Monday, January 14, 2008

Cooking With Gas - Stories Behind Latin Album Cover Art

This article appeared in a slightly different form in Wax Poetics Magazine, issue 12, Spring 2005

I can still remember the first time going down into the funky Times Square subway station in Manhattan in the mid 70s as a kid and being blown away by Jesse Moskowitz's Record Mart, a crammed joint selling both the latest and classic Latin music. The sinuous sounds coming from that urban oasis echoed down the tiled halls empty of commuters. There was a display in the window of album covers, and being a young artist, I was immediately drawn to the titillating illustrations and photographs, depicting for this virgin novice swirling worlds of the conga and trombone, sexy smiling mulatas and swaggering bandleaders strutting their stuff. The vibrant colors, obvious joy and exuberance of the musicians, as well as more troubling images of urban decay, outlaw criminality and Surrealist fantasy, grabbed me, wouldn’t let go. Because I wanted to know the story behind each cover, I wanted to hear the sounds seductively packaged within. The art set me up, suckered me into paying cash I didn’t have. Down in the subterranean record stacks I was reminded of my father’s wild tales of Cuba, an exotic place I had never been. His treasure trove of abused old records served as crucial visual aids to a lost world that was otherwise hard to imagine. As I grew older I realized that the LP jacket is far from being the mass-produced pulp of ephemeral unreality our quickie throw-away culture wants us to believe. Rather, it serves as a sacred talisman and Rosetta stone that unlocks the mysteries of identity and history, and artist/designers like Izzy Sanabria, Ely Besalel, Charlie and Yogi Rosario, Ron Levine, Chico Alvarez, Dominique, and in Brazil, Rogério Duarte and Hélio Oiticica, are the poet-seers of the vinyl realm, guiding us along the path to self knowledge. It is with this in mind that I share with the reader a little taste of the richness that lies behind the classic covers on the following pages.

Mongo Santamaria’s "Feelin’ Alright" LP was Izzy Sanabria’s first airbrush job. The year was 1970. The gleaming tool was fresh out of the box when disaster struck. Charlie Rosario, Sanabria’s assistant at the time, recalls that the pressure was really on due to a looming deadline when, during a routine cleaning operation at the kitchen sink, one of the precious intricate parts of the airbrush popped off and fell into the wash basin, disappearing seemingly forever down the drain. Izzy “freaked out because there was very little time to complete the art” relates Rosario. This job was not for a regular familiar client like Fania, but for a relatively new customer, Atlantic Records, and Izzy did not want to disappoint. A lot of desperate fishing about in the drain for the errant piece of equipment resulted in absolutely nothing but a finger-full of old food and gloppy hair. Yelling something like “We gotta get this damn thing if it kills us!,” Izzy rushed down stairs at break-neck speed to the basement of the building, Charlie in hot pursuit, where they found the super and excitedly explained their dilemma. After many anxious minutes of waiting, the designer and his assistant saw the super return with a huge wrench, with which he helped open up the building’s extensive plumbing, and by some miracle of the gods of graphic art, there was the wayward airbrush piece, shining dimly in the gook of a dismantled elbow joint, more precious than a diamond nestled in the deepest mine pit! The job was finished on time to the relief of all, and Izzy, always a flamboyant dresser, rushed out the door, portfolio nestled under his arm, draped in his special bullfighter jacket, and proceeded downtown, showing up at the offices of Atlantic no doubt looking like a pimped-out cross between Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. The cover hit the printer’s on time, but not before Atlantic’s art director “ruined” the cover with “corny lettering,” according to Sanabria. He still has the original art to this day among his most cherished archival possessions. Though others may differ with Izzy’s opinion of how the layout finally ended up, and the music on the LP seems a bit dated, one thing’s for sure: it was well worth it to go to the ends of the earth to find that pesky little airbrush piece!

