At a gallery talk at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Saturday, one audience member asked John Berg, seated among several dozen of the album covers he designed as the art director at Columbia Records, if the artists, like Barbra Streisand, got the final say on their album covers.
"She had the final decision. I only showed her one picture," quipped Berg, 80.
And, he won a Grammy for "The Barbra Streisand Album" in 1963 — a Henry Parker photograph of Streisand singing at the mic, her face in a dark shadow. .
The collection of Berg's album covers, on display at Guild Hall, range in musical genre and style. Just a fraction of the over 5,000 covers he designed, many of them are albums that became culturally significant.
"You can't tell a Berg cover," he told the crowd of about 60 who came to hear the East Hampton resident discuss his work, which spanned four decades. He retired in the late '90s, moving to East Hampton with his wife, Durell Godfrey.
Though he won four Grammys for Best Cover of the Year and was nominated for 25, he said, "There's no musicality to the graphics. It's more an attempt to engage the customer — that is to engage the customer in music . . . I wonder if I succeeded at all from that point of view."
Berg, a Brooklyn native and graduate of Cooper Union, joined Columbia Records in 1961 and became vice-president for packaging art and design in 1973. The record company had some of the best artists of the time from Bob Dylan to Billy Joel, Simon & Garfunkel to Ted Nugent.
Illustrators were trying innovative techniques on the 12-inch LP, such as hand lettering and inventive typography in an era long before PhotoShop. Berg worked with some of the best artists such as Milton Glaser, Paul Davis and Ed Sorel. But, Berg insists, "There was no attempt to make Columbia Records different than anybody else," he said.
Berg said he loved to win awards for the work. "Why did I want to win awards? So I can call up Richard Avedon and he'd know who I was," Berg laughed.
Avedon shot covers, such as the Sly And The Family Stone "Fresh" album in 1973 — for which Berg said he should have won a Grammy.
In addition to the Streisand cover, Berg won for Bob Dylan's "Greatest Hits" album in 1967, the Chicago "chocolate bar" album cover "Chicago X" in 1976, and Thelonious Monk's "Underground" in 1968.
Also, Berg has won three gold medals from the Art Director's Club of New York and two Gold Medals from the Society of Illustrators, as well as receiving over 350 certificates of merit and distinctive merit from the Art Directors Club in New York, Los Angeles and AIGA.
The audience at Guild Hall asked about the inspiration behind some album covers. The cover for The Byrds' "Byrdmanix" in 1971 came about on a whim. Berg said he was sitting in the Black Rabbit Cafe in LA with the band members — "everybody was a little stoned, maybe — and he suggested "chromium life masks" for the cover. The answer was simply, "Cool."
Other ideas came from the artists. The comic strip theme of the cover for "Cheap Thrills," the 1968 album for Big Brother and The Holiding Company, of which Janis Joplin was the lead vocalist, was actually Joplin's idea. She personally delivered it to Berg.
Bruce Springsteen had selected a different photograph from his album cover shoot with Eric Meola for his "Born to Run" album in 1975. Berg wasn't so sure and carefully poured over the frames until he found the one of Springsteen, with his guard down, one arm up on the shoulder of good friend and bandmate Clarence Clemons — which he descibes as charming. "You've never seen a rock n'roll album that looks like that," he said.
The 1971 Madura album featured the band's name written into a farm field — something that could so easily be done now in PhotoShop, but the words were actually plowed into a field in Bethel with Berg overseeing from a helicopter.
Asked what his favorite album cover he designed was, he said the answer has been evolving. But after putting together the exhibit for Guild Hall, he's decided on the The Boomtown Rats' 1982 album, "Charmed Lives."
It has the band's name written in giant block lettering. Berg said he originally designed it for Miles Davis. "He hated it, I loved it," he recalled, so he hung it up on his cork board and waited to pitch it to someone else.
John Berg's exhibit — as well as his Grammy awards — are on view in the Wasserstein Gallery through Jan. 6, 2013. The museum is open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m.; Suggested admission is $7, and free to members.