Loud, vibrant and hep: sleeve art, Jamaican style

Jamaica’s Studio One label produced a range of music from ska to dub and gospel, its album cover art reflecting this heady mix of styles

Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd was integral to the sound of Studio One, the studio and record label he set up in Kingston, Jamaica in 1963. But this sound was also created by many other creative people working together, be it Jackie Mittoo, Roland Alphonso or Leroy Sibbles arranging in the studio, or Sylvan Morris on engineering duties. Dodd once recalled the house band leaving en masse one day to become the house band at Harry J’s studio. The next day their seats had been filled and no-one was any the wiser.

Somehow, throughout all the changes of personnel and musical styles, Studio One maintains its unique character, and this applies equally to the sleeve designs. Whether the music inside is ska, rocksteady, roots, DJ, dancehall or dub – not to forget gospel or calypso – or whether O’Neil Nanco, or Jackie Estick, or Roy Tomlinson designed the cover, it always looks the part.

The Studio One style

Other designers who worked with Dodd included Glenville Dayle, Guy Coombs, A Benjamin, J ‘Paco’ Dennis (Inkspot Ltd), J West, Curwin, A Brooks, Jamaal Pete, the UK-based CCS Advertising Associates Ltd and the obliquely named studio, Art Craft. In the UK, the filmmaker Horace Ové (who made the 1976 feature film, Pressure, about a London teenager who joins the black power movement) designed the covers for many of the Studio One licensed albums on Junior Lincoln’s Bamboo label, while Rolph G Webster designed those that came out on Attack.

Coxsone’s very first release was All Star Top Hits in 1961. The album itself was recorded at Federal Studios and featured Don Drummond, Roland Alphonso, Alton & Eddie, Lascelles Perkins, Rico, Derrick Harriott and Clancy Eccles. The photograph on the cover says it all: a picture-perfect dance with the Sir Coxsone Downbeat sound system in full effect. Note the speakers, the Red Stripe, the smart but casual style, the moves, and the open sky. Could anything sum up the ambience of a Kingston dance any better?

This recording debut (two years before Dodd opened his own studio at 13 Brentford Road) was followed by the Cecil Lloyd Group’s I Cover the Waterfront, released in 1962 on the Port-O-Jam imprint. The iconography is of Roland Alphonso’s saxophone rather than the sound system ephemera and Red Stripe is replaced by rum. But Jazz Jamaica, again released on Port-O-Jam that same year, is the first sleeve to really suggest the Studio One style of the future. Loud, colourful, stylish, vibrant and hep. Drummond’s ubiquitous hat (a ‘derby’ or ‘boss of the plains’ stetson?) is in view as are the musicians and their instruments signifying this is a jazz release.

From ska to dub

By the time of Ska Authentic in 1964, the paths of Jamaican jazz and rhythm and blues have collided with the arrival of ska. Check out Jah Jerry’s semi-acoustic electric guitar, Jackie Mittoo’s white loafers, bassist Lloyd Brevett’s shades-in-the-studio stare and Don Drummond, bone in hand, hat on back of the head, away from the crowd, different.

As the style of music changed, so did the style of the designs. By the late 60s, rocksteady cool replaced the energy of ska. In the early 70s, much as the dub and DJ material began to re-version the original 60s rhythms, Dodd began experimenting with silkscreen printing, recreating original sleeves in new textured designs, made to be sold at a higher price. This exclusivity remains in place today, as most of these were printed in small runs.

For the dub albums, the stripped-down minimalism of the designer/ printers, Art Craft, remains a perfect match for the sparse drum and bass contained within. This minimalism extended to song titles such as Virgo Dub, Marcus and Minstrel. Art Craft was also responsible for a number of the gospel and calypso albums, once again displaying a minimalism that would terrify most designers, with some sleeves being simply paper fixed onto card. Surely one of the most innovative printing techniques was the silk-screening onto existing Look, Listen and Learn sleeves that occurred during this period (like the Ital Dub release from 1975).

A constant state of flux

For Studio One’s resurgence in the 1970s, O’Neil Nanco’s sleeves became the mainstay of the label, with a style as instantly recognisable as those of Roy Tomlinson or the multi-talented singer and designer Jackie Estick in the 1960s. Nanco designed new sleeves as well as redesigning many old ones. Glenville Dayle’s late 70s designs are great, too – not just for the pleasure of spotting the round matted carpet that all the artists seem to stand on for the back cover shot.
Like Jamaican music, Studio One sleeves are in a constant state of flux. Watch as designs change from JA to UK editions, or from lithograph to silkscreen. Marvel as Bob Marley changes his position in the super-rare original Wailing Wailers album to all subsequent editions, or as the dancing man on Juk’s Incorporated moves along the dancefloor to make way for a new Downbeat speaker. Similarly, 50 years of re-pressing the sleeves has caused some wild degradations, with many variations in colour occurring over the time. But this is Studio One: a collector’s paradise.  

Stuart Baker runs Soul Jazz Records. This article is extracted from his essay in The Album Cover Art of Studio One Records, published by Soul Jazz Books and distributed by Thames and Hudson; £30. souljazzrecords.co.uk, thamesandhudson.com

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