Saul Bass, Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color
Saul Bass, best known for the film titles (and shower sequences) he designed for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, also designed a few—very few, as far as I can tell—LP covers, aside from the soundtracks to films he was involved with. This is the earliest and best I have found. It is so good, in fact, that it inspired an homage in the cover of the recent exhibition catalogue California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way.
The cover is, in fact, the one memorable thing about the album. One of Sinatra’s rare side projects while on Capitol—he also conducted albums for Peggy Lee and Dean Martin, to much more memorable effect—it featured compositions inspired by the awful poetry of one Norman Sickel (bad poetry seems to be a theme here recently) and written by names drawn from the Capitol arrangers stable and the Hollywood soundtrack pen.
The only really serious composer here is Alec Wilder. In addition to writing such classic songs as “I’ll Be Around” and “While We’re Young”—and the landmark book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1910–1950*—Wilder was known for his chamber music that blended jazz and classical sensibilities. (Sinatra had conducted an entire album of Wilder’s works for small orchestra in the 1940s, one of Sinatra’s earliest extracurricular projects and first flirtations with “high” culture.) “Gray, The Gaunt” is the sole work on the album that might work as a soundtrack to the California Design book; it’s easy to imagine it accompanying one of Ray and Charles Eames’s films.†
The California Design cover was not the first tribute to Bass’s LP masterwork. I doubt Sinatra himself was involved in the art for the Capitol album, but the art department at his label, Reprise, must have had it in mind in 1961 when X-15 and Other Sounds of Rockets, Missiles, and Jets was released.
The cover is printed on foil or metallic paper, which itself seems like an homage to the metallic gold and silver stripes on the cover of Tone Poems of Color—not common or inexpensive choices at the time: someone cared about these covers (especially at Reprise, which soon became known for its cheapo artwork).
I’ll spare you the sound clips, but you can read (and hear) more about X-15 here if you are so moved.
Alec Wilder, “Gray, The Gaunt”
from Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color
* First published in 1972, this classic is out of print and will, alas, likely remain so. Given the huge number of musical examples given in the book, it was a miracle all rights were cleared for the initial edition. I doubt any publisher would take on the team of lawyers needed to produce another edition.
† In fact, one of the other Tone Poems of Color composers, soundtrack master Elmer Bernstein, did write—in a rather Wilderian vein—the music for the Eameses film “House.”