even sung a note. As pianist Bobby Wood said, “He was in his prime. He looked better than most women I’ve seen.”

But Elvis also dressed and acted like he was performing for his entourage, cracking jokes and horsing around. Most star performers wore jeans and T shirts in the studio. Elvis wore silk scarves, fancy jackets, and even capes, like he was onstage. And the butt-kissing Memphis Mafia was annoying. When Elvis produced a cigarillo to smoke, several toadies simultaneously whipped out lighters to assist him.

The Memphis Boys were horrified. Who were these people? Was Elvis serious about making music, or was he just going to stand around acting like Elvis? They were about to find out.

Getting Started

The first step in recording was for Elvis to review a batch of songs that the Colonel had sent with him from his publishing company, Hill & Range. Little did Elvis realize, but he also had a few hits in his possession already — the song “In the Ghetto,” which songwriter Mac Davis had sent him just before the sessions started, and “Kentucky Rain,” a song written by Eddie Rabbitt that Elvis friend Lamar Fike had recommend. Moman and the Memphis Boys all offered opinions of the song line-up. Some of the Hill & Range songs, such as “Long Black Limousine,” made the cut. But the Memphis Boys told Elvis many of the other Hill & Range selections were worthless. Elvis’s own people were aghast. No one ever spoke to Elvis like that. He’d recorded with yes-men who’d done what they were told, which meant recording all the songs that Elvis had a financial stake in recording.

As Reggie Young said in an interview years later,

He brought his publisher and they began to play songs they wanted to record. Like those songs he did in his movies. Elvis would ask me if I liked the song we just heard, and I said “No.” He asked Bobby, and he said, “No” also. We didn’t realize that you didn’t say “No” to Elvis.

But Elvis could take a “No.”

He may have been a star who surrounded himself with toadies, but he never lost his ear for good music. It’s just that with the movie soundtracks, no one was presenting him with good music. He was intrigued by the opinions he heard. He’d wanted to try something new, and that’s exactly what he was getting. He listened without argument.

The first song they recorded, “Long Black Limousine,” is a cautionary story about a woman in search of fame who leaves a man behind in a small town, only to return, dead, in a hearse. The song is told from the perspective of the man she left behind. The moment Elvis started singing, Moman and the Memphis Boys knew he was serious about recording great music. From the very first takes, his voice resonated with a sadness and hurt that brought an emotional depth to the words. Elvis’s voice also had a husky edge because he was suffering from a cold. The cold served him well. The Memphis Boys played along with him, tight and powerful.

Elvis sang three songs during his first session. He didn’t stop until 5:00 a.m. the next day. And Moman worked him hard. He patiently insisted on multiple takes. Elvis never flinched. His voice came alive, take after take. It was as if he were unleashing all the pure emotion and passion that had been bottled up during the fallow years. He kept at it until he started to lose his voice.

A Creative Breakthrough

That first night had been a breakthrough. Elvis realized he was going to have to work harder than perhaps he’d ever done in his life. Moman and the Memphis Boys realized that when presented with good songs and challenged by good creative partners, a talented band, Elvis would rise to the occasion, as he had with the Christmas special.

Now that he’d gotten the measure of Elvis, Moman began to make his mark even more. As Elvis returned for more sessions in January and then later in February, Moman started to offer him more songs that he thought might work well, including one that would become a career landmark “Suspicious Minds.” 

“Suspicious Minds” would also cause friction between Moman and Team Colonel Tom Parker. When the Colonel’s men pressured Moman to share the writing credits for the song with Elvis’s publishing interests, Moman pushed back — hard. He threatened to can the entire session right then and there. Team Parker appealed to Elvis, but he refused to play referee. Fortunately that RCA suit Harry Jenkins, who seemingly had nothing to do but watch his star record songs, ended up playing a pivotal role: he resolved the problem by sticking up for Moman.

But the distraction over the songwriting credits annoyed Moman, and he let Elvis know it. There were just too many people hanging around the studio between the Memphis Mafia and the Colonel’s people. Again, Elvis listened. He showed his entourage and the Colonel’s people the door. The Memphis Boys breathed a collective sigh of relief. (When Diskin informed the Colonel that Elvis had cleaned house, the Colonel replied, “Let him fall on his ass.”)