Willie Colón’s early Fania album covers (1967-1975) trace a cinematic trajectory of the Latino as criminalized outlaw (with a dash of humor), starting with the tough street kid (El malo), and petty pool shark ("The Hustler"), graduating to thievery and organized crime ("Guisando/Doing A Job," "Cosa Nuestra"), leading to the inevitable incarceration and escape ("La Gran Fuga/The Big Break") and trial ("El juicio"), and ending as a hostage taking terrorist ("Lo mato"). Sanabria, who conceived this identity for Colón, explains how he hit on the unprecedented use of a mug shot for "La Gran Fuga": “I was always bumping heads at Fania, Jerry Masucci wanted complete control most of the time, but occasionally I was able to turn things around and be completely accepted. Typical was 'La Gran Fuga.' Willie’s whole bad-ass image was kind of a goof, though these kids really did hang in the street, some had been to prison, and I seriously wanted to play up on the whole gangster image to subvert it. The concept was ahead of its time, look at all those rappers’ album covers following in Willie’s footsteps! They handed me a photograph, which was the guys in prison outfits, escaping over the fence of a prison in PR. A funny half an idea, but it needed a story. I used that photograph, turned it into a black and white to make it look like a newspaper, and made a replica of the New York Daily News on the back. In the 60’s I had seen these posters of Black Panthers who were wanted by the FBI. Hippies were selling copies of the posters to dramatize oppression, and that was my inspriartion. The irony is, those mug shots are the cheapest damn photographs ever taken for an album cover! I went to the corner where there was one of these arcades. Four for a quarter. I wanted that bad quality! The prison numbers are his previous LP catalogue numbers. The fingerprints were taken from a post office Wanted poster. I pasted them into position, my friend Vinny Alonso and I wrote the copy ‘Wanted for exciting riots with his trombone,’ and the FBI was the ‘Freaks Bureau of Investigation.’ What made that album cover so controversial was that the FBI stopped the thing in its tracks because there was also a poster on the inside of the album, which was pasted around the city, and in Puerto Rico, advertising it, which asked people to turn Colón in to the FBI. Plus I did these tie-in radio ads. So Willie’s grandmother was hysterical, they were telling her ‘Ay, they want your grandson!’ Soon the Feds became aware of it, and what we found out was that it’s illegal to put anything on the market that will in any way give the impression that the FBI is behind this. You can’t do this kind of parody, you see. Whereas the posters these hippies were putting out were exact replicas, and were just helping the FBI’s propaganda. What they had them do was turn the album covers around for display in the stores, so you were looking at the back of the LP, and all subsequent printings could only say ‘Wanted’ without the FBI part. The albums that have the ‘Wanted by the FBI’ with the poster inside are the collectors’ items!”

Producer and jazz musician Joe Cain was at the helm at Tico records for many funky Joe Cuba albums, and two of them stand out cover-wise: "Bustin’ Out" (1972) and "Cocinando la salsa" (1976). The principal parties involved discuss their unique qualities below. Ely Besalel on "Bustin’ Out": “We went around the corner from my studio to 53rd Street where there were some unoccupied brownstones, it was one of the worst times for real estate in New York, even mid-town looked like the ghetto. The band went to the stoop, grabbed trash cans, and started banging away, playing their congas and singing, and I’m in the middle of the street shooting pictures, dodging traffic! I looked around at other covers and said why isn’t this kind of thing [documentary social-realism] being done for a major Latin artist? I mean black and white for the Joe Cuba Sextet in the age of affordable four color printing? Unheard of!” Ely used graffiti lettering, a technique previously employed by Sanabria. Graffiti brought street credibility with youth appeal and also signified a gritty authenticity opposed to the glitz of the Palladium days. “I hated the graffiti on the walls everywhere,” Izzy says of his early Ray Barretto cover "Acid," “but it was a fact of city life; it might have looked like I did it slap-dash, but I labored over it!” With "Bustin’ Out," Besalel created a documentary-style barrio street rumba scene in sepia, burned around the edges like the image had survived rioting or been saved from the garbage. Cuba: “Headbands and bellbottoms were in. That was the first time we posed in our street clothes. Earlier we used to be all flash, Palladium style. We made a racket! My t-shirt said Young Devils, my stick-ball team. I didn’t know it was going to be black and white at first, but it showed our new hard style of music.” Cuba’s "Cocinando la salsa" documents another side of the bandleader, that of host and cook. Ron Levine comments: “Yeah, that’s Joe’s cooking, very tasty. I guess it’s like a salsa album, right? Name like that, pretty obvious it’s capitalizing on the term salsa. "Sofrito" [a stone funk fusion album by Mongo Santamaria, designed by Levine] is a nice cooking album too! Mongo made the skillet of food you see on the cover himself, we shot it at Jerry’s place.” Cuba on "Cocinando la salsa": “I love to cook, experimental dishes especially. This picture shows me cookin’ all the good Puerto Rican stuff at La Asia No.1 Restaurant, a Cuban-Chinese joint on the West Side where we used to hang out.” Food is culture, and congueros like Cuba, Barretto, and Santamaria cook with their hands, be it drum or frying pan.

