Curtis McNair - The Man Behind The Album Covers At Motown

 


N.C. native Curtis McNair spent various parts of his 76 years as an inventor, artist, teacher and civil rights activist, but he is best known as the designer for some of Motown's best-known album covers, including Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On.” He's now retired and living outside of Wadesboro, with his wife, Donna, a prison chaplain.

McNair, would rather be known for marching for civil rights in the ’40s, helping to integrate the Army in the ’50s, and that he was among the first blacks hired at Chrysler’s corporate office in the early ’60s — a man of firsts. Instead, McNair is most known for his time at Motown where he created some of the most memorable album covers of the time.

On Friday, the McNairs make their first visit to the Belk Theater uptown, where several dozen of his covers will be displayed as part of a two-night Charlotte Symphony tribute to Motown, featuring the band Spectrum. Following are excerpts of an interview with McNair by reporter Mark Price


Q. How many covers are you bringing to the show?

About 70. That's not all the covers I designed. I don't have copies of about 30 percent. The ones I don't have are the ones I'm not proud of. We didn't have a big budget for covers, so I did what I could with what they gave me, including paintings, old photos, even busts.


Q. What's your best stuff?

Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Undisputed Truth, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and some lesser-known acts like Brass Monkey. Some of my favorites are ones by those little-known bands that Motown picked up in an attempt to break into the white market. They wanted to compete with the Beatles. Rare Earth was one. Another was called Magic and then there was Lost Nation, who I thought was a lot of fun. I did an album cover for them at the Ford Museum in Dearborn. They had to go to the restroom at one point, and on their way out, I noticed that the angles of the columns were interesting, so we took a picture of them outside the restroom door. That's the cover.



Q. Wasn't there a dispute over the famous Marvin Gaye cover?

I had a supervisor at the time who had taken the initiative to have a photo session for that without me. He laid these photos down on the table and told me what he selected to use. I disagreed, based on the content of the album. I said ‘OK, Marvin is the building. Let's ask him.' The two of us went to Marvin, who looked at my choice and said “I want that on the cover.” End of story. It amazes me the impact that album had. I got a call in the past year from a guy in Greensboro who fought in the Vietnam War. He'd heard about me and called to tell me that album helped get them through it all. It's amazing to imagine yourself being in Vietnam, listening to that album.

The cover is a portrait of Gaye wearing an expression of resolve, with the collar up on his black leather coat and flecks of moisture on his face and hair. McNair says the cover represents one of the few cases in which he photographed the recording sessions to get inspiration. He still has the photos.

“Marvin had half the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the studio, with all these jazz musicians, and he was directing them all, yet he could not read music,” McNair says, laughing at the thought.

“I could see how emotional he was, in terms of the essence of the album, and I wanted to match that. Marvin’s brother was in the military and had come back from Vietnam with stories of the carnage over there. Marvin was perplexed and he was trying to express that.”

The irony, of course, is that Motown founder Berry Gordy at first refused to release “What’s Going On” as a single, because he saw it as too political and uncommercial. Likewise, execs didn’t like McNair’s cover.

( The picture on the "Whats Going On" LP was taken in Marvin`s own backyard while it was sleeting. )

>



There were other juicy tidbits in the article including stories on Smokey Robinson handing him a set of “bad pictures” and asking him to put the images together for an album cover and of course, there’s Diana Ross. It seems everyone wants to know about Diana Ross. In the article, McNair remembers Diana Ross as another act who typically got her way, including a time when Berry Gordy flew McNair from Detroit to New York City to personally tell him Ross’ face needed to be bigger on a Supremes-Temptations duet album. Ahh, the good old days.




“When a friend of mine recommended I apply for the job, I went to Motown expecting to see an art department with five or 10 people working. I remember asking, ‘Where is everybody?’ and I was told, ‘You are it.’ So, I was art director, designer and whatever else was needed,” recalls McNair.

McNair averaged 25 covers a year which, according to historians, is an amazing feat. The covers were mostly low-budget affairs utilizing colorized old photos, the combination of several photos into one drawing, and flipping photos upside down or backward. McNair’s techniques “created a badly needed new look for the label.”



McNair left Detroit in 1990 and life became simpler. He began work as an elementary school art teacher in Rockingham and here’s the part of the story I most enjoyed reading, in 2003, while visiting First Baptist Church in Wadesboro, he met his future wife, Donna Ingram. She, too, was at work on a second life having retired as an assistant superintendent with the Durham County schools to become a Pentecostal minister. The two were married in 2005 and now live on nine acres outside Wadesboro.

