In Part 1 of this series about album covers shot in Los Angeles , I described the search for where Art Pepper stood, broken sax in hand, and where a dozen L.A. hip-hop artists gathered in a graffiti-tagged alley. Part 2 continues me and photographer Bobby Chakrabarti's adventure as we scoured the Southland for locations captured in LP photos.
Stop #3: Hollywood: Melrose and Rossmore
The Album: The D.O.C.: No One Can Do It Better (Ruthless, 1989).
In the late 1980s, The D.O.C. was a fast-rising star out of the Ruthless camp (N.W.A., Dr. Dre, Eazy E, et. al.). A gifted rapper originally from Dallas, The D.O.C. relocated to L.A. to work with Dr. Dre and this, his debut album, scorched the hip-hop charts with singles like "It's Funky Enough." No One Can Do It Better eventually hit #1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts but then, in late 1989, The D.O.C. injured his larynx in a car accident. It derailed his career momentum, though he stayed on as a go-to songwriter and released two subsequent albums. Recent advances in throat surgery may make a fuller recovery possible.
For the cover of No One Can Do It Better, the D.O.C. stands in front of a tall statue, upon which is inscribed a verse from 1 Timothy 6:15: "King of Kings, Lord of Lords."
The Search: This was easy; I had actually driven past the statue in the past and immediately thought, "Hey, it's the D.O.C. statue." It graces the front of Christ the King Catholic Church, just south of Melrose Ave. on Rossmore. The statue dates back to the early 1960s when the parish commissioned it to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Standing nearly 20 feet tall, the statue is made of Italian marble and came from the hands of designer A.J. Arany.
Attempts to reach The D.O.C. were unsuccessful but I did track down the original photographer, David Roth. At the time, Roth was working with Atlantic Records and ended up also shooting press photos for Ruthless singer (and future Dr. Dre wife) Michel'le, R&B crooner Keith Sweat, and the short-lived N.W.A. female spin-off, H.W.A. (aka Hoes Wit Attitude). Roth didn't pick the Christ the King Catholic Church location but told me he was fairly certain it wasn't Atlantic's choice either: "[Ruthless] weren't so keen about working within that structure of Atlantic Records. [The shoot] was pretty unstructured just because those guys wouldn't do that many sit-downs with the art department," he said, laughing.
The album cover makes it look as if the statue was in a dark cemetery, rather than a well-light, open street corner and Roth recalls that it was their goal to dramatize the shot. "We want to light it so it looked artificial: bright colors, heavier shadows," he recalled. "We wanted to make it seem a little more different than if you were just driving by it." Roth put a strobe light on The D.O.C., "separately from the statue itself, just to make him pop away from it." The D.O.C. and Ruthless must have been happy with the results: not only did they use photos from the shoot for the album cover, but they revisited the same session for the cover of "It's Funky Enough," where The D.O.C. either sat or kneeled beneath the "King of Kings" inscription. And then, for The D.O.C.'s 2003 album, Deuce, he returned to the same location to shoot that album's cover photo.
The Verdict: Location found. But the statue is gated off so unless you want to trespass on church property, you can't stunt like The D.O.C. did.
Stop #4: Century City: Avenue of the Stars and Olympic
The Album: Mandrill's Just Outside of Town (Polydor, 1973)
The original core of Mandrill were three brothers from Brooklyn (by way of Colón, Panama): Carlos, Lou and Ric Wilson. They formed the band in the late 1960s and rose to fame on a blend of Latin-influenced funk and rock. Just Outside of Town was Mandrill's fourth album and their most commercially successful, having peaked at #6 on the R&B charts and yielding "Mango Meat," one of the group's best-known singles. Recorded in a combination of studios, including Electric Ladyland in NYC and Sound City in Van Nuys, the album was also the last one to feature the group's original line-up.
