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The Gribbitt Touch

Munich Machine featuring Chris Bennett

Munich Machine featuring Chris Bennett

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The Gribbitt Touch

Irrespective of any one act’s ultimate record sales, Casablanca always committed to giving its artists the best in album cover design and the presentation of the music. Renowned fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo created iconic images of Donna Summer while Shusei Nagaoka, known for his stunning paintings of science-fiction landscapes, turned albums by Space and Munich Machine into futuristic extensions of the music. Neil Bogart hired Chris Whorf and his design studio, Gribbiit, to handle art direction and design for all Casablanca artists (except KISS), creating a brand of consistent excellence in album covers. Daring, provocative, glamorous – Casablanca fed imaginations.

Hart-Winer: Neil believed in the visual art. That’s why that department got a lot of attention. He did not mind spending money at all. He just didn’t know how to think small, which was marvelous. He had the inability to do that and that really helped all of us think a little larger.

Phyllis Chotin (Vice President, Creative Services): Little by little, I just wanted to start designing because it would end up going through me and my office, as head of Creative Services anyway. I would art direct and I would work with the artists. I didn’t do all of them but a lot I did and would just deliver the photos to Gribbitt to do.

Tom Nikosey (Designer): Gribbitt was a design studio that had art directors designing album covers, mostly, and they needed specialists to do certain things. They would hire out photographers, hire out lettering and logo artists, and hire out illustrators because they really didn’t work in-house. It was too much of a burden on them to hire people who did that for a living so they hired us out on a free-lance basis.

Robert Rodriguez (Illustrator: Gribbitt was great to work for and I think I only worked for maybe three different art directors there. They were so exciting. They did such cool stuff. Everyone was doing good stuff in those days.

Stephen Lumel (Designer): The procedure was sometimes you would handle the whole project, sometimes they’d give you photos and say make an album out of it. Sometimes you’d get a photo and you’d have to get retouching done and clean things up. For Donna Summer, all of her photos were made into 20x24 dye-transfer prints, which was real high-end in those days. They would make five or six prints of different photos and then decide which one they wanted to use. Chris Whorf probably art directed it because she had some famous photographers working with her. She had wonderful pictures but depending on how it was laid out, you had to retouch the pictures accordingly.

Henry Vizcarra (Art Director): Most of the time, all we had was the artist’s name and the title. Sometimes the label would bring in a really expensive photographer and we’d get a glamour shot of the artist. Sometimes they’d hire an illustrator. We’d choose the best image and design the lettering. I had a great time designing the logos for each act.

Nikosey: Henry was great. He was one of my favorite art directors during that time. He’s a very sensitive art director and he gave you a lot of freedom. He gave you good direction but he was just a terrific art director. He’s still in the business, still very highly respected. He has his own company.

Vizcarra: For Village People, we were sent two black and white photos: “This is a group. They’re called the Village People. Design the album cover”.

Lumel: In Donna Summer’s case, I think you had to respect the photography and the feel for who the person was. If it was based strictly on the photographic images that we were using (e.g. Bad Girls), you tried to tie it all together so it all worked together. You can’t add that lettering on the front with the theme and the title being foreign to everything else. We’d do the sketch and then we’d send it to that person to do the final inking and clean it all up but a lot of times I did the lettering by myself because I just liked doing it.

Nikosey: I would always insist on listening to a tape or something while I was working to kind of get the energy of the music and that would influence the style of the design that I’d be doing. I was always trying to create an image with the name or the lettering that would stand on its own, that would have its own sort of brand – nobody said the word “branding” in those days, but that’s basically what it was. I wanted the design, when it was by itself, to stand for whatever it’s representing, so people would remember it and want to wear it on a T-shirt. I was trying to create an image that was sort of a signature piece for the artist or band.

Chotin: The album cover has to reflect what’s inside, as well as the personality of the artist. You got to try and make it mesh. Usually, I’d get tracks and then I’d listen. I’d start feeling ideas. I’d find out what the single was or what the artist had in mind for the album title and then we’d meet and go over ideas, what their ideas were and what mine were.

LaRue: When I would have my meeting for my album covers, it would be with Phyllis and Chris. In my humble opinion, because I’m a graphic designer, art director and photographer as well, Casablanca put out the best looking recordings in the country for five or six years, on every level.—on the rock level, on the R&B level, on the disco level. Chris Whorf and that art department at Gribbitt, and Phyllis Chotin, they were brilliant. They just excelled. Even the bomb albums, when they were starting to put out four or five or six albums a week, and those disposable disco albums by the studio aggregations that nobody ever heard of, look at those album covers!

