Bebop for the eyes

Illustrator Jim Flora designed album covers worth framing

For those who spent hours lying on the couch staring at the die-cuts of Led Zeppelin III, freaking out to Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, or glazing over the psychedelic graphics of the Flaming Lips' Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell, album art was as integral to the musical experience as the sounds captured within the grooves. Besides containing liner notes, songwriting credits, and other secret messages, record covers - especially the gatefold for Bob Dylan's Live at Budokan - also served as excellent flat surfaces for separating seeds from ditchweed.

Yet, with the advent of CDs, cover art became an exercise in miniaturism, combining postage stamp-sized art with the dreaded road-map effect: Once you unfold a CD booklet, you can never refold it the same way. Taken further, the digital realm of file-sharing, iTunes, and mp3s eliminates any vestige of the visual. Alas, while you have millions of songs at your fingertips, you can't clean your pot on an iPod.

In the gifted hands of illustrator Jim Flora, who drew covers for dozens of jazz and classical records in the 1950s, album art took a huge evolutionary step. While record companies' early 78s had either brown sleeves or at best, staid images of violins, Flora's artwork trembled with a kinetic energy that matched the music's vibrancy.

The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora pays homage to the Ohio-born artist with full-color reproductions of his most famous covers, autobiographical musings, and interviews with his former co-conspirators at record labels and commercial art departments.

The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora

By Irwin Chusid
179 pages, $28.95
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 1560976004
Flora's work is flected with pre-Columbian influences (he lived in Taxco, Mexico for several years) as well as surrealism and cubism: Disembodied eyes, geometric whimsy, and energetic color schemes combined in a fantastic dream world that set Louis Armstrong and His Hot 5 aflight, pitted mortar-firing pianos against horn-armored tanks on War of the Bands, and featured satyrs and toga-clad Greeks on Lord Buckley's Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger Poppin' Daddies Knock Me Your Lobes.

Partially color-blind, Flora originally set out to be an architect, but had to leave school because of the Depression. In addition to his album art, he also earned money as an illustrator for Columbia's jazzbo magazine, Coda, children's books, and Little Man Press, a fledgling magazine that included eerie black-and-white woodcuts as well as Flora's eye-popping color work.

As the rock 'n' roll became popular and ushered in an era of scrubbed teenyboppers and shrewd image-makers who favored photographs over illustration, Flora's work fell out of fashion. That's not to say inventive artwork disappeared from the music bins: Witness Andy Warhol's "Banana" cover for the Velvet Underground, Howard Finster's folk art that donned R.E.M.'s Reckoning, or even the anti-art of '90s bands whose covers were intended to be as oblique as possible, ostensibly so we'd concentrate solely on the music.

Flora died in 1998, about the same time that album covers-as-art finally bit the dust as well. For those weaned on record jackets or raised on mp3s, The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora is a reminder of an essential dimension missing from today's listening experience.

By Lisa Sorg