Tom Wilkes: Graphic designer responsible for many celebrated album covers

Wednesday 15 July 2009 00:00 BST

Anyone owning a copy of such epochal albums as Eric Clapton's eponymous debut, Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen, The Gilded Palace Of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, The Concert For Bangla Desh, Pearl by Janis Joplin, Neil Young's Harvest, the Rolling Stones' collection Flowers, and The Beatles 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 compilations is familiar with the distinctive, eye-catching work of the graphic designer, illustrator and photographer Tom Wilkes.

The art director of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June 1967, for which he created a striking, unusual psychedelic poster printed on foil stock, Wilkes performed a similar role at A&M in the late 1960s and ABC Records in the mid-'70s. In the intervening years, he partnered Barry Feinstein at Camouflage Productions and Craig Braun in Wilkes & Braun Inc., and in 1978 started Tom Wilkes Productions company and Project Interspeak, a non-profit environmental and human rights organisation. Wilkes' work was instantly recognisable on hundreds of posters, logos and adverts as well as celebrated album covers like the pinball motif on Tommy Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Choir, for which he won Best Album Package at the Grammy Awards in 1974.

Born and raised in southern California, Wilkes graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1957 despite being sent to the Principal's office on many occasions for drawing in class. He put himself through Long Beach City College, UCLA and the Art Center School in Los Angeles by painting flamboyant motifs and illustrations on his friends' cars. In 1967, he was running his own advertising agency and had already designed album covers for the Rolling Stones – the Flowers compilation with its swirly letters and flower stems topped by individual pictures of the five band members – and The Mamas And The Papas, whose debut If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears featured the four members in a bath tub and a lavatory in the corner – a recurrent Wilkes motif and bugbear of record labels – covered up and then cropped on subsequent versions of the hit album. This brought him into contact with the Mamas' producer Lou Adler and John Phillips of the group, two of the instigators of Monterey Pop, alongside Alan Pariser and the Beatles' press agent Derek Taylor.

"I came up with the logo design featuring the classic Pan wearing a psychedelic necktie and playing the pipes. It was a great gig," Wilkes told the Altsounds website. Via Taylor, the Beatles sent a felt marker, coloured pencil and ink drawing entitled "Peace To Monterey" which Wilkes incorporated into the 80-page programme; his Monterey Pop poster won an award for the most creative use of foil from the aluminum manufacturer Reynolds.

"He caught the spirit of the time," Adler said. "You can see a lot of the posters from that period and say, 'Oh, that's the Sixties'. With Tom, it isn't dated. There's a very special look to it."

Monterey Pop proved a landmark event in the Summer of Love and put Wilkes on the map. In 1968, he designed the original cover for Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones. The band loved his concept of a graffiti-covered lavatory but it proved so offensive to Decca in the UK and London in the US that the companies refused to issue the album. The Stones dug their heels in but eventually relented and used an alternative "white R.S.V.P. invite" design (Wilkes' toilet made its belated appearance on the CD version in 1984).

Wilkes was no stranger to controversy. In 1968, he daubed Ike and Tina Turner in Pierrot make-up and had them eating a slice of watermelon on the front and back of the Outta Season album. But he had a knack for capturing the essence of the music and the artists who made it, as with the cover of Harvest, whose texture, pale yellow colour and old-fashioned lettering are evocative of the golden age of America Neil Young was harking back to.

Among the many memorable album covers Wilkes created in the late sixties, Safe As Milk, the debut by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Spirit, The Family That Plays Together and Clear by Spirit and Accept No Substitute by Delaney & Bonnie stand out, while in the early '70s he packaged Close To You by The Carpenters, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends On Tour with Eric Clapton, Stoney End by Barbra Streisand, Big Bambu by the "stoned" comedians Cheech & Chong and Alone Together by Dave Mason, which unfolded into a poster three times the size of a normal vinyl 12in, with a pouch to house the vinyl at the bottom. However, his most iconic creations must be the cover of Pearl by Janis Joplin, for which he photographed the singer on a loveseat with a bottle in hand the night before she died of a drug overdose, and The Concert For Bangla Desh, the benefit put together at Madison Square Garden in New York by George Harrison in August 1971 and released as a triple vinyl album at the end of the year.

"We did Bangla Desh gratis, just because we wanted to contribute to George's cause, so we just worked on expenses," Wilkes told Goldmine magazine in 2004. "I spent hours looking at horrible, horrible footage, and we eventually selected this shot. I did extensive airbrushing... I kind of cleaned it up a little. Some of the other photos in the book are from the rest of the footage I reviewed. It was difficult to watch. I have a really nice letter from Unicef thanking me."

Wilkes could be volatile and difficult but he left a legacy of some of the most evocative artwork in rock and pop. "My favourite moments were hanging with the artists, listening to the music and creating unique images that related to the title or musical style of the album," he said. Wilkes directed TV and radio commercials, music videos, films, devised mixed-media presentations and launched Planet Gear, a line of merchandise dedicated to funding and supporting research into environmental issues. Record companies still called on his service for reissues, most notably the 5 CD-set Box Of Pearls: The Janis Joplin Collection in 1999.

Wilkes recently completed a memoir, Tommy Geeked The Chicken. He was diagnosed with a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig's disease – 10 years ago and died of a heart attack at his home in the Californian desert he loved and had often immortalised on album covers.

Pierre Perrone

Tom Wilkes, graphic designer: born Long Beach, California 30 July 1939; married and divorced three times (one daughter from first marriage); died Pioneertown, California 28 June 2009.

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