While most Latin covers never strayed too far, another more radical body of work was forming in the apartment studio of a unique thinker and fine artist, Brooklyn’s Charlie Rosario. Charlie was consistently the most outrageous designer of the 70s in Latin music. Indeed, his daring puts him on par with the best of any LP genre, at any time. There is a story behind every Rosario cover, and Charlie remembers it all: “It was ‘Hey man, let’s break the monotony!’ because Izzy was doin’ just about everything. He was basically an illustrator with great ideas, I followed all his covers from when I was a kid and I was amazed by his creativity, but I said ‘What am I waiting for?’ I can sculpt, I can photograph, I can paint. So I just broke away and did my thing. I was the first to do sculpture graphics! Orchestra Harlow’s "Live In Quad" was weird, totally spontaneous, I just engraved this copper by hand, we had to photograph that in black light, long exposure, so it would really shine. Had to make it a gatefold, my stuff never fit their requirements. The metal kept puffing up so I had to beat it back down with my fist. Felt funny to be hittin’ Larry in the nose like that! For Charlie Palmieri’s "Electro duro," the two hands are made of Colt 45 beer cans. And I drank like ten of them and said lemme start hammering away, two hundred nails, man! I only stopped when I banged my fingernail! The silver in the back is a printing plate, and the gold part is one of them cracker cans. The cover really blew people’s heads apart man, they weren’t ready for that. I showed the sculpture to Charlie Palmieri at a dance, and he said ‘This is my next cover!’ because it was all electric organ tunes! I came up with the title, ‘duro’ means hard like metal but also like ‘strong.’ Now the "Kako" cover [on TR Records], Kako Bastor’s an outta sight percussionist that made mystical music. I made a sculpture of a tribal guy playing a drum, he’s missing an arm. The concept is music is as primitive as the first heartbeat or when the sun showed up for the first time. As time goes by [everything man made] breaks apart, made of materials from the earth, like the pyramids in Giza, so that’s why he looks like he’s made of sand, sittin’ on top of a pyramid with the sun on his shoulder. I made this imitation beach at 3 a.m. in my apartment with sand from the boiler room. Poured it on the living room floor! I had back projections of Puerto Rico, the sky and waves right on the wall behind. But it was too limited in the photo angle, too dinky lookin’! So I was gettin’ tired and silly and my brother said why don’t we pour alcohol over the figure, set it on fire like he’s playin’ so hot. Well that was the worst thing we could do! The damn paper caught on fire, the whole beach went up in smoke, we started panicking, sand all over the rug, alarm went off, my sister yellin.’ So then I went to a real beach, Coney Island. I had bought this giant lizard, a gila monster, from the pet store, and some potted cactus plants, to make the picture more prehistoric. I built this giant pyramid, dug out a trench and photographed it looking up so this 7 inch clay sculpture looked huge, monumental. Thing was, the lizard ran away down the beach so the shoot ended with me chasin’ him all down along the boadwalk! Back in the studio, I took this aerial photo of Puerto Rico that I had, with sun streaks through the clouds, turned it upside down, did a double exposure, and it looked like the drum was exploding with light! I used to go from one extreme to another, brakin’ all the rules, making history, it kept me from being bored. The Tipica ‘73 cover ['La Candela'] is the only Latin tapestry on a record jacket! I wove that thing from wool in fire colors, but it caused a fight at Inca Records, they didn’t want spend for a gatefold on it, and it didn’t fit in the regular confinement of the square. That project took forever, I was freaking out, time was runnin’ out, so I got my family and friends on it, we’d have a party, get them all high so they’d really get into the work, and it was like ‘Everybody’s gonna sew here till our eyeballs fall out, man!’”

