The genesis of this idea came when Artbound managing editor Drew Tewksbury and I were batting around ways to bring my deep (read: obsessive) love of records into ArtBound and he threw out suggestions about using album art as a point of entry. That initially lead me to the Brent Rollins and Slick columns but it also seemed like the covers themselves told a particular story of L.A. itself: of times and places.
Given that L.A., along with New York City, was one of the two main hubs of the recording industry in the U.S., it's no surprise that many album covers were shot here. Yet, when I embarked on this research, I had no idea how deep the well ran. So many different locations and time eras are captured in the LP art from the city. Even the handful of covers I started with led me on a treasure hunt across all kinds of tucked away neighborhoods of the Southland.
I didn't have a precise methodology about how to go about doing this. I simply started with some of my favorite L.A.-centric album covers and then queried a few music junkie friends to expand the pool. The album locations I chased down represent only the tippy top of the proverbial iceberg. We hope that readers like you will contribute other ideas to start the hunt anew.
For this initial round, I began with a master list of albums, trying to balance genre, era and rumored locales. Then I started chasing down the photographers and the artists to help fill in blanks in the back stories. Then, having mapped out a preliminary itinerary, I asked my friend and photographer Bobby Chakrabarti to join me and we hit the road. Our initial journey is documented in several columns, the first being what you're reading now (part 2 is here).
This column is dedicated to the memory of my friend and colleague, Matthew Africa. He was an incredible inspiration behind my love for records. I think he would have liked this piece.
Stop #1: Echo Park: Baxter St. between Allesandro and Avon
The Album: Art Pepper's Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Contemporary, 1957).
Considered a landmark album in the saxophonist's illustrious career, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section is cloaked in considerable lore. According to Pepper's own memoir, he hadn't played in six months (an extraordinary and possibly apocryphal claim), and had never played with the other musicians he was to work with. He was literally "meeting" the rhythm section - borrowed from Miles Davis's band - for the first time that day. Oh, and his sax was all messed up. And from all that, he turned out what's considered one of his best albums of the 1950s.
The Search: RJ Smith, author of the recent, extraordinary James Brown biography, The One, put me up on this LP cover because it was supposedly shot in his part of Echo Park. According to this site, "The photograph on the cover of the album was taken on Baxter St. in Echo Park...while Pepper was waiting for his heroin dealer" and to be sure, when you drive out to Baxter, it's promising. That section of Echo Park is thick with old foliage, including a few small groves where a fertile enough mind could imagine a furtive heroin deal going down. Moreover, it's well known that Pepper lived in the area and William Claxton shot other photos of Pepper around there, including climbing what looks a lot like Baxter.
However, though Baxter St. isn't that long, trying to find a 55 year old climb of trees proved more difficult than we imagined. Despite stopping at every potential grove from Allesandro, all the way to Avon, we never saw a configuration of trees and angles that seemed to match the cover photo. Of course, after five decades, that patch may not exist anymore. Or perhaps the grove wasn't off the street but in someone's backyard. Or maybe it was never on Baxter but on some other Echo Park hill. Either which way, our day began with a failure. Pepper and Claxton are both gone and unless a local resident recognizes that grove, it may remain a snapshot in time, but not our present.
Verdict: Location unknown. (If you think you know where it is, let us know in the comments!)
Stop #2: Hollywood: Santa Monica Blvd. between Vine and El Centro
The Album: N.W.A.: Panic Zone 12" (Macola/Ruthless, 1987).
In 1988, N.W.A. changed the sound of pop music with Straight Outta Compton but just one year earlier, they were another local, independent hip-hop group trying to make a name for themselves. In the mid-1980s, if you had a song in your head but little money in your pocket, you could go to Macola Records. For relatively little money, they would handle pressing and distributing a few hundred units of your record. As such, Macola became a favorite of many early L.A. hip-hop artists, including Egyptian Lover, Bobby Jimmy & The Critters and a short, scrawny Compton impresario who went by the moniker, Eazy E.
Eazy E was pivotal in pulling together various DJs, producers and MCs to form N.W.A. and "Panic Zone" was their first release (though it'd be a different song off the single, "Dopeman," that'd become the group's first major hit. (The same 12" cover photo was re-used for the 1987 compilation album, N.W.A. and the Posse). The cover of "Panic Zone" features a dozen men, some of whose relationship to N.W.A. was more secondary than formal. Missing is DJ Yella, who didn't join the group until later. In 2010, Martin Cizmar wrote a remarkable article for the L.A. Weekly that tracked down the back stories of every single person in the picture. Notably though, there was no mention of where the photo took place.
The Search: Former N.W.A. member Arabian Prince gave me my first clue. I assumed the shot was from the Compton area, where N.W.A. formed but Arabian Prince surprised me when he said the shoot took place, "in a alley behind Macola Records or across the street from there, off of Santa Monica Blvd and a few blocks east of Vine." I was prepared to comb through rows of Hollywood alleys but luckily, I managed to first find photographer Phil Bedel.
