Jim McCrary: Photographer who shot over 300 album covers

The US photographer Jim McCrary created over 300 album covers, including Reach Out by Burt Bacharah, Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Joe Cocker, Now & Then by The Carpenters, Nuthin' Fancy by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Two Sides of the Moon by Keith Moon and Remote Control by The Tubes.

However, his most memorable and iconic picture was the one adorning Tapestry, the multimillion-selling 1971 album by Carole King. The informal photo of the New York singer-songwriter, barefoot and sitting on a windowsill at her California home, mirrored the intimate material – and became one of the defining images of the laid-back Laurel Canyon scene of the early 1970s. McCrary's moment of inspiration came as he remembered a survey detailing people's fondness for cat photographs when he spotted Telemachus, King's tabby. "I moved the cat on the pillow from across the room into my shot," he said.

The tabby only stayed long enough for the photographer to take three pictures, but they included the one now in 25 million homes. McCrary also shot the covers of King's next two albums, Music – the inside spread of the gatefold sleeve featured her dog – and Rhymes & Reasons. He remarked that in front of the camera she was "as natural as anyone. You learn a lot about people as a photographer. When you turn the camera on some people, it is a frightening experience for them. It brings out their insecurities."

Born in 1939, McCrary grew up on his father's pigeon farm in Chino, 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Interested in photography from his early teens, he was mostly self-taught and became proficient enough to take the school photographs at his high school. After serving in the Army he majored in photography at Pasadena City College, where he would return to teach in the late 1970s. He also worked for several portrait studios, a useful grounding for his subsequent career.

McCrary spent several years in the photo department of the manufacturing conglomerate Rockwell International, but jumped at the chance to join A&M Records as chief photographer in 1967. The company founded by the trumpeter and bandleader Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss had just moved into new headquarters on the grounds of the historic Charlie Chaplin Studios near Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood – and McCrary was in his element. His first assignment was photographing the protest singer Phil Ochs forPleasures of the Harbor, and he continued providing publicity and advertising shots and cover artwork forA&M and the labels and artists the company distributed in the US for the next seven years.

He photographed Alpert for many of his best-selling easy listening albums with the Tijuana Brass; his former boss reminisced about his "artistic eye and sensitive touch". McCrary also shot several incarnations of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and many pictures that have been used in archival releases by the country rock pioneers and Gram Parsons. Other favourite subjects from the A&M stable included the Hammond organist and blue-eyed soul vocalist Lee Michaels, Cocker acolyte Leon Russell, Joan Baez, Rita Coolidge, Peter Frampton, Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendes, Billy Preston, Rick Wakeman, Paul Williams, Captain & Tennille, as well as visiting Brits Procol Harum and Cat Stevens.

McCrary also documented the rise of the Carpenters, A&M's biggest selling act of the '70s. He photographed the duo on the side of the road for their 1969 debut, Offering, though he was happier with the repackaged version entitled Ticket to Ride, shot on a boat on Lake Tahoe. He placed a white alabaster heart next to their logo on a red background for the striking A Song For You in 1972.

In 1974 McCrary left A&M but he didn't move very far, freelancing from his studio on La Brea Avenue, where he lived upstairs and built a collection of model trains. He remained in demand and photographed the likes of Styx, Peaches & Herb, Stephen Stills and Teena Marie, though he made a faux pas with Michael Jackson, retuning the radio as the singer's "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" played during a photo session; his pictures were rejected. In 1990, he closed his studio and opened Pix Camera, a Hollywood store for professional photographers.

Lou Adler, the music mogul who signed King to his Ode label, recalled that despite being 6ft 4in, McCrary knew how to blend into the background. "A lot of the times, you didn't even know he was there – a great sort of tribute to the way he photographed ... Conceptually, he always understood what the person was about and was able to photograph their personality."

McCrary died of complications from a chronic nervous system disorder.

James Willard McCrary, photographer: born Los Angeles County 31 August 1939; married (marriage dissolved, one son); died Palo Alto, California 29 April 2012.

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