These decisions were crucial. Free of distractions, it almost felt like Elvis was one of the Memphis Boys. He became less self-conscious and more relaxed. He joked around with the band and laughed at his mistakes. And Moman had Elvis’s ear. The Colonel was absent from the recordings, and there was no one around to filter the song choices. There was just Chips and Elvis talking face to face about songs.

Elvis and Chips Moman

Elvis’s musical instincts were true. He wanted to hear more of what Moman had to offer. He told his own publishing team, “From now on, I want to hear every song I can get my hands on. If I’ve got a piece of the publishing, that’s fine. But if I don’t and I want to do the song, I’m going to do it.”

But he was still a star, and stars have egos. Moman knew how to handle Elvis’s. To gain Elvis’s trust and to avoid embarrassing him, he approached Elvis quietly and one on one when he needed to correct his delivery instead of broadcasting instructions through a talkback microphone from the producer’s booth. Moman also appealed to Elvis’s competitive side. Moman knew that “In the Ghetto” had greatness written all over it. But Elvis was reluctant. He agreed with Moman about the song’s potential, but it was unusual for Elvis to address social themes, and he wondered if he could credibly pull it off, being a wealthy white man who knew nothing about the ghetto. Moman listened and then shrugged his shoulders. If Elvis didn’t want the song, he’d give it to someone else to sing.

Elvis backed down and insisted on singing the song.

Of course, “In the Ghetto” would go on to become a hit and one of Elvis’s best vocals ever. Although Elvis knew nothing about ghetto life, he knew something about growing up poor, based on his hardscrabble childhood. The artist in him drew from an inner well of compassion to deliver the words with sensitivity and grace. A lesser artist would have overdelivered the song. Elvis went in the opposite direction. His quiet delivery gave the lyrics space to be heard, which made the song better. (Listen to how he slows down the tempo on the verse, “Steals a car/tries to run/But he don’t get far.” His phrasing underscores the tragedy of the narrative.)

Redefining Elvis

During these sessions in January and February, Elvis sang songs that redefined him as a contemporary adult star who bridged the worlds of country, soul, and pop. On “Kentucky Rain,” his voice captured a heartache and hope of searching for something lost. 

On “Suspicious Minds,” he created an emotional terrain that spanned paranoia, angst, guilt, and jealousy. He was bluesy on “After Loving You” and flat-out hurt on “Wearin’ That Loved on Look.”

He gave us a new Elvis: someone who had lived and lost. He wasn’t a brash, youthful tease anymore. He wasn’t singing “Love Me Tender” to an adoring woman. He was grappling with rejection and betrayal. Another song from the Moman sessions, “Don’t Cry Daddy” (also written by Mac Davis) explored the topic of divorce, which was also new ground for Elvis. What made all these songs feel fresh was an emotional authenticity in Elvis’s voice.

The Memphis Boys in Their Glory

The Memphis Boys filled out his sound in a way that no one else ever had. Bobby Wood’s piano gave “Wearin’ That Loved on Look” a gospel refrain. Guest pianist Ronnie Milsap (who would become a country) added a forceful piano touch to “Kentucky Rain” (Elvis told him he wanted to “hear the thunder roll”). Reggie Young’s urgent guitar on “Suspicious Minds” added to the song’s sense of fear and angst, and his sitar on “You’ll Think of Me” was soulful and funky. The bell overdubbed at the beginning of “Long Black Limousine” set an ominous tone for the story that followed.

Here, the wisdom of working with a creative force like Chips Moman paid off. These musical flourishes, often overdubbed after Elvis was done recording, elevated the songs to another level of greatness.

Hits and Acclaim

The sessions resulted in two albums, From Elvis in Memphis (released in May 1969) and Back in Memphis (November 1970).

Both of them were excellent. From Elvis in Memphis is regarded as the better of the two. It received uniformly strong reviews and is ranked among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. As AllMusic’s Bruce Eder put it, From Elvis in Memphis “was one of the greatest white soul albums (and one of the greatest soul albums) ever cut, with brief but considerable forays into country, pop, and blues as well.”

RCA also released four singles from the Chips Moman sessions, all of which were Top 20 hits: “In the Ghetto” (Number 3), “Don’t Cry Daddy” (Number 6), “Suspicious Minds” (Number 1), and “Kentucky Rain” (Number 16). In addition to hitting Number 1, “Suspicious Minds” became one of the biggest sellers of his entire career. With a new decade dawning, Elvis, in the prime of his life, was once again an artist to take seriously.

