ACHOF Interview with designer and illustrator John Kehe
posted July 29, 2020 by Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
Back in the early 1970s, several members of the popular British band The Move – drummer Bev Bevan and singer/songwriters/instrumentalists Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne – were motivated to concentrate their efforts on a side-gig designed to test their concept that rock music would be made a bit more interesting with the addition of the instruments traditionally found in classical “light orchestras”, such as strings, horns and woodwinds. Calling themselves the “Electric Light Orchestra”, the group released several singles and one LP in the U.K. on the Harvest label, including a Top-10 hit “10538 Overture” in 1971 (on the Electric Light Orchestra album, released in December), “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1972 and “Showdown” and “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” in 1973.
The effort to re-create these hits in a live setting beginning in early 1972 – after adding additional instrumentation that needed to be amplified – was met with a lukewarm reception by concert audiences – the stage mix being quite the problem – and, as a result, Wood grew so frustrated that he chose to leave the group while they were recording their follow-up album. With Lynne stepping up to take charge of the band (and improvements in mic-ing techniques for acoustic string instruments allowing them to perform live with much better results), ELO would soon release their second LP (ELO 2), which spawned their first hit single in the U.S., the highly-orchestrated re-make of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. It was at this time that the band’s U.S. label – United Artists Records – undertook the effort to rebuild its art department to better-accommodate its new roster of talent, engaging wunderkind art director Mike Salisbury to lead the effort and, as part of that process, Salisbury brought on recent art school graduate John Kehe and immediately put him on the ELO project. John’s re-imagining of a popular corporate emblem would provide the perfect logo for a band well on its way to electrifying the pop charts and would be the first of scores of images Kehe would create – alone and later with several notable cohorts – at this early stage in what would be an illustrious (sorry for the art pun) career in nearly every aspect of the design/illustration business.
I caught up with John via email in July, 2020 and asked him to take us back to the time when he was helping a number of musical acts improve the chances that their records would grab the attention of the record buying public and, while on that journey, learning about both the good and the bad of working for clients in the entertainment business. Here’s a recap of our conversation:
Interview with designer/illustrator John Kehe (interviewed July, 2020) –
Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – John, as a long-standing fan of ELO and Jeff Lynne, it is truly an honor to be able to talk to you about your involvement in the band’s early branding. I did have the pleasure of interviewing both Kosh and Jeri Heiden about their later work for the band, but it is very fulfilling to be able to chat with someone who helped establish their “look” and created several of their best-known album cover images. I understand that each project presented its own unique challenges, so let’s get started with some background questions – How is it that you were first learned about the scope of what was expected for each of these projects?
John Kehe, designer/illustrator – The ELO project, to the best of my recollection, was handed to me on day one of my first job after art school. I’d just been hired as a designer at United Artists Records by Art Director Mike Salisbury, who was a red hot star in the Southern California design scene at that time. He had just left West Magazine – the Sunday insert of the LA Times – where he had all the design, photography and illustration talent in LA lighting up its pages every week. West’s covers were always witty and buzz-worthy so, as you can imagine, I was beyond stoked to go to work for him. That first week, I was assigned Johnny Rivers, whose career was beginning to fade somewhat, and a brand new act on the label, The Electric Light Orchestra, whose first album hadn’t made a ripple in the U.S.. My first inclination was to set them up with a logo – the band Chicago was hitting it big at the time and making good use of a consistent logo – and my passion was, and still is, logo design and hand-lettering, so it was a pretty easy concept to take the letters ELO and play with the ubiquitous General Electric trademark, which had an old-timey script flourish to it and made it perfect for expressing ELO’s quasi-classical approach. I’m pretty sure I sketched it that first day. Mike dug it, and we were on our way.
Mike G – What was it, in your opinion, which made ELO – the band’s make-up, their music, etc. – different from other rock/pop bands that were popular at the time?
