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.
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