I spoke to Ric Wilson, who now lives in the Hollywood Hills. At the time the photo was shot, Mandrill was still based in New York but the group recorded and gigged in Los Angeles frequently so the decision was made to shoot the album photos here. The cover turned out to be rather prescient as, by 1974, Mandrill would relocate to L.A. "We always liked Los Angeles. We would come out here and stay for a couple of months: record, do gigs, sometimes we would be at the Whisky [A Go Go] for a whole week," Wilson said. "We were enamored with the surroundings, compared with the harsh winters of the East Coast. We loved New York and that's where we grew up but California was a nice place to come to."
The Search: Despite the name of the album, the cover for Just Outside of Town wasn't shot outside of any town; they were in the heart of the L.A. westside. The mise en scene looks quasi-futuristic -- a sprawling, grassy knoll interrupted by a cluster of modest skyscrapers and what looks like a James Bond-era military complex tunnel. This was Century City of the early 1970s, right at the front wave of an aggressive series of development projects that transformed the area from mostly studio lot acreage into a hub of commercial and business activity. In Don Anderson's photo, the iconic, crescent curve of the Century Plaza Hotel is prominently centered, and just northeast, you can see the obsidian facade of the 1900 Avenue of the Stars building. "We talked about various locations and it was really a joint decision between [ Anderson] and the members of the group," said Wilson, explaining how they ended up in Century City. "It was a very beautiful Southern California day, late in the afternoon," he added.
The cover is a postcard of L.A. for more than just the nice sunset. It's also a snapshot of a neighborhood that simply doesn't exist anymore. We weren't able to track down Anderson but it'd be difficult for even him -- or anyone else - to recreate this cover today. The group was standing on a plot of land just north of where, today, Olympic Blvd. runs beneath the Avenue of the Stars. That puts it onto the grounds of The Century, a luxury condo tower, but trying to find the right vantage point there created its own complications. When Bobby began taking pictures there, a polite but firm security official with The Century came over and told us, "there's A-listers who live here and when they see a photographer, they think paparazzi." As a result, Bobby only had a couple of vantage points to shoot from but it wouldn't have mattered much anyway; there are so many new buildings in Century City that the clean, isolated shot that Anderson was able to get would now be cluttered with sparkling high-rises.
Bonus: If you find a used vinyl copy of Just Outside of Town, look inside to make sure it comes with the original booklet. "Normally we had double album covers, covers that opened up," Wilson explained. "This was the first cover that didn't open so the compromise was to have a nice insert." The booklet features each band member getting their own page, with a photograph shot in locations around Los Angeles. Ric Wilson's is the most colorful, as he stands shirtless, rocking a outsized hat, at the base of the Astronomers Monument at Griffith Observatory.
The Verdict: Parts of the original location are still there but that vista is permanently altered and impossible to recapture.
Stop #7: Long Beach: E. 21st and Orange
The Album: War: All Day Music (UA, 1971)
War's roots lay with a Long Beach R&B band, The Creators, founded by Howard Scott and Harold Brown in the early 1960s. A few years later, they changed their name to Nightshift (in honor of Brown's hours spent at a steel yard) and producer Jerry Goldstein thought the band would pair well with ex-Animal's singer, Eric Burdon. As Eric Burdon and War, the group's first major hit came in 1970 with the Latin/psychedelic flavored single, "Spill the Wine," but the band's chemistry with Burdon only survived for two albums before they jettisoned the singer and went out on their own. All Day Music was their second album without Burdon (fourth overall) but the first to really recapture momentum, especially on the strength of the group's major hit, "Slippin' Into Darkness."
Cover photographer/art director Bob Gordon was part of the Far Out Productions team founded by Jerry Goldstein. Gordon shot photography on numerous War albums, in addition to covers for John Mayall and Tim Buckely. Brown remembers him primarily as, "like a hippie. All he had was a little Kodak." (I was unable to locate Gordon for this story).
The Search: My colleague John Book set me on the journey to document this album cover but accidentally gave me the wrong directions. If you look closely at the cover of All Day Music, you can see the street sign reflected: E. 21st. However, it's not clear and Book misread it as E22nd. Then, using Google Streetview, he looked down E. 22nd and eventually landed at this corner liquor store at E. 22nd and S. Central Ave., just south of downtown.
