All eight of the late 1950’s to mid 60’s album covers have two things in common. All of them feature white people’s faces on the cover. And all of them are by black artists. This topic first came to my attention when my father purchased a coffee table book called 1000 Record Covers by former DJ/record company exec Michael Ochs. One section of the book specifically featured a series of album covers by black artists with the faces of white people on them. It even pointed out how,in general in the case of Motown,other albums by black artists featured cartoons on the covers.
Mister Ochs book brought up the reason for this-one I’ve generally accepted as the most prominent truth. During the late 50’s and halfway into the 60’s,the civil rights movement in American was making it clear for the 20th century that black lives did matter. Yet the American South in particular were concerned that albums by black artists would sell better to the area’s more heavily racist population if the artists faces weren’t pictured. This was done in many different ways. The reason why putting white faces on covers stood out so much for me is because it went along with a similar matter of the day: cover songs.
In the 1999 PBS documentary Record Row: The Cradle Of Rhythm & Blues,the topic of white artists covering songs from black artists was brought up. In that docu,the late Jerry Butler and Dick Clark gave counterpoints on the matter. Clark pointed out that most radio stations in the early civil rights era wouldn’t play original versions of songs by black artists. So,for example it was more common to hear Pat Boone’s infamous cover of “Tutti Fruiti” than Little Richard’s original. Clark contended that this was a big deal over nothing as the original artists eventually got their due.
Jerry Butler’s comment on that issue was that it was easier to feel a personal injury was less severe is one wasn’t experiencing it themselves. He cited the higher levels of sales by white cover versions of R&B/soul songs by black artists. And the economic/racial schisms behind it. So taking all this together,the elimination of a black presence on 50’s and some 60’s R&B/soul/jazz/doo-wop songs and album covers comes across as yet another method by which white Americans subsidize black Americans,their accomplishments and creative innovations.
Is any of this shocking today? In doing research for this article,it would seem this matter is rarely discussed online. Even as part of America’s musical history. There are some personal observations I have about the matter though. Seeing a white infant on the cover of a James Brown album was particularly eyebrow raising. Especially in light of JB asserting he was black and proud eight years after said album was released. As far as the Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart Of Mine? That album came out in 1966,the same year as the founding of Oakland California’s Black Panther Party.
Miles Davis is especially interesting in this case. His autobiography with Quincy Troupe made it clear many times that he resented,as he stated “white people always trying to take credit for what black people did”. I know some who cite Miles as being a reverse racist for saying such things,in fact. He was known to have vocally objected to having a blonde white woman on the original cover for his 1957 release Miles Ahead. This lead him to fight Columbia records for his wife Francis to appear on the cover of his 1960’s album Someday My Prince Will Come. In the end,Miles’ point was entirely reality based.
One topic Henrique Hopkins and I often discuss is the rap segment of Michael Jackson’s song “Black Or White”-where the rapped bridge states “its not about races,its’ about faces/places”-even saying “I’d rather hear both sides of the tale”. As of this writing and the presence of president elect Donald Trump and a strong resistance to the idea that racism is still a problem has me thinking a lot. Sure there are many people who feel blackness in America can stand up for itself on its own terms. At the same time,people should understand history so it doesn’t repeat itself (in some form) in the future.