The young folks may be wondering why a CD or a phonograph record or a small batch of downloads is termed an “album,” and the answer is simply this: when records were 78 rpm, typically ten inches in diameter, and played for four or five minutes at most, the only way to sell a recording of a symphony or a Broadway show was to create a package of several discs, each in its own envelope, and then bind those envelopes together into, yes, an album.
Still, all these blank sleeves were boring: “Ridiculous,” said Alex Steinweiss. “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.”
Despite cost concerns, Columbia Records put Steinweiss, then a 22-year-old designer from the advertising department, to work on improving the appearance of those covers, and the first thing he came up with was this mock theater marquee for a Rodgers & Hart compilation. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Records/Sony Music; click to embiggen). The year was 1939, and Columbia had itself a hit. After working with the Navy in World War II, Steinweiss returned to Columbia as a freelancer and devised a sleeve for the label’s new plastic microgroove 33⅓-rpm Long Playing record, or as it was dubbed almost immediately, the LP.
Many years later, as we feed old songs into iTunes and wonder what sort of bizarre artwork Apple will find for us, we should remember Alex Steinweiss, who made it all possible. He left the record industry in the 1970s and began creating his own art; he died this week in Florida at 94.
(Via Kevin Walsh’s Facebook page.)
Update: Steinweiss’ status is challenged.