John K – First off, it’s important for me to say that I was already a total music-head back then, and was into both the music and album covers equally. Nearly every day of the week while at Art Center – which was located in LA in those days – I’d ride my bike to a record shop or two after classes and, on weekends, you’d find me flipping through the used records and DJ copies that sold for 50 cents or a buck. So, I had already sampled the first ELO album, which was called No Answer in the US, and knew their backstory from the Move albums, Roy Wood, etc. When I was assigned to them, I was thrilled. I loved the “I Am the Walrus/Strawberry Fields” sound they had copped from the Beatles and didn’t want to mess this project up. UA Records was a second-tier label at the time, mostly known for movie soundtracks like Hard Day’s Night, Last Tango in Paris, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, etc., and had just recently started signing rock and soul acts. WAR was on the label and hot; Bobby Womack was doing well on the soul charts and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had scored some minor hits. But their newest signings – ELO, plus some obscure English and other eccentric European acts like Hawkwind and Can – were virtually unknown outside Europe. I saw the potential for Jeff Lynne and his quirky cohorts to hit it big in the USA. Their songwriting was good and getting better, and the production and sound was powerful and unique. The Beatles had broken up two years earlier, and I thought they might capture that huge fan-base, those craving anything “Beatlesque”. But it was a singer/songwriter world at that time – James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, CSNY, Cat Stevens, etc., so it took a while for ELO – along with a change from classical/baroque to a more poppy three-minute single style – before they really would start getting airplay and chart action.
MG – Based on your take of the people involved and knowledge of the music business at that point in time, was there anything that made United Artists Records – and by that, I mean the label and its approach to promoting/packaging music – different from other similar labels in its “category”?
JK – At first, there was nothing about United Artists that made them adept at marketing a band like ELO. The company itself had no real identity or concept. We had oldies acts like Johnny Rivers and Bobby Vee, lounge acts like Shirley Bassey and Paul Anka, the Blue Note jazz label, soundtrack albums, venerable soul acts like Bobby Womack and Clarence Carter, and some folk and country rock like Don McLean and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The roster was all over the place, and we inherited perhaps the worst-looking label design in recorded history, a disc in two-tone brown. Oy. The top execs and promotion men were old-timers, but they pretty much gave us “longhair” designers free rein, thankfully. We had a talented photography department, as well as a hipster copywriter, and so the art dept. was humming when I was there.
MG – Eldorado, Face The Music, etc., were the band’s break-through recordings, featuring many hit songs. How familiar were you with the artist and musical style displayed in these sets? Was there a particular track or tracks from the song lists that served as the inspiration for each package’s overall design and what main/supporting visuals that would be included?
JK – My first assignment was their second US release called On The Third Day, which was a really strong record. I was handed the proof sheets of a Richard Avedon photo session, all done in black and white. It looked like a really classy photo of the band, all dressed up, until you zoomed into their midsections, where their bellybuttons were all exposed. Pretty silly – I was disappointed, but I finished off the design with very formal type – maybe Bodoni? – on it to carry out the ‘quirky classical’ theme that the photo suggested. The brand new logo I designed for them was featured in giant neon light bulbs flanking them on stage as well as in a poster campaign and on a billboard on Sunset Blvd., so UA did put some money behind the band’s promotion.
Musically, the record was a giant improvement over their debut – tighter, more aggressive, and rockier. “Showdown”, the first single, should have been a smash. It’s gone on to be one of the highlights of their live shows, prompting a massive singalong from ecstatic audiences. The instrumentals– the Moody Blues-ish “Ocean Breakup/King of the Universe” and “Daybreaker” presaged the driving cello leading to romantic themes of their subsequent work like “Can’t Get it Out of My Head”. The songs “Bluebird is Dead” and “Oh No, Not Susan” sound like prime Walrus-period Lennon, musically and vocally at least. Lynne’s lyrics have never been his strong suit, which may have hurt “Showdown” and “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”, the albums failed singles. ELO’s driving version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” was the perfect classical rock closer. Big fun, this album, and by far and away my favorite ELO record. Lynne was still living deep into Pepperland, and pulled off a “FAB-ulous” homage. On the Third Day didn’t produce any hits in the US, and, sadly, only charted at #52 on the Billboard Top 100 album charts.