The Covers

Discography (left to right, top to bottom)

Page 1

Desi Arnaz
RCA Victor P 198, c. 1940s

Beny Moré
Canciones de las Antillas
RCA Victor MLK 3085, c. 1950s

Afro-Cuban Jazz; The Music of Chico O’ Farrill,
Supervised by Norman Granz
Cleff MG C-689, 1950
Design: David Stone Martin

Cal Tjader Quintet
Cal Tjader Quintet
Fantasy 3232, 1956
Design and illustration:
Betty Brader

Joe Loco and his Quintet
Viva Mambo
Tico LP 1013, 1954
Art and design: Sandoval,
Lee Myles Assoc.

Orquesta Aragon
Cha Cha Cha
RCA Victor MLK 3070, c. 1950s

Pacheco y Su Charanga
Pacheco y su charanga
con Elliot Romero
Alegre LPA 801, c. 1961
Art and design: Izzy Sanabria

Fajardo, Chapotin, Orefiche, Conjunto Casino
Cuban Dance Festival; 4 Bands !!
Toreador T-539, c. 1965
Art & Design: Ely Besalel

Sabu Martinez
Sabu’s Jazz Espagnol
Alegre, 1961
Design and illustration:
Izzy Sanabria

The Alegre All-Stars
The Alegre All-Stars In
“Lost and found” Vol. 3
Alegre SLPA 8430, 1966
Design, concept, art:
Izzy Sanabria

Arsenio Rodriguez y su conjunto
Sabroso y caliente
Antilla MLP-586, c. 1950s

Cachao y Su Ritmo Caliente
Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature: “Descargas”
Panart 2092, 1957

Joe Cuba
Joe Cuba
Embajador E6003, c. 1960s

Various Artists
Charlie Palmieri: Lo Ultimo
con La Playa Sextet, Emilio Reyes
Embajador E 6001, c. 1960s

Cal Tjader
Mambo with Tjader!
Fantasy 3326
Illustration and design: Wanek

Forbidden Cuba in the 80’s:
Grupo Afrocuba Smooth Jazz Moods
RMM RMD82235, 1998
Design and photo imaging: Pablo Yglesias
Photo: Jorge Garcia Torres
Art director: Carlo Angelo Moralishvili

Mongo Santamaria
Mongo Santamaria’s Afro-Cuban Drums
SMC LP 592, 1952

Various, incl. Ignacio Piñero y los Roncos
Festival In Havana
Riverside RLP 4005, 1955
Design: Gene Gogerty

World Pacific Presents The Music of Cuba:
Various Artists
El jazz cubano
World Pacific/Capitol/Blue Note CDP 0777 7 80599 2 9, 1993
Design: Patrick Roques
Painting: Pablo Yglesias

Luis Gasca
Fantasy F-9504, 1976
Art direction: Phil Carroll
Art: Jamie Putnam

Page 2

Ray Rodriguez and his Orchestra
Alegre LPA-869, 1969
Design, photography, illustration: Ely Besalel

Orchestra Harlow
Heavy Smokin’
Fania 331, 1966
Photo: Lee Kraft
Art director: Izzy Sanabria

Joe Bataan
Subway Joe
Fania SLP 345, 1968
Art director: Izzy Sanabria
Photo: Marty Topp

Willie Bobo
Uno dos tres/1•2•3
Verve V/V6-8648, 1966
Design: Acy R. Lehman
Photo: Charles Stewart