The Aftermath

Elvis would go on to enjoy an all-too-brief creative renaissance. He never returned to American Sound Studios, likely because Chips Moman was just too headstrong for Colonel Tom Parker. But for the next few years, he achieved greatness on stage by redefining the Las Vegas entertainment industry, a period of his life that I discuss in my October 2019 post for Festival Peak, “The Myth of Fat Elvis.”

Elvis managed to squeeze in one more great album, Elvis Country (1971), and a few good ones, too. Unfortunately, a punishing workload and personal woes accelerated Elvis’s drug abuse. His health declined visibly as the 1970s wore on until his death in 1977. But before the fall, he rose mightily and astonished the world.

Memorable Album Covers of 2019

In the digital age, album cover art remains an essential artistic and commercial element of any musician’s work. And 2019 was no exception. As Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You demonstrates, album covers are arguably even more important than they were in the golden era of vinyl. That’s because on apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, album cover art such as Cuz I Love You can be a more viral and potent form of self-expression than it could sitting on the shelf of a record store.

The memorable album covers of 2019 consist of fierce, uncompromising self-portraits. On Cuz I Love You, Lizzo presents her nude self as a fully realized woman exuding power and grace. Cuz I Love You is an important statement of body positivity, and one that Lizzo made often throughout 2019.

On the other hand, the striking close-up of Jenny Lewis’s torso on the cover of On the Line invites curiosity by what it reveals and does not reveal – her bare arms and cleavage complementing a glitzy dress that evokes vintage Las Vegas (in fact, the dress is an homage to one that her mother wore when she performed in 1970s Las Vegas).

Both Lizzo and Jenny Lewis capture images of artists in control of their own bodies, sharing what they want on her own terms. For more memorable album covers from 2019, check out the link at the top of this post (or go here).

What are your favorite album covers in recent years?

Why We Buy Vinyl

My name is David. And I’m a vinyl addict. 

At a time when I should be de-cluttering my life, I’m accumulating vinyl records. I own four copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s not enough for me to own a copy of Led Zeppelins Presence. I need to have a Japanese pressing and the deluxe edition with an extra disc of outtakes. I have circled November 30 on my calendar because it’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I count as one of the happiest days of my life when, as a child, I first listened to Al Green’s Greatest Hits on vinyl (and by the way, although I own the re-issue that contains “Love and Happiness,” I also have the original, which contains Green’s cover of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” When you are an addict, you need both.) I also vividly remember the day I found the vinyl edition of Beatles in Mono on the counter of a record store in Schaumburg, Illinois, waiting for me like a treasure (I can still picture where I was standing when I caught a glimpse of the Holy Grail).

I blog about vinyl. I seek out places where famous album covers were shot just so that I can experience the mojo of rock history.

I love hanging out in vinyl stores in different cities – pawing through rows of musical discovery and not knowing exactly what I’ll find. Each store reflects the tastes and lives of the people who live nearby and have released their own vinyl to the world.

I love vinyl so much that when I buy a used copy of an album, I even ponder the lives of the people who owned the copy I hold in my hands. I still think fondly of whoever owned my beat-up, used copy of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album and scrawled in girlish, teenage handwriting “oooo it makes me wonder” on the inside jacket.

Who was she? (She is always a girl in my mind.) What moment of emotional connection with “Stairway to Heaven” caused her to pick up her pen and capture the moment in her loopy handwriting, perhaps while she was alone in her bedroom, shutting out the distractions and worries of the world as Brian Wilson did when he wrote “In My Room,” the painful ode to teen angst that appears on Surfer Girl? I have never met her. But I know her.

Like a true junkie, I don’t have a good explanation for why I am the way I am. Why, on Black Friday 2019, I’ll brave the cold and stand in a long line outside a vinyl record store for the sole purpose of getting my hands on a vinyl pressing of The Doors: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. It’s one of many new releases for Black Friday 2019 Record Store Day. I already own a Blu-ray of the same concert. Why must I own a vinyl copy? 

Why Vinyl?

Usually I don’t think too much about why I love vinyl. When you’re a junkie, you don’t spend much time dwelling on the “why.” You just do what you do. But lately I’ve been wondering why I, or anyone, still buys vinyl in the digital age.  

This question has been on my mind since it was widely reported that sales of vinyl are going to surpass compact disc sales for the first time (an article that many of my friends have shared with me). The data behind the story has been disputed. And even if the data is accurate, vinyl still accounts for a small percentage of total music sales. That said, vinyl sales continue to rise even as streaming continues to assert its undeniable dominance. 