Chotin: It’s so much easier today than back in those days when you had to do mechanicals and dye transfers. If there was a typo and you had to cut into a word…it was really difficult. There was a lot of work that went into it back then. I traveled with Robin Williams from San Francisco to New York to shoot his album cover!

Lumel: I was with Phyllis.  I was asked to go as the art director for Gribbitt representing Casablanca because I had worked on a lot of Casablanca stuff and they wanted somebody to go and they asked me if I wanted to go. It was a fun thing to do because the Lincoln Town Car picked you up at your house to take you to the airport, The plane is all arranged for you. You land in New York. You don’t know where the hell you are and there’s a guy standing there with a sign with your name on it. He puts you in the Lincoln Town Car and takes you into the city. I stayed at the Park Lane Hotel. We had a big limo each day to go to the shoots. I had no idea what was going to transpire as far as concept. In the case of Robin Williams, because he was so unusual and different—he wasn’t a rock and roller—he put on his costumes for about eight or ten different characters and we shot each character.

Briley: Shooting one of the album covers (Cruisin’, 1978) took us to the Mojave Desert.  What a day!

Hodo: At the time we shot the album cover it was supposed to be the most expensive cover ever photographed, which was part of the Barnum-esque approach that Neil added to everything. I won’t get into it but if you look at the cover, consider how much it took to get all of that set up to the Mojave Desert, plus the helicopter filming the whole thing from over head. My clearest memory of that shoot is that it was in July and I was sick to death with the flu. Anytime I am handed that album to sign, all I can think of is how sick I was in the desert sun on top of a bulldozer, trying to look like I was having a good time. Neil had it all filmed in order to make a short for TV on the shooting of the album. He didn’t miss a trick.

Gomez: One thing Casablanca didn’t like was the European cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (1977). That was the last shot we took on the shoot that we did for the European cover. The sun was going down. They didn’t have the lighting correct. It was really dark. Neil, being a perfectionist, said, “You guys have to go in and shoot another cover for the States”. Neil, with his art department, came up with what I thought was a good idea having just Santa Esmeralda with a rose because “Leroy Gomez” was basically out of the picture at that point! By that time Neil was in full swing with me, he didn’t even know that the producer was trying to cut me out of being the lead vocalist in the group.

Nikosey: As far as risqué covers, there were a number of them. Now, it’s sort of no big deal but a lot of people were pushing the envelope. Disco was very sex-driven, obviously.

Chotin: I did an interview and I got berated (for Love & Kisses). It was one of those TV magazine shows. I think my answer was something like it’s not violence against women, it’s more about keeping your thumb on the pulse of America and this is kind of what America was allowing and going for at the time. It didn’t have, to me, much to do with violence against women. The times were different then. Now, I would be offended but then it was like, “Let’s sell some records! Let’s grab some attention!”, because that was the purpose of album graphics then.

Lumel: There may be some things in general that, because of the strength of women’s rights and violence against women and just domestic violence in general, would be inappropriate so you probably wouldn’t do it today. There are some people who don’t care and they just try to get away with whatever they can. When we had photo sessions and you were just a shooting a model to use on the cover, you couldn’t have that nipple showing. You had to conceal it. There was some of that censorship being practiced. I didn’t want any backlash for anything that we photographed. If you do it tastefully, it’s good but it’s those that don’t think about that when they do it that creates problems for everyone else. The morals of this country compared to the rest of the world are a little different. There are things that are totally acceptable in Europe that aren’t acceptable here in public media.

Bennett: I’m a farm girl from Illinois and my parents were very conservative. They were Democrats, but still. When Giorgio had the concept for A Whiter Shade of Pale (1978), I went in for a meeting with Neil Bogart. I was so nervous. He said, “Well we’ve got this idea. It’s going to be like machines and you’re going to look like you’re naked but you’re not really going to be because you’re going to be in fog and have goggles”. I said, “Well that sounds cool. I’m up for that”. We get there for the photo shoot and it’s a major photographer. They start plying me with a little wine, a little smoke. Before I know it, I’m dancing topless thinking nobody’s gong to see anything because I’m going to be covered in smoke. A few weeks later—this is the days before digital, remember—there I am stark naked on the front cover and they’ve enhanced my boobs! I looked good but I began to weep, I said, “My father is going to kill me”(laughs). I think Neil felt so bad for me, he ended up putting it on the back cover and me with the goggles on the front cover. Now I’m proud of it but in those days…My parents were so proud that I had done my first album that they’d take it to places for people but they wouldn’t take the cover because this was a little Methodist town. It’s tame, now.

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 

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