He used to run a photography studio at the corner of Santa Monica and El Centro, literally a few doors down from Macola. Bedel was primarily doing product photography but when Macola staff dropped by and asked if he'd be willing to shoot their artists, he was happy to oblige. "I would do a lot of these independent artists and it just happened to coincide with the West Coast hip-hop stuff that was happening at the time," Bedel told me. (Besides N.W.A., Bedel also shot Eazy E's first solo 12", an Egyptian Lover greatest hits album, and the debut LP by Compton's Most Wanted).
The 6200 block of Santa Monica had its own storied history. Besides Macola, on the corner of Santa Monica and Vine used to be Gold Star Studios, where Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" was born and where the Beach Boys recorded parts of their seminal Pet Sounds. And on the south side of the block, was Drum City, a music supply store owned by local jazz legend Roy Harte.
Since Bedel worked just over the next block, he frequently drove down Santa Monica and often saw a wall of graffiti on the side of the old Drum City building. "In the back of my mind, I thought this would be a great place for some kind of photograph," he said, adding that when Macola asked him to shoot N.W.A., "we just walked across Santa Monica Blvd. and west half a block and went and did it."
The group was positioned in a corner, next to what looks like a loading dock but when Bobby and I toured the area, it was clear that structure no longer existed. Older satellite photos showed a building at the back of the lot but it's been since torn down. A brick wall, exactly the right height as depicted in the N.W.A. photo, still survives on the eastern side of the lot (see photo above) though Bedel's picture was probably shot along a part of the wall - now gone - on the west edge, attached to Drum City.
I sent the N.W.A. cover to Roy Harte's son, Rex Harte, and he identified the spot as the store's "back door where we use to soak the cow hide for drum heads." It seems somehow apropos that a pioneering L.A. hip-hop group would shoot their first album cover behind a former drum shop (though, ironically, Dr. Dre was likely using drum machines on most of those early N.W.A. songs).
The Verdict: Original location is gone but remnants remain.
The Update (Sep. 2015): I received an email from Michael Delahaut of the Delta Bravo Urban Exploration Team, a group dedicated to tracking the historical musical sites. His photo (included above) proved my original hunch wrong: the loading dock is still intact, at the back of the building. I had gotten it backwards, assuming that part of the wall remained while the dock was gone but instead, as Delahaut shows, the loading dock survived but the side wall has since been torn down. My thanks to him for the correction and it's great to know the "main" part of the photo has indeed survived (even if the graffiti didn't).
Stop #3: Fairfax district, Beverly and Kilkea
The Album: Charles Wright's Doing What Comes Naturally (ABC/Dunhill, 1973)
Doing What Comes Naturally was Charles Wright's second solo album and arguably his most ambitious album of the '70s. It was a couple years after the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band had dis-banded though a few of those players still appear on the LP, including drummer James Gadson and keyboardist Gabriel Fleming. However, Wright was also touting a new band, The Wright Sound, Inc., which included future Sunbear founder, guitarist Werner Schuchner, as well as Yusuf Rahman, a keyboardist down with the local L.A. funk group, The 4th Coming.
The album was a realization of the kind of compositions Wright had been pushing towards throughout the early 1970s: long, exploratory grooves that gradually unwound themselves. The shortest song on here clips in under 3 minutes but that's the exception: most of the other songs are between 5-8 minutes, with one song - "Nonsense" - taking up nearly 17 minutes (and all of an entire side of vinyl). The album yielded no major hits though "A Mother's Love," a slinky jam from the album's second half, found future life in various hip-hop samples.
The album's cover features a bit of photographic magic, with Wright appearing in three different locations within the same panoramic shot. This came courtesy of Michael Lawton, a pioneering panoramic photographer whose patented Cirama 360 camera was used for the shoot. Lawton explained, in layman's terms, how the shot went down: "it's a scanning camera. Film's going one direction, camera's going another direction, but you can slow this camera down, as much as 8 minutes or more. As the camera goes by, it's only looking at 3 or 4 degrees of angle." That allowed Wright to continually move around as the camera slowly panned itself around. Some surmise Wright's cover may have inspired the panoramic gatefold cover for The Beastie Boys' 1989 album, Paul's Boutique but Lawton himself only ever did this one album project; by 1974, his now-famous 360 shot of Skylab launched a decade-long career at National Geographic.
Several of the Wright Sound, Inc. players appear in the photo as well, but it's as Wright's car that has the starring role. Wright drove his 1971 Cadillac El Dorado to the shoot and riding shotgun in the photo was the late, great arranger/producer Monk Higgins (and obscured, behind him was Charles's brother Grady).