Johnny Zamot
Tell It Like It Is
Decca DL 74945

T’n’T Boys
Sex Symbols/Simbolos Sexuales
Cotique CS-1038
Art director: Izzy Sanabria
Photo: Bradley Olman

Tito Puente and his Orchestra
El Rey Tito Puente/The King
Tito Puente
Tico SLP-1172, 1968
Art and concept: Charlie Rosario

Eddie Bastian and his Orchestra
Hippies Boogaloo
Hopes 885

Ray Barretto
Fania SLP 346, 1967
Design: Izzy Sanabria
Photography: Marty Topp

The Latin Souls
Tiger Boo-Ga-Loo
Kapp KS 3553

Mongo Santamaria
Feelin' Alright
Atlantic 1567, 1970
Illustration: Izzy Sanabria
Design: Haig Adishian

Monguito “El Único” y
su conjunto
De todo un poco
Fania LP 386
Art and design: Izzy Sanabria

Eddie Palmieri
Tico SLP-1194, 1970
Art and design: Ely Besalel
La Lupe
La Lupe es la reina/La Lupe - The Queen
Tico LP 1192, 1969
Design: Ely Besalel
Photo: Warren Flagler

The LeBron Brothers
I Believe
Cotique CS-1022
Design: John Murello
Photo: Charles Stewart

Cal Tjader
Soul Sauce
Verve V-8614, 1964
Design: Acy Lehman
Photo: Murray Laden

Tom Zé
Tom Zé
Rozenblit LP 50.010, 1968
Design and Photo: Officina Programacao Visual-SP
Art: Satoru

Gilberto Gil
Gilberto Gil
Philips R 765.087 L, 1969
Art and design: Rogério Duarte and Antonio Dias
Photo: David Drew Zingg

Jorge Ben
Jorge Ben
Philips F. 765.100L, 1969
Photo: Johnny Salles
Design: Lincoln
Illustration: Albery

Tom Zé
Todos os olhos
Continental SLP 10121
Concept: Décio Pignatari
Photo: Reinaldo de Moraes
Design: M. Pedro Ferreira
and F. Eduardo de Andrade

Page 3

Silvestre, El Rey del Canto Afro Cubano y Su Orquesta
Oriza: Afro-Cuban Rhythms
Seeco CELP 4260, 1958
Design and art: L. Pearl

Mongo Santamaria
Up from The Roots
Atlantic SD 1621, 1972
Concept: Izzy Sanabria
Art direction and design: Richard Mantell

Emilio Barreto
Santisimo en ritual
Luz Productions LUZ 0002, 2001
Design and digital imaging: Pablo Ellicott Yglesias

Los Pleneros de la 21/Conjunto Melodia Tropical
Puerto Rico, Ruerto Rico:
Mi tierra natal
Shanachie 65001, 1989
Art: Manny Vega

Jaime de Jesus y su cuarteto ‘Alma Alegre’
El Plenero
Ninfa NLP 03 1083
Art and Photo: R. Oliva
Model: Deda Hunt
Design: Hispanoamerica Advertising Agency

Daniel Ponce
New York Now
Celluloid/OAO CELL 5005, 1983
Design: Felipe Orrego
Type setting: Elliott Dunderdale
Layout production: Thi-Linh Le

Harlem River Drive
Harlem River Drive Featuring Eddie Palmieri and
Jimmy Norman
Roulette SR 3004, 1971
Design: Ruby Mazur’s Art Dept.
Art: based on a photo by Leonard Freed

The Jimmy Castor Bunch
It’s Just Begun
RCA LSP 4640, 1972
Design: Frank Mulvey
Artist: Corrigan
Art Director: Acy Lehman

Harvey Averne Barrio Band
The Harvey Averne Barrio Band
Heavy Duty SLP 101, 1971
Concept: Harvey Averne
Front cover art: Ludovico de Luigi/Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ravagnan, Veneto, Italia
Back cover photo: Bob Gruen
Design: Izzy Sanabria

