Of supermen, pipes and barking dogs
The design of Young America, including Stevie in a box
During the opening months of 1971, Marvin Gaye was like Superman, flying through the airwaves of radio stations in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere, triumphing over adversaries with “What’s Going On,” the signature song of his repurposed life as Motown’s social conscience.
A few months earlier, Marvin was unhappy to be characterised as a superhero, his cape emblazoned with a manly “M” as he hovered above fictional broadcaster WHIT, rescuing a damsel in distress amid a collapsing radio mast. This was the cover of his latest album, Super Hits. As a result, at least two employees of Motown Records – and even the boss – felt the singer’s wrath. Yet, in later years, it seems that Marvin might have approved of “being” Superman after all.
Tom Schlesinger was appointed Director of Advertising and Creative Concepts at Motown in Detroit early in 1970. Among other tasks, he was to supervise the all-important imagery of the company’s output: the graphics, design and cover art of its album releases, as created by the likes of art director Curtis McNair and illustrator Carl Owens. The names of all three men appear on the back of Super Hits, a compilation of Gaye’s chart-riding singles from the first phase of his Motown career. Owens’ depiction of the cape-clad singer in flight is on the front. The LP was released in September 1970, while Marvin was in the studio, completing “What’s Going On.” The star’s arguments with Berry Gordy about his creative direction and, in particular, the message of his lyrics were still to come.
Marvin hated the cover of Super Hits, according to Barney Ales, who was Motown’s executive vice president and general manager at the time, and who had hired Tom Schlesinger a few months before. “He went bananas,” said Ales. “He called me, then he called Berry, then Berry called me.” The cartoon was at odds with the seriousness of the singer’s mindset; he wanted no longer to take marching – or marketing – orders from the record company. Ales promised to have album cover replaced after the first manufacturing run, although he never did.
The irony was that Schlesinger was just about the least corporate individual among Motown’s backroom believers. He was notorious for eye-grabbing garb, such as the jacket once described in the Detroit Free Press as a combination of “the best of Sgt. Pepper and an overthrown South American dictator.” He smoked a pipe, with different pipes to match his outfit. In the 1950s, Schlesinger had been a record promotion man through and through, hanging out in music joints in Detroit and Chicago, schmoozing local radio DJs. While at Mercury Records, he plugged a release called “The Ship That Never Sailed” by taking a ship’s wheel into radio stations. That was only because he couldn’t get a whole ship.
In 1955, according to Billboard, Schlesinger hawked the Crew-Cuts’ “The Barking Dog” by approaching every disc jockey in Detroit on all fours, crawling with a biscuit between his teeth. In 1957, Tom vigorously touted “O Mari” by popular Italian-American crooners the Gaylords, also on Mercury, although he might have missed the flipside, “The Magic Song,” the work of a pair of up-and-coming songwriters, Berry Gordy and Billy Davis. (It was a “rhythm novelty with a rock and roll beat,” judged Billboard.) Another of Schlesinger’s tricks was to drive a convertible around town with the top down, and turn up the radio when one of his records was played. He would pull over to the curb, park the vehicle and disappear, while the neighbourhood got to hear his promotional priority, loudly.
In light of these early, colourful years in the record industry, Tom’s choice of Marvin Gaye as superhero for Super Hits seems perfectly logical. The same applies to another of his controversial LP sleeves: Stevie Wonder in a box. This was for Signed, Sealed & Delivered, the first album self-produced by the 20-year-old wunderkind. The front cover – designed, again, by Curtis McNair, and photographed by Jim Hendin – was arguably more attractive than some of Wonder’s previous LP jackets, and no worse than many others released in 1970. Nonetheless, it got Schlesinger into trouble. Perhaps Stevie didn’t care for words stamped on the side of the large carton in which he was pictured: “Fragile,” “Handle With Care,” “Do Not Drop.”
Other design concepts were just as provocative – and entertaining. For Great Expectations, the one and only album made by British singer Kiki Dee for Motown, Schlesinger’s team plastered the front cover with multiple Union Jacks, in arresting red, white and blue. When the record company insisted that the U.K. edition of the LP used the same artwork, Motown’s licensee, EMI Records, was only able to push back by claiming that if the flags were used thus in Great Britain, royalties would be due to the Queen (they wouldn’t). So instead, the British artwork featured a sedate picture of Kiki.
Tom Schlesinger had arrived at Motown in 1970 thanks to his friendship with Barney Ales; the two met when the latter was also a promotion man, for Capitol Records in Detroit during the mid-1950s. After leaving Mercury Records in Chicago, Tom went to work in the motor city for Jay-Kay Distributing, a powerful industry force owned by John Kaplan. This was the same businessman who underwrote another Detroit distributorship, Aurora, which pumped early releases on the Tamla and Motown labels into radio stations and retail outlets. Aurora’s top salesman was Ales; it was there that he first met Berry Gordy and, in 1961, joined the Motown staff to head up promotion and marketing.
Schlesinger’s other major task of 1970 was to organise Motown’s tenth anniversary sales convention, held at San Francisco that August. Tom’s imagination was apparent from one of the gifts which every guest received: a 19th century pistol (fortunately, it was a replica). Another handout was a kimono; the conference theme was “Motown 10/70 Shanghai.” Some of the events took place on water, aboard an ancient trading ship moored in the city’s harbour. Perhaps that’s no surprise: Schlesinger hated flying. The journey from Detroit was his first on a plane, according to Ales. To get home afterwards, he took the train.
The most resonant artwork produced during Schlesinger’s two-year tenure at Motown was for the What’s Going On album, released in May 1971. Several years ago, Curtis McNair recalled challenging Tom’s selection of photographs for the cover as unsuitable, given the political commentary of the songs. Gaye happened to be in the Motown HQ in downtown Detroit, according to McNair, and was consulted directly. By this account, the artist got to choose, and Jim Hendin’s iconic shots of rain-soaked Marvin became part of music history.
And yet, when I posted on Twitter last year the cover imagery of Super Hits, who should I hear from but Marvin’s widow, Jan Gaye? “Don’t mess with the superhero magic,” she whispered. “He told me he liked it!” After all this time, perhaps Tom Schlesinger is vindicated, or at least forgiven.