No matter how you felt in the 1970s about the jazz released by CTI Records, you certainly were mesmerized by Pete Turner's cover photos. Each cover offered a sensual explosion of wet, loud color and impossibly detailed images of nature and primitive life in Africa and South America.
The covers were so stunning that they often seemed too good to be album covers, leaving you a little dumbstruck about what to do with them. File them with your other records? Leave them out so friends and dates could see them? Slip them into plastic? One guy I knew stood them up on his shelf like family photos. The covers were designed to provoke an emotional reaction, and they often wound up making you feel like a wealthy art collector who also happened to like music.
In Part 2 of my conversation with Pete, the photographer talks about his breakthrough covers for A&M and CTI Records; the images used for Eumir Deodato's Prelude, Stanley Turrentine's Sugar and Kenny Burrell's God Bless the Child; and his three favorite album covers:
JazzWax: A Day in the Life for Wes Montgomery is an odd cover, isn’t it?
Pete Turner: Yes it is. It showed an ashtray filled with cigarette butts, with Wes on the back in a smaller image. It represents a day in the life. The mood we were shooting for is what someone feels when waking up in the morning, looking at the ashtray and saying, “This isn’t going to work.” It’s symbolic, with the lipstick on the cigarette butts.
JW: Was there any push back on the ashtray cover?
PT: No way, man. After that album came out you’d drive down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and look at Tower Records when they used to have all those album covers up against the wall. These albums would be popped up real big. They also stood out in the bins. That’s what I wanted to achieve.
JW: Shortly after Creed Taylor founded CTI Records in the late 1960s, he began using high-gloss covers. Was this possible due to some new technology?
PT: Actually the albums were laminated. Creed wanted those albums to be first class. He didn’t want to skimp on packaging. He realized early on that packaging was the way to go. Frankly, we could still be doing those covers if it hadn’t been for CDs. [laughing]. As soon as CDs came in, they killed the visual part of the music experience.
JW: Did they send you on photo shoots for CTI or were all the cover photos coming out of your library?
PT: Again, it’s not “they.” It was Creed. We think corporately today but back then Creed controlled it all. When you don’t do group think, you get more creative work. For one album called Soul Flutes, which featured four flutes, I couldn’t think of anything in my library that would work. I said to Creed, “What about shooting a beautiful pair of lips? Not the kind you see in Vogue. Let’s get an black model with great lips and we’ll paint them so they have a really different look.” Creed said, "I love it." So yes, I did shoot some of them.
JW: What was Creed like to work with back then?
PT: Quiet and very unassertive. He knew exactly what he wanted, and if he didn’t like something he’d let you know. But that was rare. We were always on the same page. I just liked the guy. He was straight up, and we got along fine. Ultimately, we both got what we wanted. [Creed Taylor pictured with Wes Montgomery]
JW: You and Creed took an approach with CTI that was somewhat counterintuitive—that the cover could be as artistic or even more so than the music inside.
PT: What blew me away then and still does is that listeners used to take the albums and open them up where their turntable was. They’d listen to the sounds and look at the pictures. I had a whole audience back then. It’s a shame people can’t enjoy album art any more.
JW: What’s the image on Eumir Deodato’s green Prelude album from 1972?
PT: In 1959 I had photographed a shadow at Africa’s Zimbabwe Ruins, which date back to the dawn of time. That image was already in my library.
JW: What’s happening on the cover of Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar?
PT: Back in the 1960s I had done a series for Look magazine called “Black Is Beautiful." The image on the cover of Sugar is an outtake from that shoot, of a mother licking a baby’s foot. Some people think it’s a sexual thing, but it’s not.
JW: Which are your three favorite album covers?
PT: I’d have to say Wave, Road Song and Jobim’s Stone Flower. Antonio was a great guy. We got along really well. I once asked him to pose nude and he said no problem. I wanted an embryonic figure. So he posed in a fetus position and I shot him straight down from my balcony.
JW: Was the image ever used?
PT: No. it has never been seen. I didn’t like how it turned out.
JW: How many were used for your book, The Color of Jazz?
PW: A good percentage. Ashley Kahn wrote the introduction and the content inside, Quincy Jones wrote the foreword and Creed wrote the afterward. It’s not talked about, but every image for the book was rescanned. So these are pristine images, and the reproduction is pretty darn good.
JW: Where did you come up with the idea for the book’s cover? It’s an eyeball on glazed canned peaches.
PT: That was Creed’s idea. It’s the cover of Joe Farrell’s Canned Funk album. Creed suggested I use the cover cropped because it grabs you. Creed still has those great natural, commercial, artistic instincts.
JW: Did you get all the album covers that you wanted into the book?
PT: Oh yes. I had total control.
JW: When I went through the book, I was blown away by the stories behind each image. I wanted the book to be four times larger—the Complete Pete Turner Covers.
PT: You don’t know half the hassle that publishers put me through. I had this thing turned down a few times. Publishers are afraid of their shadows today. It’s the disposable world we live in. All they’re interested in is the next title.
JW: Give me a break—it’s only $29 at Amazon.
PT: I know. It’s a lot of work to produce a book at a high level, and you don’t make a dime.
JW: People who think CTI Records were too slickly produced.
PT: Granted, Creed had a roster of musicians he used regularly. But he gave those artists a glorious opportunity to make wonderful music.
JW: Do people ever come up to you and say they like the album covers but don't like the music?
PT: Never. I never heard a negative word about them. The kinds of comments I get are like your comments or “How did you ever get that image or color?”
JW: By any measure, your work is stunning and in many ways influenced a generation of advertising and magazine art directors in the 1980s.
PT: It all started with Creed. We had that meeting when I was a kid in the army and he loved my work. That’s the thing about Creed. He worked with the artists he liked and formed teams that produced highly creative work. Success in the arts is always built on great teams.
JW: Were any of your covers an accident?
PT: During the Vietnam war a helicopter took me to a volcano in Hawaii so I could photograph it for a client. After the helicopter dropped me off, I looked up at the insect-like machine hovering against the desolation and photographed it. We later used the image for Kenny Burrell’s God Bless the Child. People have always thought it was taken in Vietnam. It was shot in Hawaii.
JW: Do you enjoy looking at your album covers?
PT: Yes, very much. They give me great pleasure. But I don’t connect them with the music inside. That’s because I didn’t hear the music when we were creating the covers. Creed knew what the records sounded like, but the albums were never ready for me to hear. So I don’t link the two.
JW: Do you ever look at one of your covers now and have second thoughts about the image used?
PT: A few, but for the most part I worked closely with an art director and made sure things were right from the start.
JazzWax pages and prints: As I mentioned yesterday, Pete Turner's book, The Color of Jazz, features vivid color reproductions of his jazz album covers as well as the story behind each photograph and how, where and when each was taken. The book is available online at Amazon here for $29.
Pete also sells limited edition prints of his album covers and other images for between $3,600 and $5,000. You can learn more about these images at Pete's website here or through the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles here.