Joe Cuba Sextet
Bustin’ Out
Tico CLP 1300, 1972
Design and photography:
Ely Besalel

Cortijo and his Time Machine/Cortijo y
su máquina de tiempo
Coco CLP 108, 1974
Photo, art, design, and concept : Ely Besalel

El Chicano
Kapp KS 3640, 1971
Art direction: John C. LeProvost
Design: Virginia Clark
Photography: Eddie Caballero

Mongo Santamaria
Vaya XVS-38, 1975
Art and design: Ron Levine

Warner Brothers BS 2584, 1972
Illustration: Jesús Helguera and
Galas de Mexico, S.A.
Design: John and Barbara Casado
Art direction: Chris Whorf

Pyramid of the Moon
Columbia KC 32451, 1973
Design and photography: Bruce Steinberg

Love Is...
Fania XSLP 00478, 1974
Concept: Bill Garretson
Illustration: Izzy Sanabria
Design: Izzy Sanabria

Thousand Finger Man
Solid Sate SS 18066, 1969
Art direction: Frank Gauna
Photography: Chuck Stewart

Coco CLP 106, 1975
Art direction: Izzy Sanabria
Design: Chico Alvarez
Illustration: Walter Velez

Santana’s Greatest Hits
Columbia PC 33050, 1974
Photograph: Joel Baldwin
Design: John Berg

Page 4

Willie Colón
La gran fuga/The Big Break
Fania SLP 394, 1971
Concept and design:
Izzy Sanabria

Willie Colón
El Juicio
Fania (S)LP 00424, 1972
Design: Izzy Sanabria
Illustration: Aggie Whelane

Ray Barretto
Fania SLP 00456, 1973
Design and shirt: Walter Velez/WE-2 Graphis, Inc.
Photography: Roberto Schneider

Hector Rivera con Tony Molina
Lo máximo
Tico CLP 1324, 1974
Art, design, photography:
WE-2 Design, Izzy Sanabria, Yogi Rosario
Illustration: Walter Velez

Azuquita y su Orquesta Melao
Pura salsa
Vaya VS-34, 1975
Art direction and design:
Izzy Sanabria

Ralphy Santi y su conjunto
Ralphy Santi y su conjunto
TR 132X, 1977
Design: “The Big Red”
Design Studio

Eddie Palmieri
The Sun of Latin Music
Coco CLP 109XX, 1974
Painting and graphic design: Charlie Rosario
Photo: Gary Mason

Francisco “Kako” Bastor
TR, 1970s
Art, photography, design: Charlie Rosario

Charlie Palmieri
Coco CLP-111, 1974
Art and design (“sculpture graphics”): Charlie Rosario
Photography: Gary Mason,
Yogi Rosario

Orchestra Harlow/Larry Harlow
Fania QXSLP# 00472, 1974
Art and design (“metalgraphics”): Charlie Rosario
Photography: Gary Mason

Conjunto Melao
Conjunto Melao
TR 1976
Concept, art, photo and design: Charlie Rosario

Tipica ‘73
La candela
Inca XSLP 1043, 1975
Art design and concept:
Charlie Rosario

Hector Lavoe
Fania JM 0052, 1978
Photography: Yoshi Ohara
Layout and design: Michael Ginsburg/Gazebo Group
Art director: Alberta Dering

Ray Barretto
Fania SLP 552, 1979
Art: Jorge Vargas
Concept and art direction and design: Izzy Sanabria,
Latino Communications, Inc.

