Remembering Tom Wilkes, Album Cover Designer 

The eye behind classic album art

Wednesday, Jul 15 2009

The great Southern California–based art director, designer and photographer Tom Wilkes, who died on June 28, left a lasting impression on the Los Angeles music scene. His covers, some of the most iconic of the LP era, presented the area’s music with striking images, in vivid color. He took full advantage of the 12” x 12” canvas, and designed so that when you were flipping through racks looking for something new, his covers would jump out. Be it the smiling faces of the Carpenters, the more loaded grins of Ike & Tina Turner chomping on watermelon (in whiteface), the Flying Burrito Brothers in their Nudie suits, George Harrison in beautiful gelatin print, or Captain Beefheart in fisheye lens, Tom Wilkes presented sleeves with meaning and beauty.

He created art.

Wilkes’ work on the classic second Cheech & Chong album, Big Bambu, replicated a pack of rolling papers. In fact, he went one step further and included a jumbo paper inside the sleeve.

click to flip through (8) 3627540.t.jpg

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Unlike nearly every other album designer, Wilkes somehow put entire bands on album covers without it seeming busy or confusing. This Gilded Palace of Sin cover from the Flying Burrito Brothers is simple but striking. (The Nudie suits don’t hurt.)

Wilkes shot portraits, and was able to capture the essence of Claudine Longet with an elegant head shot for the French chanteuse’s Colours.

This is perhaps one of Tom Wilkes’ most iconic covers: an intimate, baroque creation for Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle. It has the feel of a paperback, something you’d be reading in a coffeehouse.

One of the artist’s first covers was for a young L.A. outfit called Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. To capture their blues confusion, Wilkes employed a fisheye lens for Safe as Milk.

Nothing to say about George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Perfection. Captures a mood. Timeless.

A classic of power pop: the Flamin’ Groovies’ Shake Some Action. The font, and the yellow bars, define the band’s mod-pop style.

London/Polydor records refused to release Wilkes’ commissioned cover for the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet in the states; as a protest, the band printed it in an all-white cover, with fancy wedding-invitation script.

Reach the writer at rroberts@laweekly.com

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