Sunday, June 15, 2014

Columbia LP Covers, 1954-57: A Study in Branding Changes

Earliest Columbia LP cover design, 1948
(image borrowed from Collecting Record Covers)
This is the second part of a series devoted to branding changes for Columbia Records in the wake of the introduction of the LP; the first part is "Birth and Evolution of a Trademark" about the introduction of the "walking eye" in 1954.

From the earliest days of the long-playing record as introduced by Columbia in 1948, three elements were present on all cover designs of the new records: the brand name "Columbia" (with "Masterworks" added for classical releases), the company's Magic Notes logo (introduced in 1908, and modified with the addition of a CBS microphone in 1939), and the new "Lp"-in-a-circle logo to identify the new records.  The placement of these elements may have varied from year to year but the presence of them was constant over the next six years.  Here is a cross-section of a typical example from 1954, with the Notes appearing to the left of the catalog number:

But by then, the Eye had been introduced in Columbia's advertising; in fact, it appears at the bottom of the back cover of this album:

By the beginning of 1955, the Notes have disappeared from the cover, as on this cross-section of an LP reviewed in the Feb. 5, 1955, issue of Billboard:

Beginning with issues reviewed in the March 12, 1955, issue of Billboard, a curious symbol appears underneath the "Lp" logo, resembling nothing so much as a tape reel:

This seems to be designed to assure the buyer that this is a "high fidelity" recording, a catchphrase that was all the rage in the 1950s.  Columbia must have decided that this assurance could be granted much less wordily by the summer of 1955, for by then the tape reel and its associated verbiage had been deleted, and the "Lp" logo reconfigured like this (snipped from the upper right corner of ML 5035):

(Incidentally, this branding coincides with the introduction of the "6-eyes" label. I've seen copies of issues having "tape reel" covers with the old Magic Notes blue labels, but I've never seen the above branding with old labels, at least on American pressings.  Canadian pressings are another story.)

This simple, elegant branding lasted for almost a year.  With the releases of May, 1956, or thereabouts, the Eye finally appears on Columbia front covers, albeit in this curious configuration with the "Lp" logo forming its "pupil" and used in tandem with a similar eye-like device advertising "360 Sound" (a phrase first used in 1952 in connection with Columbia's phonograph line):

By the fall of 1956, the "360 Sound" part of this logo had morphed into this circles-within-squares arrangement:

...which is a bit confusing to behold, but at least has the virtue of contrast with the Eye portion of the logo.

The third version of this vertical logo, which first appeared around the beginning of 1957, is the simplest, for it dispenses with the "360 Sound" component and restores the "Lp" to its rightful place as a separate entity (I've included the fine-print portion underneath because it shows that the Eye has finally reached the status of Marcas Reg., i. e., a registered trademark):

This didn't last long either.  By the spring of 1957, the information contained in this last vertical version - the label name, the Eye, the "Lp" and Guaranteed High Fidelity - had been reworked into this easier-to-manage, (mostly) horizontal arrangement:

This was the definitive version, and would remain in place for the next four to five years, with minor variations.


  1. always a real pleasure, for the covers as well as for your comments.

  2. Very nice set.

    One story I have read is that the vortex (Borodin above) and "Graranteed high fidelity" appeared when Columbia stopped using Lp equalization to conform to the standard RIAA; they sound quite different. But, the uses of these varied identifiers are inconsistent with respect to time. ML 4525 (Lipatti-Karajan) uses the box like ML5035 above, but later issue ML 4935 (Francescatti, Bach) uses only the circle with Lp. The fully horizontal and mostly horizontal Columbia Masterworks with eye and Lp seem interchangeable. ML 5285 (Verlkärte Nacht, Mitropolous) has it one way on the front and the other on the back.

    I wonder if this simply reflects experimentation within ongoing work to create a distinctive graphic identity. Columbia had started with the one jacket in different inks fits all of 1948 (above) to the use of geometric forms in overprints to organize the visual space (LM4178), linoleum and wood cuts (Modern American Music series.g. ML 4842, 4988), engravings (Budapest Schubert String quartets from the Library of Congress). They also began making double front jackets, such as ML 5476, quartets of Foss and Bergsma, each receiving a front cover, or ML5196 (Stravinsky Persephony) with a watercolor on one front and a B/W cover on the with Stravinsky sitting in front of Ampex tape recorders. In this record as in the Schönberg above, the Columbia Masterworks logos are rendered in the color contrasts of the jackets, a habit that became the default in later stereo jackets.

    The designers of these jackets were clearly very interested in graphic arts and design and in what could be done with print technology, particularly as it was rapidly evolving at this time.

    Everything came into focus with the first stereo records. From then well into the 70s (pre Condak)CBS Masterworks was making the most intelligent jackets in classical music. The only competition was at Blue Note.

    1. Peter - very interesting about the vortex and "guaranteed high fidelity." I've always assumed that Columbia began using RIAA eq when the "6-eyes" label appeared. Regarding ML 4525 I've seen it with 3 different cover designs; the original one uses a green background with two pianos pictured, and has the old notes-and-microphone logo; the one you mention, with the LP-in-the-box, has a drawing of Lipatti; and then there's a later one with the mostly horizontal logo, that has a photo of a lakeside scene. Columbia did these reissued covers on a number of their most popular titles; it isn't clear to me why. Although in one instance - South Pacific with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza - it's pretty obvious; the reissued cover (with the horizontal logo) shows Martin and Pinza in a pose very like that of their counterparts on the RCA Victor LP of the film soundtrack from about the same time. Obviously Columbia hoped to confuse the buyer into buying their South Pacific by making their cover as much like Victor's as possible!

  3. "CBS Masterworks was making the most intelligent jackets in classical music"

    Agreed. And on that note does anyone have any information other than what I have collected about their superlative collage artist Philip Featheringill? I've always enjoyed his work. Apparently he was a mover and shaker in jazz before he settled on doing covers for Columbia Masterworks.