MG – Which leads us to Eldorado…
JK – Eldorado came the next year, with that title attached, and I was again tasked with designing the cover. My boss Mike Salisbury had recently flown the coop, headed up to San Francisco to redesign Rolling Stone magazine. My new boss, the veteran Bob Cato, suggested we build a model of an imagined “Eldorado” – the legendary lost city of gold – out of Plexiglas blocks. “Okay”, I said, without an ounce of enthusiasm. So we trekked out to the California dessert, set up our model at sunrise, and photographed it. Ugh. It. Did. Not. Work. Cato agreed, so back to the drawing board it was. I had two days to come up with something great because we had a release date looming. Since this whole album was based on Jeff Lynne’s concept of a young man’s search for a better world, I thought of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s search for the Emerald City, and her epiphany “there’s no place like home”. There was a cool shop in Hollywood at the time called Larry Edmund’s Cinema Books, so I jumped on my bike and rode over there at lunchtime. Besides books and old scripts, they had boxes full of 35mm prints, cut up into slides, of pretty much any classic movie you could think of. “Wizard of Oz?” You bet. There were lots of slides with images of the Emerald City with the field of poppies in the foreground, but they looked too happy, too cutesy. Then I stumbled on the image of Dorothy’s shoes shooting out sparks, with the Wicked Witch’s hands recoiling. It was all grainy and gorgeous – and riveting. I loved it for this record and this title, but the band had other ideas. They had never heard of the Wizard of Oz movie and had wanted the cover to be an image of the band descending a giant keyboard stairway. I fought for it, over the band’s dislike, their manager’s puzzlement and the head of UA scratching his head and asking me “THIS is what you want?” After a call to his CEO buddy at MGM, who owned the rights to anything Oz, we got our permission – and the right to produce what would turn out to be a pretty iconic album jacket.
This was a big album for the boys from Birmingham. It had a huge sound, a more confident Jeff Lynne and a real, zillion-piece orchestra. “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” was a smash, topping out at #9 on the charts, and the album went gold. I’d like to think the cover helped – it sure looked good on the roof of the Tower Records store on the Sunset Strip – and it definitely helped put ELO on the map.
The next record, Face the Music, was the album that solidified Jeff Lynne’s standing as an ace pop songwriter. “Strange Magic” sounded like nothing ELO had done before, and “Evil Woman” became one of their most-enduring hits. The album was their first to go platinum in the US.
MG – Did you get any other guidance – or specific instructions – from the record’s producers that gave you some direction on how to create the key parts of your main package and then any ancillary items, like artwork for promo posters and merch, as examples – that needed to be worked on that were based on the same design guide? Put another way, how were your clients – that is, the label staffers, the record’s producers and/or the musical artists themselves – actively involved in any or all aspects of the development of this design? What roles did they take?
JK – The answer is “no” – we were left alone. Everybody at the company wanted desperately to break this band, so there was maximum effort put in by all departments. ELO was thought of as pretty uncool at the time by critics, but it was the closest thing UA Records had to a big-time rock act, so we pushed ourselves to make them big. It really started with Eldorado, caught fire with the single “Evil Woman” from Face the Music and kept growing after their visual identity was handed off to John Kosh, who souped it up with his juke box/flying saucer graphics.
MG – What were the principal considerations governing the degree you might go to in creating something “special” for the project, such as budget, time, previous designs or other new graphics?
JK – Even though band logos started to fall out of favor by the late seventies, I’m glad I designed a logo for ELO that has stood the test of time. For that band in particular, with their revolving door of personnel, the logo – either my original version or John Kosh’s evolved “Wurlitzer version” – have created opportunities for spectacular set designs and props, and seared the image into the public consciousness.
That’s what identity and branding are intended to do.
MG – How did you choose the talent – that is, the designers, illustrators, typographers/graphic designers, photographers, etc. – who would work with you on this effort? Can you help me get a better understanding of the “who did what” on the project?
