Checking In With Bob Ciano

*Rebroadcasting from our feature interview published back in 2015 with Bob Ciano who served as art director for CTI, Kudu and Salvation labels and created some of the most amazing eye catching covers.

Somewhere in the mid 90’s I was working in the design studios at Encyclopædia Britannica in Chicago, listening to a Freddie Hubbard record (okay, CD – it’s the 90s, remember) on my computer when a man clad in all black and wearing mirrored sunglasses quickly walked past my desk. A few paces past, the man paused, turned, came back to my desk and asked, “are you listening to Freddie Hubbard?” Now, outside of jazz nerd circles, Freddie Hubbard isn’t the most well known of trumpet players, and this wasn’t a recognizable Red Clay kind of track, either, so, impressed, I said, yes, it is indeed Freddie Hubbard—to which the man, Bob Ciano, explains, “you know, I did some LP covers for him in the 70s.”

That chance conversation opened up to a wealth of stories from Bob—who, it turned out, served as the Art Director for the CTI, Kudu, and Salvation labels from 1972–75—that gave first-hand color to the same records that I was picking up as I (like everyone else who digs) was going through my first “CTI Phase.”

To this day, every once in a while a box will show up from Bob with CTI proofs and ephemera (no, no CTI briefcase—that was just after his time there), and every time I call him up not just to thank him, but to poke around for more stories. Here’s a bit of a recent phone call I had with him to remember this unique time in music history in NYC, and it reminds me the importance of having confidence in doing your own thing and doing it well.

So set the scene for me a little bit—how did you first connect with CTI?
I was in there freelance at first—I did several freelance covers and then Creed offered me a job. I thought about that offer for quite a while, though, because I was at Redbook and having a great time being assistant to a guy named Bill Cadge, who was a terrific Art Director.  These were the days of when AD’s had some power—Redbook was on one floor with Bill Cadge, and another Art Director by the name of Otto Storch was at McCall’s on another floor in the same building, and they were both doing really great stuff visually. Art Directors had a different stature then, they had a big voice in things. We would commission illustrations and photography, the finished work would come in, we’d do the layouts and maybe a week before the magazine would ship we’d then show the Editor. Maybe once every six months or so the Editor—who at Redbook was a really terrific editor named Sey Chassler—would say “I…I…don’t think that’s a great illustration for that story,” and Bill Cadge would stand up, take his T-square, slam it on the ground, put on his jacket on and said, “well, if you want to be Art Director, you do it!” and would walk out. And that’s about all Bill had to say to keep the Editor quiet for another six issues and let us do our work [laughs]. So it was hard to leave a situation like that. Anyway, I first got connected with Creed when the current CTI designer, Sam Antupit, was leaving to go start his own company and he wasn’t going to have time to put covers together, and I already knew (photographer) Pete Turner over there, so I tried it. I can’t say I hit it off with Creed, but he tolerated me. I mean, he was incredibly polite—a polite Southerner—and was very, very quiet, so you never really knew what was going on. But it worked, and he offered me a job. Like I said, I didn’t take the offer right away, because I would just be doing record jackets; I had been working with illustrators and writers and photographers and doing all kinds of stuff at Redbook, but it was time to move on, so I jumped.

What was your first cover?
Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar—the one with the baby’s foot. Everyone thinks it’s supposed to be a sensual, sexual picture, but it wasn’t. Pete (Turner) was shooting babies for something else, and what he would do was he would tell us what kind of shoots were coming up and we’d see what he was up to, and if we could piggyback some ideas on his expenses we would. So here he was shooting babies, and I asked him what else could we do to make this more than a picture of a baby, you know? And we talked about kissing the baby, and all that, but really it was the model who just decided to do that and lick the baby’s feet. But it’s just a baby’s foot. Everybody thinks it’s some kind of sexual thing, but it’s not.There were other shots of Pete’s that were meant to be sensual, of course—the Cherry cover from Stanley Turrentine with the back and fingers, and there was another closeup with lips, really thick lipstick, but that was before me, back on A&M (the Soul Flutes’ Trust in Me LP, designed by Sam Antupit).

How did you meet Pete Turner, anyway?
I worked with him when I was back at Redbook in 1969 when I used him to do beauty shots—lots of shots of really gorgeous women, which is always nice [laughs]. Visually it was really graphic, strong stuff at Redbook, trying to get away from what most women’s magazines looked like then, which were not very good.That idea carried over to CTI; the premise of CTI was that these musicians were the all-stars. Creed knew these players from his days at A&M and from when he was the exclusive producer for Wes Montgomery—I think that was at Verve—and he wanted to start his own company, but with all-stars as the studio musicians. So you had Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Billy Cobham and all these guys, and they’d all be on all the albums and they’d just reverse the lead player from record to record. And that CTI sound was because of Bob James and Don Sebesky. Those two were always coming up with different ideas for the sound.