Looks perfect, right? I thought so too, until I spoke with Harold Brown and he laughed when I told him where I went. "Actually, it's on the corner of Orange and 21st in Long Beach," Brown corrected me. In other words, we ended up 20 miles off. It made sense in hindsight: Brown was from Long Beach and Scott from Compton; a location in the Alameda corridor really didn't make inherent sense. As it turns out, the actual location did indeed have a resonance for the band: "It was right down the street from where we started our band. That's 2.5 blocks from where I grew up." But more to the point, the store was around the corner from one of their rehearsal spaces and Brown explained, "the liquor store, that's where everybody would always go down and get their little buzz on, get 'em a short dog," he laughed.
The liquor store is all but unidentifiable now. For one, it's a synagogue these days. More importantly though, at some point in the past, the building owner completely boarded up the large windows that you can see in the album cover; presumably, the air conditioning unit makes use of that old opening, but otherwise, it's just a blank wall now. Brown still drives past the location all the time though: "I just passed it last week!"
The Verdict: The structure is still there but identifiable features are not. If you really want to recreate the War cover, maybe it is best to go to E. 21st and S. Central Ave.!
Stop #8: East L.A.: Whittier and Atlantic
The Album: Thee Midniters: Thee Midniters (Whittier, 1965)
Formed in the mid-1960s, Thee Midniters were one of the first bands to proudly proclaim their roots in East L.A., even though leader singer, "Little Willie G" Garcia was actually from South Central. One of their earliest hits, "Whittier Blvd." was actually a take-off on the Rolling Stones's ode to Chess Records in Chicago, "2120 South Michigan Boulevard." However, by renaming their instrumental, "Whittier Blvd," Thee Midniters declared their allegiance to a part of L.A. that few travel guides ever acknowledged. Their other major hit, included on this debut LP, was their cover of "Land of 1,000 Dances" (which later also became a hit for the group's friends/rivals, Cannibal and the Headhunters).
For the cover of their debut, Thee Midniters posed in front of the old Golden Gate Theater, off of Whittier Blvd., in East L.A. "It was the palace, the premier theater," said Garcia. Though a movie theater for most of the year, during the holidays, the Golden Gate would invite local bands to throw large performance showcases. However, the theater had an even deeper resonance for the group, as Garcia explained, "We actually had offices in the facade, up on the second floor, right on the corner. We used to rehearse there, hash out some things, in the upper rooms." On breaks, Garcia remembers he and bandmate George Dominguez would go look out the upper floor windows and "assess our kingdom, if you will, over East L.A. and Monterey Park." The band asked Anthony Loya, a key documentarian of the East L.A. scene, to shoot their cover photograph. (According to Garcia, he's since passed away).
The Search: The original theater took up so much real estate at the corner of Whittier and Atlantic that it had a separate marquee and entrance on both streets (Thee Midniters pose, naturally, in front of the Whitter Blvd. marquee). However, declining fortunes lead the theater -- like many in East L.A. -- to close in the mid-1980s and the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake finished the job that a poor economy began. The outside facades were all torn down, leaving only the central cube of the theater. It was more or less abandoned property for years but recently re-opened...as a CVS Pharmacy. The pharmacy kept the outside original stonework and if you walk inside, they also kept part of the interior trim of the theatre, plus a row of photographs commemorating the Golden Gate's glory days.
The Verdict: Technically, the Golden Gate Theater is still standing but only part of it. The place where the marquee once stood is now a parking lot entrance.
Special thanks to: Bobby Chakrabarti, David Roth, Brian Coleman, Adam Mansbach, DJ Frane, Ric Wilson, the Culver City Chamber of Commerce, John Book, Harold Brown, Josh Kun, Willie G., and the security guy at The Century for not shooing us off the property entirely.
We welcome reader suggestions on other album covers shot in L.A. For now, the main criteria is that we are looking for exterior shots with a relatively unique, recognizable location. No venue stages or studio booths or people's living rooms (sorry Carole). Leave your suggestions in the comments below.
Top Image: Century City | Photo: Don Anderson, 1973.
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