Interview with designer/photographer Stephen Paley about his work on the album cover for Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Posted 1/15/2021 by Mike Goldstein, Album Cover Hall of Fame.com
Sly and the Family Stone’s follow-up to their hit record Stand debuted at the top of both the Pop and Soul album charts when it was released on Epic Records in November, 1971, and its lead single (“Family Affair”) soon took the crown on the Pop singles charts as well. It’s title is intended as a detailed response to a question Marvin Gaye had posed (i.e., “What’s Going On?”), with the record’s ominous (but funky) mood and red, white and black flag cover (with suns substituting for stars, and with no identifying text) both standing to illustrate Sly’s mood at that point in his (and the nation’s) life. As Stone cleverly put it – “there are too many stars already in this world”.
With the band’s songwriting skills – and their ability to perform both on stage and in the studio – influenced heavily by their ongoing drug use, partying and proximity to some of the more radical elements of the Black Power movement (who, reportedly, were not happy with the band’s integrated line-up and management), you might imagine that the music they would produce would be on the dark and disjointed side, and you wouldn’t be far off in that estimation. While the formerly close-knit band certainly had become to come apart both fundamentally and idealistically – with Sly bringing in other musicians and singers and spending endless hours experimenting with various ways to create materials that would be layered into the final drum and bass-driven, heavy and somewhat-foreboding sound-scape – the resulting music perhaps benefitted by both the band’s conflicts and those taking place in much of the world around them at the time.
Upon release, There’s a Riot Goin’ On received mixed reviews from fans and critics who were not expecting (or fully accepting) the album’s overall mood and lyrical content, despite achieving commercial success with two hit singles and debuting at #1 on both the Billboard Pop Albums and Soul Albums charts. In his 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, noted music critic Greil Marcus described the record this way – “It is Muzak with its finger on the trigger,” and while Sly Stone’s previous body of work consisted of mostly optimistic R&B and psychedelic soul music, some major music publications praised this new, darker direction and composition. The record was later ranked #99 in Rolling Stone Magazine‘s 2003 list of the top 500 albums of all time (one of four Sly & The Family Stone recordings to make that list), rising to #82 in the 2020 updated list.
The original LP’s back cover featured a photo collage of images (done by artist Lynn Ames) that depicted a number of U.S. cultural icons, including another take on the American flag (this time, with a peace sign in lieu of the stars), the Lincoln Memorial, the Gettysburg Address, Chicago’s Marina City and photos of musical friends including Bobby Womack and Buddy Miles. The front cover imagery was produced by designer/photographer Stephen Paley who, in an unusual twist on the role of image-maker for a musical act, was also hired on to be the band’s A&R liaison with their record label (Epic Records). How this rather unique relationship produced the memorable cover for this even more-memorable recording is detailed in this updated interview article (I’d originally interviewed Stephen in July 2009, but had never published the finished version, revisiting the subject after Paley’s 2020 induction into the Album Cover Hall of Fame in the photography category), so if you’re ready to take a peek behind the scenes of this complicated family affair, read on…
Interview with designer/photographer Stephen Paley (updated December, 2020) –
Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – Stephen, it is so nice to be able to correspond with you again about your work on this record, particularly after being able to share the news about your induction into the Album Cover Hall of Fame. When I first contacted you years ago about this record cover, I had planned on including the information in an interview article for my old RockPoP Gallery blog, but it instead ended up becoming part of some of my early lectures about album cover art, so I’m really happy to be able to work with you on this update so that my readers can finally get the story directly from the source.
Stephen Paley, photographer – What a nice surprise! For years, people have somewhat taken my work for granted – while others get all the recognition – but I am still grateful and pleased for your recognition of the rest of my output. Incidentally, the last cover I shot was in 2010 for a British company, ACE Records, and I think that the CD was called Listen To The Voices…
Mike G – Steve – glad to see that the news about your induction helped make your days a little brighter. Of course, one of the reasons I got the ACHOF started – 12 years ago now!! – was to make sure that fans of music/art had the opportunity to learn more about all the talented people who created great works for their music industry clients – and not just the ones with the best PR people – which is why it’s so nice to be able to do this poll each year. I was very happy to see your name come up in the top five in the category – it was about darn time, if you ask me – particularly as you were one of the first people who were kind enough to work with me on an interview all those years ago.