Many people buying vinyl were not even alive during the glory days of the format in the 1970s. So why does anyone buy vinyl?

I don’t know for sure, really. I’ve heard the theory that vinyl lovers prefer the warm and rich sound of analog record albums. But I’m guessing that maybe one half of one percent of the vinyl-buying public really goes out of their way to purchase a record because they appreciate its sonic qualities. It’s also quite possible that people buy vinyl for the same reason that print books continue to thrive: we still care about the tactile experience of holding art in our hands. Maybe. 

But really? I think the addiction has something to do with nostalgia and coolness.

Nostalgia Is a Funny Thing

Take a look at the top-selling vinyl albums of 2019 here. Billie Eilish is right there close to the top, but classic rock works reign, with Queen Greatest Hits topping the list. This news comes as no surprise. The top-selling artist in vinyl in 2018 was the Beatles, who also dominated vinyl sales in 2017. They didn’t quite own 2016 – because David Bowie did. The Baby Boomer-era acts clean up every year. They’re leading the vinyl revival.

But why would they? Well, aside from the fact that the best classic rock acts define a golden era for music, you cannot deny the power of nostalgia. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” And nostalgia is a funny thing. You can feel nostalgia for other times you didn’t even experience. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, I got caught up in Eisenhower and Kennedy-era nostalgia triggered by the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days.

But I was technically too young to have appreciated the time period depicted in the movie American Graffiti (1962) and the TV series Happy Days (set largely in the 1950s). Why? Because American Graffiti and Happy Days were comfort food. (And so was the soundtrack to American Graffiti.) They evoked what seemed like a more secure time. I longed for that security as a child because I was not getting it at home. 

Nostalgia is a longing for comfort, really. That longing explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now with Millennials and Gen Z who are too young to have really experienced that decade. When a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a secure embrace.

And that’s exactly what you feel when you pull a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Dark Side of the Moon out of their jackets. Each moment you spend studying the artwork and getting immersed in the music takes you deeper into the sweet comfort of nostalgia. 

Coolsville

But nostalgia alone does not explain the enduring appeal of vinyl. There is also the coolness factor to consider. Now, I don’t know exactly how to define cool. But I know what cool looks like. And, my friends, vinyl looks cool. The Rolling Stones leering at you from the blurry cover of Between the Buttons looks cool.

The Doors watching you through the window of Morrison Hotel is an invitation to share in a secret kind of coolness that exists only in the mythology of Jim Morrison.

Robert Freeman’s stark black-and-white shot of the Beatles on With the Beatles is ultra-cool.

Chrissie Hynde on the cover of Pretenders looks like she spits cool in your face.

The Isley Brothers decked out in funky badassery on the cover of Showdown is another category of cool completely.

But all those images compressed to a tiny square the size of a coffee coaster on a compact disc? Not cool. As for streaming? I guess streaming is cool if you consider electricity to be cool. 

No one will ever think of CDs as cool. No one will ever think of streaming a song as an inherently cool experience. But a stack of vinyl will always create instant cool, and cool will always appeal.

Don’t ask me why vinyl is cool. You have to be a vinyl junkie to understand. And I’m hopelessly addicted.

Vinyl Vibe: Willie Nelson’s “Family Bible”

Don’t let an algorithm define your tastes. Get out there and discover art with reckless abandon.

Last weekend, I visited a vinyl record store, Plaza Records, in Carbondale, Illinois. I had not been there in three years. All record stores are different. Their inventory reflects regional tastes of their buyers and sellers. You have to visit them and explore to really figure them out. Amazon won’t do that for you. At Plaza Records, I discovered a small but well curated country section that included the album Family Bible by Willie Nelson. I almost left the album in the bin. I am glad I didn’t.

Willie has recorded some of the best country albums of all time. But he’s also put out some bad records, too. He is to music what Michael Caine is to acting: always working, and not particularly choosy. Family Bible, released in 1980, certainly did not invite further exploration, with a washed-out album cover suggesting a slipshod effort. But the track listing intrigued me: all gospel songs, with no one but Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson performing. The album cost $6, and I do not know a whole lot about Willie’s gospel side. Why not? 

