By Larry Jaffee
The Alex Awards was named after Alex Steinweiss, who is widely credited with being “the father of album graphics” during the second half of the 78-rpm record era and inventor of the LP jacket in 1948.
His majestic illustrations adorned more than a thousand covers for the Columbia, Decca, London and Everest labels through the 1960s for a who’s who of American popular music. The artist roster includes: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, George and Ira Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Desi Arnaz, Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Brubeck and Igor Stravinsky, among numerous others. Steinweiss’ cover for the 1949 Broadway score of South Pacific is still in print on Sony’s current CD.
As the tale goes, a few months into his new job in 1939 at Columbia in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Steinweiss convinced his bosses to let him illustrate a cover rather than the plain “tombstone” covers that had been typically used. Sales skyrocketed.
Steinweiss’s own tastes ran classical, but that didn’t stop his first cover for Columbia in April 1940 from being Rodgers & Hart Smash Song Hits, for which Steinweiss had a photograph taken of a theatre marquee, which was then superimposed over a graphic rendering of a record’s grooves, accentuated in red.
A script font with Steinweiss’s name was placed in a corner of each cover he designed. It’s an example of how Steinweiss took pride in his work, which he viewed no differently from a painting. The cover was his canvas. For labels other than Columbia, Steinweiss sometimes used the pseudonym “Piedra Blanca.”
Setting the bar in terms of cover aesthetics, Steinweiss conceived his covers with the music in mind. And he could be sublimely political, as he was with a 1942 release titled Boogie Woogie, with a large black hand and a large white hand looming over a piano, meanwhile the music inside featured talented musicians of both races, Count Basie and Harry James Trio, among them.
In 1948 Columbia president Ted Wallerstein, who hired Steinweiss in 1939, turned to him to design a packaging system for the then new LP. He came up with the folded cardboard, taped on the top and bottom, which became the industry standard for the following four decades, and still today to some extent considering vinyl’s recent renaissance. But as a consultant, Steinweiss was forced to assign his patent rights over to Columbia, which he left in 1954 after a corporate shakeup. He sold his trademark script lettering, the Steinweiss scrawl, to a font company in the mid-1950s. As photographs became more in vogue for LP covers than illustrations during the early 1960s pop era, Steinweiss left the music business, concentrating on creating graphics for liquor companies and other clients. He also on painted and made ceramics.
In March 2001 I found him retired in Sarasota, Florida, where he had moved in 1974 with his wife Blanche. In a phone interview, he explained the goal of his covers was to sell the music. He told me how in the 1940s he would observe how people looked through record store bins. Subsequently, he began to place text listing performer, composer and music higher up.
In 2003 my former magazine Medialine decided to establish a media packaging competition, which I called the “Alex Awards” in Steinweiss’s honor. He was touched that I was aware of his legacy, drawing a correlation between what he did more than six decades ago for 78s and CDs, DVDs and videogames in the 21st century.
Although he won numerous graphic arts awards from the likes of the Art Directors Club and AIGA, Steinweiss felt slighted that he never won a Grammy or any kind of recognition from the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences.
Subsequently, at the first “Alex Awards” in 2003 in Universal City, California, at 86 he gladly accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award. It was presented by Kevin Reagan, the packaging conference’s keynoter, Madonna’s former art director and winner of best packaging Grammy three of the previous five years. At a post-awards dinner, I sat between Kevin and Alex, who traded stories about crazy assistants stealing their tools and taking credit for work that they didn’t do.
The first 100 limited-edition copies of a coffee-table book, edited by Reagan, about Steinweiss’s work sold for $1,500 was published in early 2011 by Taschen, and signed by Steinweiss himself. (A later trade edition listed for $69.99) Alex died in July 2011 in Sarasota, Florida.
Music runs in the family. His son Leslie is in the jewelry business but composes music as a hobby, while Alex’s grandson (and Leslie’s son) Homer Steinweiss played drums with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, which backed up Amy Winehouse on Back to Black.