Curved Walls and Rainy Days

March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment


"Billy May Today!" Billy May, 1966 (Capitol)

I don’t think this album by the famous arranger Billy May (“one of the best ‘Now Sounds’ albums around” according to spaceagepop.com) is an example of a truly classic cover by any means, but it does possess some of the great components that went into many ’60s sleeves – the bold lettering with exclamation point; the dancing female; the description of the sound as “full-dimensional” (with more specifics about the sonic qualities of the various instruments on the rear, the “results of the latest in our never-ending series of technical developments”); some good liner notes; and, to me perhaps the most telling feature placing the album firmly in the past, recording credits that supply not only the people involved and the dates of the sessions, but the exact time frame in which specific tracks were laid down.  It would be hard to imagine now, but on the afternoon of June 1, 1966, in just three hours they recorded four of the tracks, with another four done in the same amount of time five days later, both in Studio A of the Capitol Tower.

Of course they were using some of the best session players in the world (including Bob Bain, whom I wrote about in a previous post; among other things he played the acoustic guitar to accompany Audrey Hepburn on “Moon River” for Breakfast at Tiffany’s), as well as the best engineers – Hugh Davies and John Kraus – who obviously knew their studio inside and out. Not to mention the contribution of Billy May himself, who was well-known for his work with Frank Sinatra and whom The Independent in London described as having had “skills without limit” in his 2004 obituary.

Billy May out for a spin (click to read)

But the person I wanted to talk about here was the photographer credited on the back, Ken Veeder. Veeder was the head of Capitol’s photography department for over 20 years during the 1950s and ’60s, and shot album covers for everyone from Nat King Cole to Ella Fitzgerald to the Beach Boys, as well as recording sessions for people like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (see this site for fantastic images shot by Veeder in the studio). Classic stuff, and it must have been a great job, especially during that era. His credit on this album specifies “Capitol photo studio,” but apparently he was not necessarily a big fan of the new space he was given to work in after the company moved into the iconic tower in 1956; in a comment I came across by his daughter she mentions that “My father used to complain about the wasted/unusable space the curves caused in the room where they did the studio shoots.” It sure is a beautiful building, though. (And you can read more about it and its echo chambers in a previous post here.)

The Capitol Tower as it has appeared on some sleeves over the years

Veeder is also credited with the cover for this album. I don’t know if he took the shot in the Capitol photo studio, but I’d imagine it’s likely he did.

The Mighty Accordian Band himself, 1959

Pretty great, no doubt, and I can only hope that they took that beast out for lunch on Vine Street after the session. But Veeder shot another classic album cover the next year that I have to reproduce here, along with a short anecdote about its creation. It was for the album “Satan is Real” by the country act The Louvin Brothers (of whom the last surviving brother, Charlie, just passed away in January of this year). I will let Charlie tell the story, from an interview at swampland.com:

“Well, my wife and I were living up on a little farm in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, and about a half a mile from us was a rock quarry—it wasn’t active anymore and Ira and I had written this song. We wanted it to be the name of an album. So, my wife Betty and I—our oldest son had a Lionel train and it was on a sheet of plywood. We were so close with money, so close to going under that we didn’t have the money to go buy another sheet of plywood. So we took the train off that one and ripped it in two which made it 16 feet tall and together we built what we were told what the bogeyman would look like. He’d have a pitchfork and he’d have horns—very scary looking. We painted it up and Capitol Records sent a photographer, Ken Veeder, from Hollywood to take the pictures. So we took car tires and filled them full of kerosene—had it all ready, and it started sprinkling’ rain. Well, this Ken Veeder got very nervous and didn’t want his camera to get any water on it. We’ll do this later, he said. We’ve got two weeks work in this already. If we can stand out here and play like we’re enjoying it you can go ahead and shoot that camera. So, he did.”

I love how Louvin calls him “this” Ken Veeder. And how they couldn’t afford another sheet of plywood. By all accounts Louvin was a very nice and particularly humble man, and I had the honor to meet him briefly after a show in Kansas City maybe four years ago. I wish I had known of this cover at the time – I would certainly have asked him about it. But I had him sign his latest release, and asked him if he remembered his first gig. He said he did, and while I can’t recall exactly what he related, it was something to the effect that they had earned more with that one performance than their father did all week. He was friendly and down-to-earth, and despite the fact that I knew little about him, I was (of course, as were so many) sad to hear he had passed away, and with him another link to an era of (real) country music that is, unfortunately, pretty much gone forever. Here it is, a rainy day in Tennessee with a photographer “from Hollywood.” I wonder what Veeder thought of the whole thing, and what stories he told when he got back to the Capitol Tower.

"Satan is Real" The Louvin Brothers, 1960 (Capitol)

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