Tom Wilkes: Ten Classic LP Covers from a Master of the Genre (and Ten Others That Are Just as Great)
The great Southern California based art director, designer and photographer Tom Wilkes, who died on June 28, left a lasting impact 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 presented 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 fish-eye lens, Tom Wilkes presented sleeves with meaning and beauty. He created art.
We tried to limit this list to ten, but there were so many great ones to chose from.
Wilkes' work on the classic second Cheech & Chong album, Big Bambu, replicated a pack of rolling papers.
Unlike nearly every other album designer, Wilkes somehow put entire bands on album covers without it seeming busy or confusing. (The Nudie suits don't hurt.)
Sometimes all he'd do is snap a portrait; but the result would be almost Mona-Lisa-esque.
With Dr. John, Wilkes created big backdrop, and then had the New Orleans pianist pose in front of it.
Yeah, Wilkes could engage you with long shots like Dr. John's, but he could also move in for a close up, which, coupled with the proper text design, would pop out of record store LP racks, like on this Phil Ochs record, Tape from California.
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.
This controversial cover for Ike & Tina Turner explodes out of the frame.
One of the artist's first covers was for a young LA outfit called Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.
Nothing to say about this one. Perfection. Captures a mood. Timeless.
Wilkes designed two iconic Emmylou Harris album covers. This one, for Blue Kentucky Girl, and Portrait.
A classic of power pop: the Flamin' Groovies' Shake Some Action
London/Polydor records refused to release Wilkes' commissioned cover for Stones' Beggar's Banquet in the States; as a protest, the band printed it in an all-white cover, with fancy wedding-invitation script.
Doug Dillard and Gene Clark made this under-appreciated masterpiece of the LA country rock scene; it featured some Byrds, a future Burrito Brother or two, and an Eagle. Track down "Out on the Side"; it'll blow your mind.
Wilkes captured essences, captured colors, captured mysterious stories and planted them on the cover. This mysterious story: What is Babs doing in the back of a rusty old pickup?
Wilkes' work for George Carlin helped redefine the comedian; in the 60s, Carlin wore a suit and was clean cut; he re-emerged in the early 1970s with a beard and long hair, and Wilkes presented him casually, on a stool, in a further effort to relax Carlin's image.
In the mid-70s, Wilkes designed this stunning cover for Hugh Masekela. It recalls the gorgeous portraits of Malian photographer Malick Sidibe.
Some of his commissions, like this one for Evie Sands, weren't top sellers, but the images are so strong, and the vibe so right on, that you want to track down the thing to hear the music that inspired the artist.
These two classics introduced a new generation to the Beatles in the 1970s and 80s. (These were our first albums, and we spent countless hours studying the matching photos.)
The artist could visit a nasty toilet with the Stones, but he could also present wholesome purity, as well.