It is rare to find this kind of history. We will hear about the history of Capital Records, MGM, those who created the art in many corporations and advertising agencies but we will rarely hear or read the history of those men and women who wrote the lyrics, the music, or those creators of the art in companies like Motown or Stax. I was very glad to see this story on Curtis McNair



One last interesting fact, McNair did the covers for all of Motowns acts.................except one.
Berry Gordy hired an outside firm to do the covers for The Jackson Five. If ya ask me, he wasted his money.


Click Here For CURTIS McNAIR- MOTOWN ALBUM COVER DESIGNER INTERVIEW...


LIKE THE FUNK BROTHERS, THE PEOPLE THAT MADE MOTOWN GREAT ARE FINALLY GETTING THEIR CHANCE IN THE SPOTLIGHT WHILE THEY ARE STILL WITH US.

If you have a favorite Album cover, Motown or otherwise, share it here.

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Comment by Edie Antoinette on October 20, 2009 at 11:33am
This was so much fun. Gene got down on this one and we had a blast! Put something up so we can start it up again Zero!
Comment by ZeroGravity on October 20, 2009 at 10:07am
WOW!!! I ran across this thread while digging in the archives ... this thread is a treasure in itself....from the history to the beautiful album covers displayed here. Man the memories. Even if the some of the songs weren't tight...the album cover will make up for it...you still got your money worth either way. Some were even used or became posters to decorate rooms.

I would love to see these album covers displayed in a 'cover flow' (Apple's music app) format, where you can just thumb through and reminence on the great music and art of the past.

I really, really, really love this thread!
Comment by KnightD12 on August 23, 2009 at 8:37pm
The things one can find out when they start digging.
Looks like Johnny was still around when The Jackson 5 made it big. He just was no longer a member of the group. His name and picture only appeared on that first album the Jackson 5 recorded in Gary on the Steeltown label.
In 1965 they were first known as The Jackson Brothers, even though they had 2 members that were not Jacksons.
n 1966, younger brothers Marlon and Michael, joined the group as its tambourine and bongo players. Already showing talent as a singer and dancer], Michael replaced Jermaine as lead vocalist by mid-1967. Shirley Cartman, Tito’s junior high orchestra teacher, noticed the group’s talents and served as an early mentor to the group, by then calling itself The Jackson Five.

Johnny Jackson was the first drummer of The Jackson 5. Joe Jackson passed off Johnny as his nephew, but they were not related.
Oh yeah the woman that killed Johnny only got TWO years................. HUH?????
Comment by Boo on August 23, 2009 at 7:02pm
Thanks to all of you for that info on Johnny Jackson. I didn't know anyone other than the brothers were in the group.I learned something today....
Comment by Edie Antoinette on August 22, 2009 at 10:34pm
Interesting stuff.....indeed.
Comment by KnightD12 on August 22, 2009 at 4:37am
Oh yeah, thats Johnny , the "outsider" on drums. Don`t cha bet he hates he left the group. It would be interesting to know if he quit or was kicked out.
Comment by KnightD12 on August 22, 2009 at 4:33am
There was once a member of The Jackson Five, that wasn`t a Jackson??? What da Heck you say? Since Michael`s death, they are digging up and dusting off anything that he has ever done. Before Berry Gordy even heard of them, they recorded a album in Gary, IN. It was recorded on a 2 track machine .... and it sounds that way.

Comment by Edie Antoinette on May 5, 2009 at 7:28am
That ain't milk that's just chapped lip...ROFLMBO Po Al..he just knew he was smokin hott.....notttt!!!! LOL
Comment by Shelley "SoleMann" King on May 5, 2009 at 6:54am
This should be one of the strangest album covers of all time....LOL


A fantastic collection of rare work by The Meters -- featuring some of their best 45s for Josie Records, a few of the best bits from LPs, and a number of rare tracks that have only recently seen the light of day! The set's a perfect companion to any of the classic Meters albums on your shelves (or on your turntable, more likely, if you like them as much as us!) -- and the tracks are all short, hard, and funky little gems -- all with the group's trademark sharp drums, super-dope bass, and scratchy guitar! Titles include "Stretch Your Rubber Band", "(The World Is A Little Bit Under The Weather) Doodle-Oop", "Sassy Lady", "Funky Meters Soul", "Meter Strut", "Groovy Lady", "Borro", "Soul Machine", and "Zony Mash".
Comment by Shelley "SoleMann" King on May 5, 2009 at 6:40am
You don't see that milk stain on his lips.....LOL