JK – For the Face the Music package, my Art Attack partner Mick Haggerty and I designed and built the logo to look like 1940’s industrial design, something Raymond Loewy might have done. We wanted it to look and feel like cast metal, and a bit used. We scored a vintage electric chair prop used in an old Cagney movie and tricked it out with a helmet made from an aluminum light shade, hooking it all up via a bunch of curly cords and wiring. Fred Valentine lit and photographed it, and Norman Seeff did the silly back cover shot. It all came together beautifully, in a real “let’s-put-on-a-show” spirit. And, fortunately for the band, there were two legitimate hits on that album which elevated them to star status. We also designed a folder that the album was shipped to press and radio in, which was in black, white and silver. It featured the electric chair silhouetted against a dark background, barely visible in a faint light. Above the chair, in wedding invitation script, it read “Take a seat. The Electric Light Orchestra will be with you in a moment.”
MG – Were your clients – the label’s brass, the band and its management, etc. – happy with the finished product?
JK – Hey, we were young and full of ourselves! Mick and I constructed all of the props – the chair, the metal logo for the front. Fun project. When I took it to show to Bob Cato, who was UA’s AD by then, he HATED it. HATED it. I thought he was going to punch me. The U.K. design studio Hipgnosis was consistently knocking it out of the park in those days and we definitely wanted to up our game on that one. But Cato grabbed the new Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here cover that was done by Hipgnosis – the one with the guy on fire, shaking hands – and said “Why couldn’t you do something like THIS!?!” Got to admit, he had a point. Damn good cover, that.
In retrospect, the concept itself is awfully un-PC! I feel a bit sheepish to even show it these days. You could say that we were young and foolish, I guess. One of the band members – Richard Tandy – refused to cooperate with our back cover photo concept where they were supposed to be reacting to the electric light flash of the execution. I don’t blame Richard one bit – he was clearly an enlightened and progressive soul, I have to say!
MG – Taking into account all aspects of the project, how long did this process take – from start to finished product?
JK – My memory is that Face the Music took a total of probably 3-4 weeks. From start to finish, including design sketches, presentations, all of the typography design, credits, photo sessions and press proofs, plus running around town looking for props and buying hardware, we probably spent a month on it. Both of us had other projects going at the time, too. It was my first big project after leaving United Artists and going freelance. I remember having big fun working on that cover with my Art Attack partner, Mick Haggerty.
MG – Was there a hard and fast schedule or a drop-dead date as to when this had to be delivered to retailers and customers?
JK – There was always a schedule presented of delivery dates, including press check and proofs, plus a release date, and we were always coordinating those dates with our ad campaigns, trade ads, posters, billboards, radio spots, etc.
MG – Were there any special tools you used or work processes followed – manual, technology-based or, later on, computer-based – that helped create the finished products? Can you give me and my readers any more details of those aspects of the process? For example, was the package fully-designed and printed here or was any of it done overseas?
JK – Yes, there was one special tool we used. The color Xerox machine had just come out and there was only one in all of LA, as far as we knew, and so we ran Fred Valentine’s photo through this cool new toy, messed with the color settings, and that’s how we got the somewhat distressed image we ended up going with. Our jackets were always printed at one of a few plants located around LA and one in Chicago. Press checks were rare, but happened and, when they did, the designer of that particular jacket would go. There were no computers involved – remember, this was still the mid-70’s and we’re still using typesetters and waxed sheets of type, Photostats, mechanical art with overlays, photo retouching specialists, and other things like that.
MG – When working on a package like this, philosophically, do you consider your efforts to be works of self-expression? What I mean is, do you look to impart something of your own style, or do you take your lead from your client?
JK– I’ve always considered myself to be a design problem solver and not so much a stylist, so generally I’d take my lead from the band – if they had a workable idea – or riff off the title and/or style of the music or some of its content, like a lyric line or song title. Generally, I only had a title or sense of the music to go on. I designed 70% of my covers for bands or artists I never met. As far as personal expression goes, you can’t help leaning into your strengths. Mine were logo design, hand-lettering and a loose handwriting and illustration style. Obviously, you can’t do that every time, but I would generally start there. And when I was freelancing, it might have been what the art directors were picturing they’d get when they called me. I also liked it when the artist was open to title ideas. Mick recently reminded me that we came up with “Face the Music” title and designed to that. And in this case, it was great to be personally enthusiastic about the music and band’s unique sound – that just amped up the excitement of this project.
