Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The strangely selective racism of 1950s American LP covers: Little Richard made the cut, but James Brown didn't!

I was thoroughly enjoying a review in The Spectator by Roger Lewis - one of our great comic writers - when I came across this statement:

At home and in America, Little Richard and Ray Charles never had their faces prominently shown on album covers.

After reading on for a bit I suddenly thought, “Hang on! That can’t be right!” So I had a look online and discovered that (with one semi-exception) these two geniuses of popular 20th Century music had their faces prominently displayed on the covers of each of their first three American LPs, all released in the 1950s. Let's start with Brother Ray:

Okay, his picture's not that big on his first, eponymous release, but it's a cool, Jazz-tinged sort of design which hardly represents an attempt to downplay his blackness. As for Little Richard, I think we have to concede that if Specialty and, later, London Records were trying to disguise Mr. Penniman's racial origins, they were doing a spectacularly lousy job:

Why I thought it worth making the point that any racism Ray Charles and Little Richard may have suffered did not extend to their album covers is that many record companies in the 1950s and early '60s were outrageously, insultingly racist. James Brown, for instance, was evidently just too damned black for record racks:

The same went for a host of notable early R&B and rock 'n' roll artists:

Presumably Bill Doggett's riding in the trunk
Not on this album cover, evidently
...who appears to suffer from "white hand syndrome"
Where's Jimmy Reed? might have been a better title
Maybe that should be Leave?
I guess the fever killed him
A typical Leadbelly fan?
That last RCA album  was released in 1966, by which time the average American record buyer might have been expected to deduce that this probably wasn't a Mantovani recording. Weird.

I 'm not pretending to be quivering with indignation like some Guardian-reading rascism truffle-hound, but it would be interesting to know why it was decided that images of Little Richard and Ray Charles would be acceptable to white record-buyers, while it was felt that the likes of James Brown and Little Willie John might frighten the horses.

Despite this minor blip, Roger lewis's article is - as one would expect - well worth reading (hat-tip: SDG). You can find it here. Meanwhile's here's a characteristically uncontroversial and politically correct paragraph to whet your appetite:
Call me a crazy old physiognomist, but my theory is that you can always spot a lesbian by her big thrusting chin. Celebrity Eskimo Sandi Toksvig, Ellen DeGeneres, Jodie Foster, Clare Balding, Vita Sackville-West, God love them: there’s a touch of Desperate Dan in the jaw-bone area, no doubt the better to go bobbing for apples.


  1. I don't think it was racism at all,but something all of us black and white may one day experience,witness 'friendless in Scotland,'and that is ageism.Even the great James B.looked a bit dumpy in his tight fitting costumes and always seemed to me to be prematurely heading for middle age.Photos of old,pock-marked men slumped in a rocking chair like a sack of King Edwards (and that's just the producer) were unlikely to sell albums to the lovely bright things of the early 60's.
    Did'nt the Shadows also have album covers showing just their guitars err in shadow.

  2. The Shadows' LP without their faces on the cover was a 1970s Greatest Hits compilation - their faces were plastered all over their early releases. As for America, the marketing men might have thought that way - and some performers may have had faces better suited to radio - but I'm just not sure white teenage record-buyers would have cared - you listen to James Brown records and you can sort of guess the colour of his skin. Maybe it was done in the belief that it would worry parents rather than the actual purchasers. As for old-time blues musicians, isn't the fact that the performer is some craggy, clapped-out old black guy sort of the point of buying the record in the first place? It's hard to listen to Leadbelly and imagine he looks like Ricky Nelson!

  3. Thats all very well...and what about...and then there's...oh alright point(s) taken.
    I don't live alone and have some friends,but I do spend half my time inside a compound surrounded by walls twenty feet high.