So, before we go straight into the details of your work on There’s A Riot Goin’ On, I’d like to ask you a little bit about your background and, specifically, how you got into the album cover-making business.
Stephen P – Back in 1966, when I was in my mid-twenties, my girlfriend at the time, Caroline Reynolds, introduced me to a publicist she was working for named Ren Gravat. He was representing the Bee Gees and they needed someone to hang around with them during their first weekend in New York, shooting candid photos. Linda Eastman was supposed to do it, but she went to East Hampton for the weekend, so I got the job. The pictures turned out pretty well and when Neshui Ertegun, one of the owners of Atlantic Records, saw them, he liked what he saw – and me too – so Atlantic stared giving me photography assignments for artists on the label, such as the R & B singers Aretha and Wilson Pickett, along with rock bands including the Allman Brothers, Cream and The Young Rascals, among others.
After that initial exposure, other companies started booking me, including Vogue, Life, Look and Columbia Records, where I eventually met Clive Davis who, because I also had a talent for hearing hit songs before they were hits, hired me in 1970 to work in the Epic Records A & R department as a Director of Talent Acquisition”, a position I stayed at for six years, until I saw that disco music was becoming popular, so I knew it was time to do something else.
MG – So, you were a man of many talents – nice to see that they recognized that and gave you the opportunities to show that your ears were as good as your eyes. So, can you please tell us what led up to your work specifically on the Sly Stone record?
SP – I had been a freelance photographer for about two years when Epic first asked me to shoot Sly and the Family Stone. I had already shot other Columbia and Epic artists, including Laura Nyro and Santana, and I seemed to hit it off with Sly and his band and went on to photograph them on several other occasions, both in New York and California. In 1970, Clive Davis, who was head of CBS Records at the time, asked me to work in Epic’s A & R department and, because of my previous association with Sly and the Family Stone, I became their A & R person along with being their photographer. The first album I worked on in that dual capacity was Riot.
MG – One of the questions I usually ask artists is about just how involved the musical act or the record label was in the process of deciding what you should produce for the cover and whether you were provided with any direction but, in this case, the answer is certainly a bit unique…
SP – As I was, in effect, the record company, I was just doing my job. So, Sly had a concept for his Riot album cover – it would be his vision – or version – of an American flag, done in red, white and BLACK, with suns instead of stars. He even had a friend make a drawing or rendering of his idea and wanted to us to use that design for his cover.
MG – In addition to the drawing, were you given any chance to hear any of the music to get some additional inspiration?
SP – I hadn’t yet heard the record – in fact, I didn’t hear the Riot album until after the flag was made – and I thought that the sample drawing I was given was horrible, so I suggested that we have a real red, white and black flag made. John Berg, who was Columbia and Epic’s head art director at the time, worked with me and helped me find some nice suns from a book of sun images he had, and then I took the rough mockup of the new flag to a flag company, where they made me three full-size flags – one for the label, one for Sly and one for me.
After they arrived a few days later, during which time I finally did hear samples from the new record, I took one of the new flags to Columbia’s photo studio where Don Hunstein, who was Columbia’s staff photographer at the time, worked. It was, in fact, Don who took the picture, but under my supervision. All I told him was to shoot the flag with a fan blowing on it, so it looks like it is waving. I think he ended up using a 2 1/4 Hasselblad and a big umbrella strobe – and a fan, of course. It out to be a pretty quick photo session – just a couple of hours, and the whole process – from concept to approvals – took about a week from the time Sly had shown me those first renderings.
Sly didn’t want any text on the front cover, so we came up with the idea to put a sticker on the shrink wrap that was made to look like a special front page of a newspaper, and it stated what the name of the album was and who the artist was, of course. In the end, you must remember that John and Don and I were all just Columbia staffers, at that point, so we were just doing our jobs..
MG – Sometimes, you really have to think hard about how best to balance the wishes of the artists with the needs of the promo department, right? So, before we conclude, I need to ask you about your take on how you think the current crop of art directors are doing in their efforts to help package and promote and sell recorded music products these days.
