During my visit to the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, two years ago, I noticed a familiar name on the purchase order for the cover art of the 1956 jazz album Cool Gabriels on RCA’s Groove label: A.R Lehman. This means that the iconic banana cover for The Velvet Underground & Nico on MGM/Verve was not the first cover on which designer Acy Rudi Lehman and artist Andy Warhol have worked together.
The cover of Cool Gabriels shows a drawing of seven angels blowing horns, on a plain yellow background. Naive drawings in Warhol’s signature blotted line technique in the Fifties. The contrast between the innocence of this angelic drawing, and the phallic pop art image of the peelable banana could not be bigger!
In the 1998 BBC Wales documentary John Cale, Lou Reed says that he realizes it wasn’t the music of The Velvet Undergound that got them signed to Verve (because neither their avant-garde sound nor the explicit lyrics were exactly middle of the road) but the fact that famous pop artist Andy Warhol was their manager. “When we finally were signed to a record company, really on the basis of Andy. Because Andy said he’d do the cover. I don’t know if we would have gotten a contract if he hadn’t said he’d do the cover… or if Nico wasn’t so beautiful… Who knows…” (fragment starts on 14:20)
But famous pop artist or not, at a major record company the design of an album cover is not a one man job. You will have an art director overseeing the art department, designers who decide what a cover has to look like and artists who deliver the artwork. In the case of the VU’s first album, Acy R. Lehman was the designer who agreed on an unusual and terribly expensive gatefold cover for just one single record. Warhol’s signed artwork of the peelable banana on front, the name of the band unmentioned. The technical aspect of the banana stickers, by the way, was worked out by Craig Braun (uncredited), who later also produced the working zippers for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers.
At the inside of the gatefold, Lehman worked with black and white pictures of the band by Factory photographers Nat Finkelstein and Billy Linich (a.k.a. Billy Name).
On the back he used coloured head shots of the band by Paul Morrissey – who managed the Velvets together with Warhol – and a large photo of the band performing on stage, by a photographer called Hugo. Last mentioned photo was famous for being the subject of a lawsuit, causing an unfortunate and considerable delay in sales. Actor and Warhol Superstar Eric Emerson, who is seen hanging upside down in a projection behind the band, claimed his image was used without his permission and sued the record company. But the idea backfired and instead of paying Emerson, Verve removed all albums from the record store shelves and reworked the image. Existing stock got a large black censor sticker on top of the contested Emerson image, and for later pressings the actor was entirely blurred out.
Back to Acy R. Lehman: his carreer lasted well over three decades. His album cover designs or art direction fetched no less than eight nominations for a Grammy Award, and one win (in 1972 for the cover of the album The Siegel-Schwall Band).
He also worked on the cover for the second Velvet Underground album White Light/White Heat (1968). For Lou Reed’s solo carreer, on the RCA label, Lehman signed for the art direction of the album covers for Rock n Roll Animal (1974), Sally Can’t Dance (1974), Lou Reed Live (1975), Metal Machine Music (1975) and Coney Island Baby (1975/1976). One of the Grammy nominations mentioned higher was in 1976 for the album package of Coney Island Baby, as art director (uncredited). Design and photography for this great album were done by Mick Rock.
On the Discogs database there are over 600 credits for Acy R. Lehman cover designs. Not for Cool Gabriels, though. But now you know!