So did you get out often to hear these guys play?
Oh yeah, if they were in town and playing the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note or some other small place in the Village I would go. I didn’t know their music, so I had to go—it was like doing homework. I would hear the rough cuts of songs before Creed would do the final cut over at Rudy’s (Van Gelder), and Creed would have the musicians come to the practice room at the CTI offices and play over and over while he thought about what to do with the record, so you kind of knew what was going on. I remember Esther (Phillips) would use that practice room a lot—I think because she didn’t have any other place to go; it was always questionable as to where she would be at any given time. I remember her doing that take of “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” very well. She was special.But it’s not like you could wait until the record was done before you started making covers, right? Right—images always came before titles and music at CTI. Creed would tell us what was coming up, recording-wise, and who was going to be on it, and once I was there I knew a bit more about what the music was going to sound like, anyway. And like I said, I used to talk with Pete a lot, and we would just try to come up with images that were startling and then I would go and take those ideas to Creed. A lot of the ideas really came from Pete and where he had been traveling and what he was into at any given moment—he’d give me some pictures, I’d dummy up some covers and make up titles to give Creed some choices to go with music, rather than listening to the music and try to come up with an image. I mean, you look at the God Bless the Child cover from Kenny Burrell—it’s just a striking image, and something that seemed right for the time, with Vietnam and everything.The typography is cool, too—lots of simple display faces, swash caps and everything. Super simple typography. The pictures were so strong, I was always trying to simplify type choices and not try to dominate the cover with type. Again, we were lucky because the artists were so humble, and weren’t screaming to have their names in 120-point type, so I was able to do really simple things. Creed liked really simple covers, and would push for that. I would try to get a little personality in with type choices, but didn’t want to overdo it. It was just me and an assistant that had to do all of this. It wasn’t crazy like at a magazine, at least not at first—but once Creed started Kudu, and then Salvation, it became a lot more. We’d be doing about six records a month—a lot of covers we’d just go ahead and do because we knew who was going into the studio so we’d just go ahead and get them done, even though the record itself wouldn’t come out for several months yet. I mean, we had to do that, anyway, because we were doing all the advertising and promotion work, too. We didn’t have a lot of budget for advertising and promotion, but record stores would open the gatefold covers up and staple them up on the wall so you could see them when you walked into the store, and we’d also print extra copies of the covers and sell them direct in the mail, which worked out really well for us.

Do you have any favorite covers?

Let me think about that. Favorite covers…I like the blue Hubert Laws one with the horse (Crying Song), and the “glass eye” covers (Joe Farrell’s Moon Germs, Canned Funk). But you know, one of my favorite covers was the Chet Baker one, the one with the kid’s face, kind of pixelated (She Was Too Good To Me). When Chet heard that I was Italian, he used to come up and tell me all the stories about when he lived in Italy. Chet had one of Mussolini’s sons—Romano, who was a jazz pianist—in his band in Italy. And Chet told me—and Chet had to have been drunk out of his mind to have said this—but said when he first met Romano he said, “gee, uh, huh. I’m sorry about your old man.” I mean, what else are you gonna say? [laughs] I also remember he got his teeth knocked out while he was on the label, and Creed had to pay for his new choppers, and his sound was really changing because he had to re-learn how to play. You had mentioned Bob James a moment ago—speaking of him, what’s the story behind the covers for One and Two? Well, I saw these photos of door knockers that I thought were wonderful [laughs]. At the time I was really into the idea of taking pictures of objects and changing them somehow. I don’t think he’s credited, but there was a guy named Nick Fasciano who could do anything—sculpt, draw, whatever—and I had him retouch some of these photographs I bought from (photographer) Gene Laurents to make them seem “real” by adding eyes and so on. It was just something I was into. Overall it seems like there was a different kind of confidence in designing these things, like it was OK to just be conceptual and keep things simple. I’m not sure you could get away with that approach today. What happened?  I think the computer has changed that. You won’t remember this, but when Macs came along all of a sudden Art Directors were setting type and collaging. They were terrible at it! Art Directors were becoming these one-man bands—you didn’t have to, but you could. Because of that, you see a lot of just mediocre stuff. My thinking was, hey, if I need an illustration, I’m going to go find the best illustrator I could find. Photographer? Same thing. I can’t draw, and I take mediocre pictures—so I thought I should just spend my energy designing and coming up with ideas.

But you drew the Kudu typeface, so you can draw something, right? 
Yeah, and that’s why it’s shaped the way it is—because I had to draw it! With a compass and an ink nib! I remember listening to WBLS one afternoon and hearing Frankie Crocker say how he would love to meet the brother who drew the red, black and green Kudu typeface. I never did tell him that the brother was an Italian guy in Brooklyn [laughs]!

For more information on the photography of Pete Turner, check out the book The Color of Jazz.