SP – I really have not much to say about the current state of the record business, or I should say what was once the record business. Except for the occasional boxed set, there is very little “art direction” being done, it seems to me. I remember reading the obit for John Berg in the New York Times several years ago. He is the man who ran the art department for album covers for CBS Records – both Columbia and Epic – during my time and, with John gone, I said to myself that the whole record business – as we knew it – is dead as well. Digital downloading and the streaming services are to blame. But that’s the way of the world. It is happening to the movie business as well. Been to a theatre on a weekend in the last few years? There’s hardly anyone there, even for a hit picture. Too much digital competition. Honestly, that’s about all I have to say on the subject. Anyway, I am in the process of doing a book of my own about my photos and the stories behind them, so I hope that you understand that I want to save rest of my stories for that. More to come soon!
MG – Can’t wait to see more – thanks again for working with me on this.
About our interviewee, Stephen Paley –
Stephen was born in March, 1942 in New York, NY. In 1961, at the age of nineteen, young Stephen appeared on Broadway in Hal Prince’s production of Take Her, She’s Mine with Art Carney and Elizabeth Ashley. Since that introduction to the world of entertainment, Paley has written, photographed and produced many arts and entertainment pieces for a wide variety of media outlets.
In 1963, Stephen worked as an assistant to director George Roy Hill in the production of the film The World of Henry Orient (and would return again in that role in 1965 while the famed director worked on his 1966 film Hawaii). In 1964, Paley took on the role of assistant to CBS Television director/producer Merrill Brockway and, in 1966-67 returned to produce shows at the local CBS affiliate, WCBS-TV. 1969 found Stephen returning once again to work as a “proper producer” on their arts series Camera Three (Brockway produced six episodes from 1969-1973).
In 1966, when Stephen was in his mid-twenties, his girlfriend at the time, introduced him to a publicist she was working for who needed some photos taken of the Bee Gees. That work led to new opportunities, with Stephen taking on assignments for record labels, magazines and other clients. In 1970, he accepted a job in the Epic Records A&R department, where he remained doing double-duty until 1976.
In 1976, Paley produced the first television biography of the late film music composer (and leader of the CBS Symphony) Bernard Herrmann – a show called The Film Music of Bernard Herrmann – for CBS’s Camera Three. He was also one of the first producers for the ABC News magazine 20/20. That same year, for CBS Television, Paley produced and co-wrote (with The New York Times columnist Frank Rich) Anatomy of a Song, which examined Stephen Sondheim’s creative process of writing a song.
From 1979 through 1983, Paley was head of music for Orion Pictures and The Ladd Company at the Warner Brothers studios, supervising music for the films Arthur, Blade Runner, Breathless, Caddyshack, Chariots of Fire, Excalibur, Night Shift, Reckless, The Right Stuff and Wolfen.
Callas In Her Own Words, his four-hour 1988 radio documentary about the famed soprano, was broadcast on WFMT in Chicago and KUSC in Los Angeles, along with many other NPR stations around the country. Some of Paley’s other long-form radio shows were on such subjects as the film music composer David Raksin, arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle and Atlantic Records’ years as a rhythm and blues label. For KCET, Los Angeles’s public television station, Paley produced a series of programs in 1986 about 1950s “Googie” coffee-shop architecture.
Paley’s works as a photographer have been published in Life, Look, Vogue, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair magazines, as well as in The New York Times. Paley’s photographs are also included in the 1973 book titled Shooting Stars: The Rolling Stone Book of Portraits (edited by Annie Leibovitz) and also in Rolling Stone Magazine‘s 1992 book The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll.
Paley’s notable album cover credits include – Sly & The Family Stone – Stand!, Anthology, Greatest Hits, There’s A Riot Going On and Listen To The Voices; The Sweet Inspirations – Sweets For My Sweet; Duane Allman – An Anthology; The Allman Brothers Band – The Allman Brothers Band, Gold and Icon 2; Iron Butterfly – In A Gadda Da Vida; Laura Nyro – New York Tendaberry, Laura Nyro Live:The Loom’s Desire and Sassafras & Moonshine; Cream – Live Cream, Vol. 1; Wilson Pickett – In Philadelphia; Aretha Franklin – Aretha’s Gold and Under Her Spell; Cher – 3614 Jackson Highway; The J. Geils Band – The J. Geils Band and The Morning After
To see more of Stephen’s work, please visit his photo site on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/stepale/
Special thanks to Mark Islam for his help in coordinating the completion of this interview.
Except as noted, all images featured in this story are Copyright 1966-2021 by Stephen Paley – All rights reserved – and are used by the artist’s permission for the purposes of illustrating this article. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2021 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) – All rights reserved.