Update (11/14): After this story ran, I received word from Richard Jacks, who essentially came up with the cover idea and managed the shoot. Here's what he had to share:
my design firm, R. Jacks & Co. [was asked] to come up with a cover - fast. I thought of Michael Lawton's panoramas and how one could be used as a wrap-around, going from the cover to the inside spread then to the back. The double album was a natural for wrapping the panorama. I picked an old deli on Beverly Blvd. as the backdrop. When Charles Wright showed up in the Eldorado, we had already set up and were ready to shoot. Lawton set the camera in motion at it's slowest speed allowing Wright to jump from the car, then over to the parking meter, then to the deli. He moved as fast as he could, each time running behind the camera, so as not to be seen in motion. He is shown three times in the shot. I had him do five or six takes which left him breathless. There were no computers in those days that could alter photographs. Today, we'd have just Photoshopped him in.
The Search: The building featured behind Wright, on the cover, has such a distinctive shape and color that it was easy to be mislead into thinking it was the Beverly Laurel Motor Hotel. (Fans of Swingers may recognize the hotel's lobby-level cafe). However, while the buildings looked to be a match on first glance, once Bobby began shooting, he immediately noticed: "it's not the same building." And indeed, when we compared the album cover with the Hotel, they were similar but hardly identical. We were stumped; the Hotel had been our main lead and now we weren't sure where to go.
However, it was the album's interior gatefold photo that gave us a clue.
We had heard the fish store you see far down the block was now a DWR store and as it was, there was a DWR within half a block of the Beverly Laurel. As we walked in that direction, we looked on the north side of the block and there it was: the cover building, albeit now in a dull gray instead of the vibrant yellow and blue color scheme it boasted in the early 1970s. We crossed the street to where Lawton would have had this camera set-up and Bobby took a picture of the same block, now nearly 40 years later.
Visible in frame is Ace Picture Frames (now Anna's Linen) and Crescent Cleaners (now Doughboys Bakery), and if you open the gatefold, you'll see that the West Hollywood Shave Shop and Hy's Delicatessen used to be neighbors. The latter explains how it is Wright ended up on this particular block: "Howard Stark and Jay Lasker, who were [executives] of ABC/Dunhill Records at the time...they asked me, would I take [the cover photo] in front of [Hy's]," Wright told me. "They ate there from time to time so they were trying to do something to boost the man's business." Apparently, it didn't work since the deli is long gone; now Environment, a high-end furniture store, has taken over both the spaces previously occupied by Hy's and the shave shop.
The Verdict: The stores have changed but the basic architecture of both sides of the street remain the same. With the right panoramic feature on your phone, you could try to duplicate the shot ('71 El Dorado, not included).
Stop #4: Palos Verdes, Point Vicente Lighthouse
The Album: Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars' Music For Lighthousekeeping (Contemporary, 1957)
Rumsey was a drummer and bassist, originally from Imperial County, who relocated to Los Angeles in the 1940s. In 1949, Rumsey came across The Lighthouse, a Polynesian-styled bar on the Hermosa Beach Pier and convinced the owner to let him play there. By 1951, Rumsey formally organized the Lighthouse All-Stars, one of the best known of the so-called "West Coast" jazz bands of the era. Music For Lighthousekeeping was the band's last recording for the Contemporary imprint and enjoys a reputation as one of the band's better excursions into Latin-influenced fare.
Jazz critic Ted Giola wrote a book about the West Coast jazz scene and sent me his take on the cover via email: "[Contemporary Records] wanted to evoke the mystique of the West Coast. What they did in the 1950s was no different than what Capitol Records did a decade later to sell surf music around the world...strong, vivid photographs that presented an idealized West Coast. Many photos were posed on the beach or in some stereotypically West Coast setting. The photos were supposed to present a fantasy image rather than reality...so the cover photograph of Music for Lighthousekeeping showed a very striking lighthouse that was more visually arresting than a photo of the jazz club, The Lighthouse."
The Search: As Giola indicates, the lack of an actual lighthouse at The Lighthouse meant that Rumsey had to turn 10 miles down to the coast, to the southwestern-most point in L.A. There, at Point Vicente, is a modest but elegant lighthouse, originally opened in 1926. Rising 185 feet above sea level, the lighthouse sports a 5' lens, originally crafted in Paris in 1886 and came to L.A. after decades of service in Alaska. The lighthouse is open to the public...but only one day a month so Bobby and I weren't able to head down to the actual spot where Rumsey sat on a red fire hydrant to pose for photographer Richard McCowan (you can still see the hydrant in Bobby's picture above; it's just to the right of the lighthouse). (The same lighthouse bears a distinct likeness to an illustrated cover for a Lighthouse All-Star EP on the UK's Vogue Records even though that release predated Music For Lighthousekeeping by several years.)
The Verdict: You can duplicate the album cover shot but only on the second Saturday of each month - or the first Saturday in March. Otherwise, you'll have to admire the lighthouse from behind a gated fence.
Special thanks to: Bobby Chakrabarti, R.J. Smith, Swan Fungus, Arabian Prince, Rex Harte, Charles Wright, Michael Lawton, Blaine Rucker, Ted Giola, and especially Phil Bedel, who I fear I may have infected with my obsessive desire to find the precise, to the inch, location of that N.W.A. shoot.
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.