Since last weekend, I must have played that album 10 times in five days. Almost immediately, with the multi-tracked harmonies on “By the Rivers of Babylon,” the album’s warmth drew me in. The songs are the kind of old-timey standards that evoke a longing for the comfort of the past. Many are in the public domain. Willie sings them with grace and strength; his phrasing has seldom been better, as evident on songs such as “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings.” When he sings “You who are weary, come home” on “Softly and Tenderly,” I want to answer the call right then and there. In a world full of bombast, he offers a soft, warm invitation to rest your weary spirit. 

Willie Nelson wrote the title track in 1957. The story goes that he was inspired by his grandmother, who would read from her Bible and sing “Rock of Ages” after supper. But, facing financial problems, he sold it to Paul Buskirk, who is credited along with Claude Gray and Walter Breeland as the songwriters. That’s the way the world works sometimes. You sell your work, and then you sing it decades later with the credit going to someone else. But when he sing the words, his voice soaring over the strumming of the guitar he reclaims the song as his own:

There’s a family Bible on the table 

Each page is torn and hard to read 

But the family Bible on the table 

Will ever be my key to memories 

At the end of day when work was over 

And when the evening meal was done 

Dad would read to us from the family Bible 

And we’d count our many blessings one by one 

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages cleft for me 

Now this old world of ours is full of trouble

This old world would also better be 

If we’d find more Bibles on the tables 

And mothers singing rock of ages cleft for me

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages rock of ages cleft for me

He and Bobbie play together with a familiarity and ease that makes you feel like they are in your home, gathered around a piano, filling the evening with song. Bobbie’s rousing piano introduction to “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings” sounds like it came from a dusty Nazarene tent meeting somewhere in the Illinois corn fields. 

I suppose if this album were recorded today, we might think of it as Willie Unplugged. Willie is listed as the producer. And he made the right call by employing a simple sound. These songs are meant to work their way into your heart gently. But you have to find these moments of communion with song. You have to dig through the crates in strip-mall record stores, take a risk on that one more album even though you’re already spending more than you should. And then return home, stop what you’re doing, and listen.

Memorable Album Covers of 2017

Don’t let anyone tell you album covers are dead. Album artwork continues to express the visions of artists and the musical content of the albums themselves as powerfully as covers did in the era of album-oriented rock. Memorable album covers of 2017 reflect a year in which artists made compelling political and personal statements.

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How DJ Khaled Uses Visual Storytelling to Sell His “Keys”

Even though album sales continue to decline, album cover art is more important than it was during the days when vinyl ruled the world.

As I have discussed on my blog, today album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories. By contrast, back in the glory days of the album, the primary role of cover art (from a marketing standpoint) was to make the work stand apart in record store bins. An excellent demonstration of the new role of the album artwork is DJ Khaled’s Major Key, one of the most memorable album covers 2016.

DJ Khaled released Major Key in July 2016. The album received generally positive reviews for delivering his distinctive blend of dance and hip-hop with guest artists such as Drake and Jay Z. Major Key also featured the most imaginative album cover of his career. It takes a special kind of self-assurance and badassery to have yourself photographed on a throne next to a lion, and DJ Khaled pulled it off. The cover is not only visually striking, but it also makes a statement about the artist: the lion suggest power, and the flowers, elegance. Like a Pharaoh, DJ Khaled is unsmiling. He doesn’t need to. The successful musician and producer rules his universe his way.

But the album and the music inside it are linked to a bigger story. DJ Khaled fans instantly recognized the name Major Key — stylized as a golden key emoji — as an extension of the DJ Khaled brand on Snapchat. He is easily one of the biggest names on Snapchat, where he dispenses life lessons that he calls “major keys to success.” He typically uses the key emoji to accompany his little snippets of wisdom, which focus on living positively.

The album cover was a code for his fans as well as an attention getter for more casual listeners of his music. If you liked what he was selling on Snapchat, Major Key was a clarion call to get even more immersed in his own brand of wisdom through song. And it turns out that the cover was a harbinger: in November, Khaled published the book The Keys, which collects his wisdom into lengthier essays on successful living, categorized under themes such as “Stay Away from They” and “Don’t Deny the Heat.” Released just in time for the holidays, The Keys also features a familiar image: a majestic lion, resting on the same purple bed of flowers scattered about the album cover.

In context of DJ Khaled’s brand as a pop culture sage, the Major Key album cover acts as a brilliant touchstone. Khaled and that lion are everywhere, ranging from his Instagram feature photo to his Facebook banners.

On his home base of Snapchat, he continues to rely on the key emoji to express his personal brand.