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Introspection

Spotlight | Maze

  1. play Maze — 03 Feel That You're Feelin'
  2. play Maze — 04 Somebody Else's Arms
  3. play Maze — 04 Southern Girl
  4. play Maze — Can't Get Over You
  5. play Maze — Golden Time Of Day
  6. play Norman Brown — Night Drive
  7. play Norman Brown — Feeling
  8. play Norman Brown — Still
  9. play Miles Davis — miles 1
  10. play miles 2
  11. play miles 3
  12. play miles 4
  13. play miles 5
  14. play Marvin Gaye — I Met A Little Girl
  15. play Santana — 01 Singing Winds, Crying Beasts
  16. play Santana — 02 Black Magic Woman-Gypsy Queen
  17. play Mongo — 02. Afro Blue



The history of the Butlers/Raw Soul is dense, but for all of us music nerds, that's normal. It is not totally clear what year the Butlers actually formed but they released their first single in 1963 on Liberty Records. That single was "She Tried To Kiss Me" and another single followed on Guyden entitled "Lovable Girl." After the Guyden single the Butlers took a break not recording another record until the single "Laugh, Laugh, Laugh" was released on the Phila label in 1966. The group also backed Charles Earland and Jean Wells on one Phila single ("I Know She Loves Me"). 


As you might be noticing, the Butlers were doing a fair amount of recording but not achieving much success. The group's recordings sold regionally but never had the promotion to make an impact on the national scene. After the single with Phila, the Butlers moved to the Fairmount label (part of the Cameo-Parkway family) and released a handful of singles, some being reissued singles of the past. The Butlers were with Fairmount for 1966-67 and then moved to Sassy Records. Sassy released the group's greatest single (in my opinion) "Love (Your Pain Goes Deep)" b/w "If That's What You Wanted." A copy of that 45 sold for just under $500 last summer on eBay. Even though that isn't that much in the world of record collecting--it's still a hefty sum. The Butlers released another single on Sassy ("She's Gone" b/w "Love Is Good") that appears to be even 
harder to come by then the "Love (Your Pain Goes Deep)" single.

 

The true history become a bit blurred here as the AMG biography states that the Butlers last record was released on C.R.S. in 1974 (". However, between 1971 and that single, Frankie Beverly formed a group called Raw Soul and released a number of singles. Some of the songs recorded by Beverly during this period are "While I'm Alone," "Open Up Your Heart," (both on the Gregor label) and "Color Blind." "Color Blind" was released by the Eldorado label and rerecorded by Maze. Beverly's big break came when Marvin Gaye asked Raw Soul to back him on a tour. Gaye helped Beverly/Raw Soul get a contract at Capitol. Beverly decided to take the group in a different direction, a name change occurred, and Maze was created. 

The above isn't the most complete history of Beverly but hopefully someone will know a way to get in touch with the man or his management because a comprehensive pre-Maze history needs to be done on Frankie Beverly (his real name is Howard, by the way). Below you'll find every Frankie Beverly (pre-Maze) song available to me right now ("Color Blind" will be up soon). 

If you have a song that is not included below, shoot it over to funkinsoulman (at) yahoo.com and it will go up in the next Frankie Beverly post (later this week--highlighting Maze). Also, if you have any more information please share your knowledge. The Butlers material has been comp-ed sporadically (usually imports) but the entire Maze catalog has been reissued and is available. 

Enjoy.  "She Kissed Me" (Fairmount, 1966 or 1967) 
 
 "I Want To Feel I'm Wanted" (not sure which label or year) "Laugh, Laugh, Laugh" (Phila, 1966) "Because Of My Heart" (Fairmount, 1966 or 1967)
   
 "Love (Your Pain Goes Deep)" (Sassy, 1967)
   
 "If That's What You Wanted" (Sassy, 1967)
 



Frankie Beverly is one of those cats that has lasting power. He started in the music business doing a tour with doo wop group the Silhouettes and then formed his own group called the Blenders. The Blenders never recorded a single, Beverly wouldn't appear on wax until forming the Butlers a few years later. Along with Beverly, the Butlers included Jack "Sonny" Nicholson, Joe Collins, John Fitch, and Talmadge Conway.

Beverly would later enjoy great success fronting Maze and Conway would become a
well-known penning Double Exposure's
"Ten Percent" and the Intruders' "Memories Are Here To Stay." 
 While Maze is a phenomenal group, Beverly's work before that group will always stand out as his best (imo).

The Butlers produced tunes that most Northern Soul fans would kill for and Raw Soul gave the funksters something to pursue. If, by chance, you know of a way to get in touch with Frankie Beverly or his management, please drop me an e-mail. It would be absolutely great to do an interview with him about his pre-Maze work. He's still playing out, most recently doing a New Year's Eve show in Atlanta.
:: Funkinsoulman ::

Power...Through Simplicity ♪♫♪

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