MG – Various projects for clients in the music business had you working with several noted designers, photographers, etc., including some that had impressive portfolios of album package credits. What were your take-aways after having had a chance to work with people who’d turn out to be some of the most-influential image-makers in the history of album art and packaging? Did they leave you with any words of advice that affected your approach to projects like these and, this one in particular?
JK – You know how they say “never meet your idols”? Both in the record and movie businesses I’ve been involved in, that has sadly rung true so often. So the simple answer is no, I learned very little from my art director bosses, clients or fellow designers. I wish I had, though. I think I was open to it, but several bosses were severely disappointing as mentors or role-models. There was, however, a friendly and supportive competition amongst fellow designers in LA, and many of the record company art directors were good folks. Ed Thrasher at Warner Brothers and Roland Young at A&M are two that come to mind. Diana Kaylan at Capricorn was great client, and Tommy Steele from Capitol was a prince. I did get to work with some major talent – the recently-departed designer Milton Glaser was one example. I was flattered that he let me design the type on the poster illustration I commissioned from him in my early days at United Artists (see below).
My partner in the LA design studio Art Attack, Mick Haggerty, is a giant talent who I was privileged to share projects and a studio with for a while. He kept me on my toes creatively and conceptually, even after Art Attack was over. He still does.
MG – Before we change gears a bit and my questions for you become a bit more philosophical, I’d like to touch on another project in which you created a well-regarded logo for another hit-making band – The Allman Brothers Band – that was introduced on their Enlightened Rogues album. From what I understand, that project had both good and really-not-good aspects to it…
JK – The Allman Brothers Band project came from Capricorn’s Creative Director Diana Kaylan. Mick Haggerty and I had dissolved Art Attack and I hung out my own shingle under “John Kehe Design”. Diana took a liking to me and started assigning me projects. The Allmans had taken a hiatus to take care of some internal strife and substance abuse and were ready to make a new record, and I got hired to design the package for Enlightened Rogues.
Since I was trusted with that project by Diana, I wanted to create a bold “comeback album” jacket, a strong, memorable image for the band, who’d had more than its share of hardship within the group. And, living and working in Hollywood, there was a friendly but highly competitive rivalry going on. I mean, who didn’t want their cover design up on a Sunset Strip billboard looking strong and cool? I worked off the title, imagining a classy saloon window with Allman Bros. lettered on it. Right around the corner from me was a stained glass studio called Sunshine Glass Works, so I was able to go in and design the window around the logo I had developed. I then had a giant decal made and we shot it all as one piece. I’m glad we got to show our craft on this cover and that of the stained glass window builder, Bill Franks’ deft inking of my logotype, and Harry Mittman’s photography. It all came together well and it was a kick to design.
From start to finish, that project probably took 4 weeks of my time, including sketches of windows and logotype concepts, presentations to Diana – who showed them to the band, I think – approvals, selecting the glass and assembling the window on-site at the fabricator, a day to put the decal on and then light and shoot it. And, since it was a gatefold, designing all the inside and back cover imagery, plus the credits, lyrics and a printed sleeve insert. I also designed that billboard on Sunset Blvd….The Who’s Tommy graphics had started the trend of band’s getting billboards on the Strip and that chrome pinball reflecting the striped ground was up there in all its glory when I moved to town in 1969, fueling my desire even more to be an album designer when I graduated from the Art Center.
I finished up with work on a poster and some ads. About that time – late 1978 – I hadn’t been paid by Capricorn in eight months. There was always some excuse – new systems, controller quit, yadda yadda. Then suddenly the label went bankrupt, leaving me holding the bag – $28,000 worth. I had been Capricorn’s main designer – as a freelancer – for several years at that point. I couldn’t absorb that kind of loss, so it forced me to leave freelancing behind and take a job. My only satisfaction is that the logo lived on – they still use it today, 45 years on and counting.