It remains to be seen how successful The Keys will be, but Major Key is DJ Khaled’s first Billboard Number One album. Meanwhile, the book is receiving positive notice from the likes of The New Yorker, which is the kind of attention that will make his brand as digital self-help guru more mainstream. His ability to brand himself through visual storytelling is the key.

Note: check out my SlideShare, Memorable Album Covers of 2016, for insight into more compelling visual stories from the year.

Memorable Album Covers of 2016

The success of Adele’s 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.

But fortunately, musicians didn’t give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Beyonce’s Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a “visual album” aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.

Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I’ve written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.

Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:

  • Capture your attention through striking design.
  • Express the essence of the artist.
  • Say something about the musical content of the album itself.

The examples I’ve chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle. Check out the best examples from my new SlideShare to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.

Memorable Album Covers: “Exile on Main St.”

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Whenever I see the cover of Exile on Main St., I think of my courtship with Janice Deal in the late 1980s. We learned about each other through our vinyl collections during that time. Jan’s Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel albums gave me a glimpse into her poetic artistry that would manifest itself in the short stories and book she would publish years later, The Decline of Pigeons. My albums, ranging from Al Green to Led Zeppelin, often revealed my fascination with the interplay between music and the visual power of album cover art, which I would eventually document on my blog and on visual storytelling platforms such as Instagram. Exile on Main St. captures that time in our lives perfectly.

Considered by many to be the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, Exile on Main St. captures the sound and look of a band wallowing in its own decadence. The front cover of the album is a jumbled mess of off-kilter, black-and-white images of circus entertainers and assorted characters of unusual talent, including a dude with an amazing capacity for holding three oranges in his mouth. The back consists of a druggy pastiche of more black-and-white images, this time of the Rolling Stones, leering, yawning, and frowning. The band looks like they’ve been documented amid a chaotic, gypsy existence, which, in fact, they were living, having fled England to avoid paying an onerous tax burden. The images of one of rock’s most memorable covers reflect the nearly out-of-control sprawl of the album inside the cover.

The album itself confused critics and fans alike with its muddy sound. When you listen to songs like “Rocks Off,” you feel like you’re in the uncomfortably hot, squalid French villa where parts of the album were recorded. Mick Jagger slurs, drawls, and shouts the lyrics over scabrous guitar parts and a loose rhythm that feels two notes away from a chaotic breakdown. All the elements add up to an authentically dirty vibe that few bands have managed to capture.

I got to know Exile a little too late in life, long after I had been told countless times that Exile was The Masterpiece. It was impossible to really enjoy the album on its own merits, so thick was the legend (and myth) surrounding the songs and its recording in that French villa while Keith Richards was dropping heroin. Hearing the songs was like listening to Bob Dylan or classical music. You couldn’t relax and let the music pour over you; rather, you were conscious of the expectation that you were supposed to enjoy it, even songs with the juvenile names like “Turd on the Run.”

Only after leaving the album alone for a while and revisiting the songs when Jan and I were dating in the late 1980s could I start to enjoy Exile and the chaotic sounds that unified all four sides. At this point in their career, the Rolling Stones were mired in a fallow period, churning out formulaic-sounding albums like Dirty Work. The band sounded too polished and mechanical. Jan and I were spending a lot of time exploring Chicago neighborhoods, eating barbeque from a place called Leon’s (where a slice of white bread was served with your ribs), and just bombing around in the streets.

Sometimes we would order ribs from the Leon’s carry-out on north Clark Street and simply sit on the sidewalk and chow down on ribs, not caring how messy we looked. As we took long walks through areas such as Lincoln Park, I sang loosely remembered songs to Jan, throwing in a line from “Ventilator Blues” one moment before jumping into “Happy” when I couldn’t get the lines right. I was deep into the Stones’ early catalog then, perhaps as a reaction to how boring the band sounded in 1987. I scooped up copies of worn vinyl Stones albums at used record stores, including the earliest albums with those stark close-ups of their menacing faces. Jan, with her collection of Madonna, the Beatles, and Laurie Anderson, offered the counterbalance to the darkness that fascinated me, and I loved her for providing that lightness.

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During that period, I studied the album cover for Exile with fresh eyes and dwelled on each little square photograph, looking for clues that might shed light on the songs inside. I reappraised the dense and opaque collage of images as a reflection of the music. The unpolished and faded images of Jagger and Richards huddled around the microphone, and of the entire band smirking and gazing off screen with stoned expressions, coupled with the dude with the oranges and the freaks on the front cover, created a band portrait dipped in the kind of grime and grit I felt on my skin after walking through Chicago on a hot summer Saturday. I was finally able to enjoy the album on my terms. And Jan did, too. The Stones were walking the streets with us.