Joe Cuba
Cocinando la Salsa (Cookin’ The Sauce)
Tico JMTS-1405, Series 0698, 1976
Photography: Lee Marshall
Design: Ron Levine

Ismael Rivera y sus cachimbos
Esto fue lo que trajo el barco
Tico CLP 1305, 1972
Design and illistration: Ely Besalel

Sonora Ponceña
Sonora Ponceña
Inca SLP 1033, 1972
Art design: WE-2 Design
Art direction: Izzy Sanabria
Illustration: Walter Velez

Sonora Ponceña
Inca JMIS-1072, 1979
Concept, illustration and design: Ron Levine

Eddie Palmieri
Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo
Epic 35523, 1978
Photo: Jim Houghton
Design: Paula Scher

Fania All Stars
Live in Japan, 1976
Fania No. 116, 1976
Art, concept, and title lettering: Ron Levine

The designers:

Photo of Jorge Vargas courtesy of Jorge Vargas

"Here is my photo...25 or 30 years ago...(my hair is almost white now). This was my studio in Long Island (IT IS ALWAYS ON MY MIND...). By the way, you can see in the backgroud some album covers I did on the wall and...of course, no computers. Those where the days my friend. Great memories, with Izzy and the latin world. The music, the culture; it's our roots...and, 30 years later, people are taking about it again." - Jorge Vargas

Photo of Steve Quintana III courtesy Steve Quintana III

"The Joe Bataan "Salsoul" cover was interesting - I put a lot of jokes in thre, a lot of details of New York in that painting, the board I did it on was really big, and when I was finished I took it to show the guys at Mericana and one of them said - where is Joe? Put Joe's face on there somewhere, we want to see him on there! Man, I was not happy about that - it was finished and I wanted to get paid and move on to the next thing, you know? So, at the last minute, I had to air brush in there a portrait of him. I still don't think it goes, but they loved it over there. Anyway they say it's a classic album, maybe but I liked the first version better - the original painting was destroyed in a fire." - Steve Quintana III

Photo of Charlie and Yogui Rosario building sets at Carnegie Hall for the Tico-Alegre All Stars show, May 24, 1974; courtesy Charlie Rosario; photo by Dominique; cover designed by Angelo Velazquez, interior by Yogui Rosario

Photo of Rogério Duarte: By Milla Petrilho/Courtesy Rogério Duarte and Ana de Oliveira

“To me, Tropicalismo represented the synthesis between spirituality and Marxism, the people’s naive creativity and political militancy. The designer is committed to anonymity, like the artisans who are recognized by their work and not by their names. I have changed the visual arts in Brazil and I am acknowledged for it now to a certain extent, but not popularly because my work is more erudite. Our album covers represent Brazil itself: all it’s conflicts and joys, all it’s milk and cocoa, all it’s naked girls and starving children in the streets, all it’s richness and misery! Latin America: the 3RD world wailing in front of the gates of the first world!”
—Rogério Duarte

Photo of Ron Levine: Courtesy Ron Levine

“I look back at the 70s, it was the heyday for salsa, it was really fun, wild, and the friendships that I made were great. There was always a party. Jerry Masucci at Fania was a wonderful friend and mentor to me, we treated each other with respect. Tito Puente was a gentleman, Celia Cruz was a sweetheart. A year before he died, Masucci called me up to do another fantasy painting for a Ponceña cover, and he said ‘I miss you man, I love you,’ and he didn’t just talk out through the mouth to me, he was usually a very closed off kind of guy. I was sad when Jerry passed.”—Ron Levine

Photo of Izzy Sanabria and Walter Velez: Courtesy Izzy Sanabria Archives

“Before I started to design Latin album covers, they were usually put together by the printers. They'd get a photo and then put down the type/titles with their eyes closed. The album covers did not have much importance to anyone, it was just some small market. I gave up my job at an advertising agency to devote myself to improving the image of Latinos by combining Music and Art. Just as great works of art reflect social, religious and political views at different periods of world history, these covers should also reflect the same things in relation to our music and culture throughout 50 years. Am I flattered and thrilled about ‘Cocinando’? Damn right I am. Am I proud? Damn right I am. And to those Latinos picking up this book, I hope you will share my pride. If you're a non-Latino, I hope and expect that this book will help shed some light on this small part of our visual and commercial Pop culture.” —Izzy Sanabria

“[Our] aesthetic forces you to deal with being simultaneously enlightened and offended. [It] display[s]a keen sensitivity to universal fears, fantasies, frustrations, and stupidities. In essence, Raunch and Taste. Taste that can only be achieved through craftsmanship, dedication to the truth (though somewhat stretched), and polish.”
—Walter Velez