MG – A cautionary tale, for sure, to those of us working as freelancers! “Get the money up front” has been my mantra for years…Moving on, let’s talk a bit about some topics I’d like to get your opinions on – First off, with the electronic delivery of music products now the dominant way they’re brought to consumers, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm on the client’s – or artist’s – behalf to invest time and money in packaging for any/all methods of delivery that helps their products stand out?
JK – Well, I confess that I haven’t done a record cover – other than for my own music – for a long time now. But my experience with the ever-shrinking album cover started almost immediately in my first job at UA in 1973. Cassettes were just being introduced, so it suddenly became United Artists Records & Tapes tagging on all the ads and posters. And since all releases were in both formats, we’d adapt the cover art from 12” square to 2 ½“ square and hope you could still read it. We’d have to re-work and re-crop images, simplify, sometimes bold up the type – stuff like that. None of us had ANY enthusiasm for cassettes until we discovered you could play them in your car and hopefully get some girl’s attention by making sexy or eclectic mix tapes. From what I’ve seen, a lot acts seem to be doing their own covers now, even with the sales of vinyl records surging again. So the quality of the covers I see is all over the map, and yes, I think trained designers are generally getting bypassed. It’s too bad, but hey – on the internet, EVERYBODY is a designer because they’ve got a huge selection of fonts to work with. I am personally thrilled that young people are getting into vinyl again. I like everything about the hands-on nature of the art form, which couldn’t be more unlike the cold, soulless internet. Yay for that.
MG – “Yay” is right, but there will always be a place for the truly talented to show off their work, I think. So, I must ask you – do you think that album cover art helps us document human history? I believe that iconic album cover art – in many ways – has had a noticeable effect on Pop Culture. What’s your take on this – is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??
JK – Sure, some of the great ones are seared into your brain forever. I can think of no better format than the 12” square to make that impression, either. Everybody has them, they’ve grown up with them, fallen in and out of love, gotten high with them, impressed their friends or just enjoyed looking at them leaning up against the stereo or sitting in a pile on the floor. That Elvis jacket for 50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong was unforgettable. How about Saul Bass’s red and black West Side Story design? I remember some of my dad’s Julie London LPs. I don’t think he bought them for the music – just sayin’. Warhol’s banana and zipper covers, Reid Miles’ Swiss-inspired Blue Note jackets, those amazing A&M Wes Montgomery covers with Pete Turner’s photos, The Clash’s Elvis homage. How about the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out and their Sgt. Pepper parody, those astounding Hipgnosis images for Pink Floyd, Tommy, Gary Burden’s leather Déjà Vu cover, the first few Chicago LPs – man, that was a time. Photography, fashion, illustration were all influenced and changed by LP covers – primarily designed by young people, I might add.
MG – When some of your earliest products – Face The Music, as an example – were first released, there wasn’t an internet, so musicians had to rely on other forms of promotion to get their music into peoples’ homes – endless tours and radio. Since the early-mid 1970s found rock music changing in several ways and going on to represent quite “a moment in time” for musical and visual artists, I think that it would have been interesting to consider what sort of album packages or box sets or other products geared at true fans producers might have developed and promoted using today’s production tools and how much more or less-involved in the process the artists might have been had digital distribution and marketing been available. What do you think?
JK – My guess is that neither ELO’s Face the Music nor the Allman Brothers project would have been created from real props and photography. In the “grab what you can find online” world we’ve been in for the past 30 years or so, it would have been “Photoshopped” together, with more opportunity to manipulate and tweak the imagery. But I’m glad we got to show off our craftsmanship on those two covers. I frankly miss all the trappings of analog design – the intoxicating fumes of thinner and rubber cement, tiny bits of waxed type stuck to the bottom of my shoes, cutting overlays and rubylith film, grease-pencil markups, x-acto knife flesh-wounds, photo sessions, tracing paper sketches, sprinting eight blocks to get to Fed Ex before they closed with art-work under my arm, the thunderous sounds and smell of those giant printing plants and the thrill of watching my design run through the ink rollers and emerge on the other end. At least vinyl continues to live on – a most welcome artifact of the pre-digital age.