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If you own the album, you know why you have to listen to the songs all the way through to understand the cover. These are the Stones: unvarnished, real, and powerful.

Memorable Album Covers: Elton John’s “Greatest Hits”

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Have you ever come across someone who captures a style that you can admire but never hope to emulate? Elton John made me awestruck when I found a copy of Greatest Hits in my sister Karen’s room when I was a kid. The album came out at a time when greatest hits packages actually meant something, long before digital made it possible for listeners to create their own playlists. The best collections served as an introduction to an artist’s body of work and made it easy for you to enjoy in one listening singles that you otherwise had to catch on the radio if you were lucky enough to be listening at the right time. And Elton John’s first Greatest Hits collection was one of the best, not only for the music but the memorable album cover.

All the songs that defined his rise to superstardom were laid out for you like diamonds — hits like “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” and “Bennie and the Jets” (I always wondered who came up with the brilliant idea of pronouncing “Jets” like “jetssssss,” which gave the song its signature moment). My favorite was (and remains) “Daniel.” When he sang “Daniel, my brother, you are older than me/Do you still feel the pain” my mind drifted to my brother Daniel, who was two years older than me and who was indeed experiencing a lot of pain in his life. I’d heard all those songs — how could you not growing up in the 1970s? — usually riding in the car with my mom and dad, driving to places like Peoria, Illinois, or Mishawaka, Indiana, to visit relatives on both sides of the family. Even on a crappy car radio, his songs were unmistakable.

But when I found that album, I didn’t even bother listening to the music at first. I really didn’t need to. I just studied the album. Every detail. The creamy white suit, oversized glasses, and natty hat offset by the dark blue shirt and multi-colored bow tie. The over-sized pin of the dude looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One affixed to his jacket. And to top it all off, that elegant walking stick. On the back cover, there he was, playing his piano, wearing glitter shoes. I loved everything about his look, but I realized he had captured a style that was all his own. I was just a kid entering adolescence, with no sense of how to look. I was making that awkward transition from matching clothes to jeans and shirts, but I had no idea what I was doing, and I was too shy and awkward to try to attempt to look anything like presentable. On that album cover, Elton John gave me a glimpse of another world, of other possibilities beyond my imagination.

All I could do was press my nose against the glass and watch.

Memorable Album Covers of 2015

The massive success of Adele’s 25 has prompted the music industry to speculate that maybe the record album as an art form is back. Well, record albums aren’t back — Adele is. Meantime, the album remains stuck in a long, sad period of decline. But the demise of the album hasn’t stopped artists from continuing to grace us with memorable album cover art, and 2015 was no exception, as my new SlideShare presentation illustrates vividly.

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Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

The year was notable for the appearance of some over-the-top, in-your-face covers from mainstream artists, with some classically elegant and visual mind benders tossed in. It’s as if musicians everywhere got together and decided, “Screw it — if albums are going away, let’s make the last gasp a memorable one.”

Bjork recast herself as some sort of mutant alien on Vulcarina, and Grimes dropped one of the ugliest album covers I’ve ever seen with Art Angels, demonstrating that memorable is not necessarily the same as beautiful. And I’m still trying to figure out the weird plastic thing creature on the cover of Arc’s Mutant.

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Bjork, Vulcarina

But not all covers needed to be outrageous to be memorable. The album cover art for Fetty Wap’s self-titled album was honest and real, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was socially provocative and thoughtful. Meantime, Colleen Green’s smart-alecky smirk on the cover of I Want to Grow Up was what rock and roll attitude is all about, while Leon Bridges’s Coming Home and Adele’s 25 were throwbacks with their classic designs.

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Fetty Wap, Fetty Wap

Albums may never return to their glory days of the 1970, but album cover art remains an important way for musicians to connect with fans and represent their art. As I’ve mentioned before, their function has changed — from gracing the cover of a single work to acting as a visual totem published across many touch points, ranging from an artist’s Facebook page to their merchandise.

In fact, album cover art is perfectly suited for today’s visual era. Album covers tell visual stories that express the music of the album, capture the personality of the artist, and engage your interest — just as great marketing should do.

Albums as we know them are dying. Long live record album art.