Photo of Yogi Rosario: Courtesy Charlie Rosario

" I loved working on the album covers - it did not pay well, but Latin music is in my blood and I would never trade those years for anything. I love making collages, and I used to have a whole stack of magazine pictures and photos and books just for doing collages. The carving I did for the 'Pacheco Greatest Hits' was a funny story - they ended up putting a sticker over the flute because Joe Cain was afraid it would look like Pachecko was sucking a you know what. I didn't see it that way at all, but in the last minute they slapped that ugly black sticker on there covering it up. I was mad about that, but at the same time I didn't want people getting the wrong idea." - Yogui Rosario

Photo of Angelo Velazquez courtesy of Angelo Velazquez

"Pablo, we may have created these album covers, but that was a long time ago, and you're the one that's making sure that people know who we are and what we've accomplished. At one point last night Charlie told me 'Angelo, I just feel so damn proud, because I thought all the work we did was forgotten. I never thought anyone would care enough to do this, or that we would ever get any recognition.' God bless you, brother. - Angelo Velazquez in a personal communication

Photo of Charlie Rosario: Courtesy Charlie Rosario

“I was continually trying to challenge myself with these covers, to go beyond. I didn’t care really about the ‘market’ or the buyer or whatever. I loved the music, knew a lot of the musicians. I wanted to take this stuff as far out as it could get!” —Charlie Rosario

Photo of Chico Alvarez: Chico Alvarez

“You can say that I gave up the business because the art of the album cover was "lost" when the CD was invented. There is just no way that I can appreciate art that is supposed to be bigger than life, when it is in such a small format. Album cover art was crucial to the selling of the record, and the artists who mastered it were the “chosen few.” Today, anyone with a computer can design a cover. Like Frank Gauna and Walter Velez, there were a lot of guys (and ladies too I imagine) who worked on the album covers simply because it was their gig, but who would have preferred designing in another field, unlike Izzy and myself, who dedicated ourselves almost exclusively to that particular genre, a specialized field you might say, to the (almost) exclusion of everything else. I've never taken a lesson in either fine or commercial art in my life. The only courses I took where night classes at School of Visual Arts in airbrush techniques and a very good course in the layout and preparation of art for offset printing. In those days that was the equivalent of taking a course in computer graphics. Yes I did have an art teacher in High School, as well as an art teacher in grade school in Cuba, but I can't remember anything about them. I think that I either developed my skills through instinct or they came to me through geneolgy - my mother was an artist.” —Chico Alvarez

Photo of Ely Besalel: Courtesy Ely Besalel

“I know production very well, so I could control the design and printing processes even though I couldn’t translate my ideas instantaneously the way you can now with computers. Sometimes an idea never made it off the sketch pad! It was like pulling teeth with these people to get your name in the credits. Morris Levy of Roulette Records screamed and threw me out of his office once because I told him his idea for a cover was in poor taste.”
—Ely Besalel

Photo of Hélio Oiticica: Courtesy Editora Abril and Ana de Oliveira

“Before anything else it is necessary to clarify my interest for dance, for rhythm, in my particular case it came from a vital necessity for a disintellectualisation [...]. It was therefore, an experience of greater vitality, indispensable, particularly in the demolition of preconceived ideas and stereotypification, etc....[my] environmental much more than macaws and banana trees: it is the consciousness of a non-conditioning to the established structures, therefore, highly revolutionary as a whole. Any conformism, being it intellectual, social or existential, is out of its main idea." - Helio Oiticica (conceptual artist and designer of the cover for Gal Costa's "Legal" album, 1970)

Photo of Izzy Sanabria at Latin NY Magazine: By Charles J. Gonzalez, Courtesy Izzy Sanabria Archives

"Just as the great works of art reflect social, religious and political views at different periods of world history, these covers ...also reflect the same things in relation to our music and culture throughout 50 years." - Izzy Sanabria