MG – It was always fun for me to watch folks like you who excelled in your craft – my first job in a commercial printer shop let me see how hard type was set, and it was like I was watching clock-makers in the Black Forest ply their craft! In any case, let’s continue on with a question that always elicits a broad range of responses from image-makers like you. I know that you’ve mentioned once being hung out to dry by a client, leading me to think that your take on this is even more important to know…So, while doing the research for articles and for some of the bios featured on the ACHOF site, I found examples of something that made me want to work harder to make sure that credits are given where due – those being several incidents over the years where an artist’s work had been used and, on occasion, abused by labels, print publishers, licensing companies and other musical acts without permission or without giving proper credit for the work being used. It seems that, in an age where people seem to find it permissible to “borrow” – it sounds so much better than “steal” or “plagiarize” – an artist’s/writer’s/photographer’s work to help them promote and sell their own products, folks that create original art have been forced to police the print and digital media outlets to do what they can to either stop this unauthorized use or, at least, receive credit for the work they’ve done. Have you – or any of the artists you’ve worked with – been victimized in this way? Is there anything that can/should be done about it, or do you simply chalk it up to being one of the costs of doing business these days?
JK – For me, Capricorn’s long, drawn-out failure to pay me, lying about a new CFO, then lying about changing their accounting systems, yadda yadda, followed by their declaration of bankruptcy, was highly impactful on me, because they were my only regular client at that time and I’d borrowed to stay afloat while they worked out their, ahem, “technical glitches”. So right about the time they declared, my loan was due, and since they were stiffing me 30 grand, I had no choice but to sell my little California house and buy another in a cheaper state, Colorado, which I did…basically saying “goodbye” to the record business. I received $8.50 in a settlement years later, after they had paid off the Allman Bros. and the Bank of Macon, GA.
It’s admirable that you work to assure that credits are given where they’re due. Credits are the best currency for designers, surely. I’ve never had a problem with that, as I recall. I did once see a logo I designed in someone else’s portfolio, catching them red-handed but, generally, I’ve been lucky throughout my career. It is sometimes a bit jarring to see someone walk by with my unpaid logo on an Allman’s t-shirt, but we were paid by the job and it wasn’t going to make me rich on royalties anyway. All in all, there weren’t a whole lot of careers that were as fun as that of an album cover designer. I consider myself very fortunate to have been involved in its heyday.
About the artist featured in today’s article, John Kehe –
(b. May, 1949 in Elmhurst, Illinois, USA) Having played in various bands since junior high school and having a great love of music, John was working on a degree in English while attending Principia College near Alton, IL in the late 1960s when, drawn by the cute girls he’d seen in the school’s art department, he switched his major to Art, following in the steps of his mother, a talented artist herself. His professors felt that he had a knack for design and suggested that he apply for admission to the famed Art Center college in Los Angeles and, after he was accepted, achieved his lifelong dream of living in California at the age of 19. Essentially starting his schooling over, John completed the school’s rigorous four-year Bachelor of Arts program in less than three years (going to school all year) and received his BA in Graphic Design/Film (with honors) in 1972.
Fortunate to be learning and living in LA in the early 1970s – to many, the “golden age of album cover design” – John knew he’d find happiness working in that area and had asked his Art Center instructors for permission to convert his assignments into album cover concepts he’d put into his portfolio. Most of his teachers allowed him this leeway and, by the time he’d graduated, he had a dozen or so “pretty decent” LP covers in his portfolio. After graduating, he made a beeline to visit “superstar” Art Director Mike Salisbury, who’d just moved to take over the art department at the United Artists record label and was looking for help. Several months later, the now-engaged-to-be-married Mr. Kehe got the good news from UA and went to work, with his first work assignments being to come up with covers for well-known singer/songwriter Johnny Rivers and for a brand new act on the label, The Electric Light Orchestra, whose first album hadn’t sold well in the U.S. and whose music and make-up greatly impressed the young designer and music-lover.
John’s role at UA grew over the next couple of years grew, with Kehe becoming an associate art director and, after hiring another talented designer – Mick Haggerty – to help him with several projects. Discovering that he and Haggerty meshed well, and after Mike Salisbury left for a job at Rolling Stone magazine, the pair decided to set up shop together in 1975 in an agency they called “Art Attack”, with Kehe bringing ELO’s Face the Music project along with him. After going separate ways later in the 1970s, Kehe expanded his resume with work as a film effects designer until landing a job in New York City as Design Director at The Walker Group, where he created retail/brand identities for retailers including FAO Schwartz, moving back into the entertainment business in 1984 while working as a design director with the respected firm of R. Greenberg Associates, better-known as R/G/A, where he was responsible for all print, motion graphics and logo designs, motion picture title sequences, television commercials, show opens, print advertising and movie one-sheet campaigns.
A job in senior management for Sony Pictures Entertainment brought John back to the west coast in 1990, with Kehe becoming accountable for all of Sony and Columbia motion pictures’ promotional materials. Then, in 1998, John moved to the Boston, MA area to redesign the Christian Science Monitor, becoming the publication’s design director for the next 20 years. In 2003, he met his future wife Marjorie in the Monitor newsroom, where she worked as the Book Editor. Before retiring from the publication in 2018, he’d go on to create their distinctive logotype, an online magazine and over 500 print magazine covers, while also keeping busy with his own freelance clients in the music, film, website design and graphic identity worlds. While, sadly, Marjorie passed away in 2019, John continues to work on select projects from his studio in Boston.
John’s love for music and song-writing has manifested itself via his membership in several musical groups, including drumming for Boston’s popular indie pop/rock band Field Day, which he helped found in 2013.
The band’s roster included a former music writer for The Boston Globe newspaper, another graphic designer and a bass player with a perfect rock star name – Phil Magnifico! – and after lots of gigging and the release of three EPs, John bowed out of the group in 2017, when his wife’s deteriorating health required his complete attention. Recently, John assembled a new group of Boston-area studio aces and cut a new album based on his own music (and album cover design), released under the name The Good Silver – now available on vinyl, via all the streaming services and the online music company Bandcamp: thegoodsilver.bandcamp.com
John’s notable album cover credits include – ELO – Eldorado, Face The Music, On The Third Day, and The Night the Lights Went On (in Long Beach); Ike & Tina Turner – The Gospel According to Ike & Tina; Bobby Womack – Lookin’ For A Love Again; Rare Earth – Back to Earth; Elvin Bishop – Struttin’ My Stuff; Roger McGuinn – Cardiff Rose; Kinky Freidman – Lasso From El Paso; Lynyrd Skynyrd – One More From The Road; Eddie Money – Eddie Money; Heart – Little Queen; Sparks – Introducing Sparks; The Marshall Tucker Band – Carolina Dreams, Together Forever and Greatest Hits; Allman Brothers Band – Enlightened Rogues; Dixie Dregs – Dregs of the Earth; The Doobie Brothers – Brotherhood; The Pointers Sisters – Steppin’; Waters – Waters; The Jinns – The Jinns; Rusty Weir – Black Hat Saloon; Bobby See – Legendary Masters series; The Jacksons – Triumph; Sea Level – On the Edge; Michael Stanley Band – Ladies’ Choice; Johnny Rivers – Blue Suede Shoes and Last Boogie in Paris; Kinky Friedman – Lasso From El Paso; Waters – Waters; Bobbi Hutchinson – Cirrus
About the AlbumCoverHallofFame.com site –
Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art, the music they packaged and the people that created them – played in your lives.
Except as noted, all images featured in this story are Copyright 2020 by John Kehe and John Kehe Design – All rights reserved – and are used by the artist’s permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2020 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.