Cheesecake – Emerging sub-genre attracts vinyl collectors with an eye for the ladies.
By Dale Nickey:
We have all seen them at one time or another – in a junk shop or in our parents (or grandparents) ancient record collection – a long lost vinyl LP with a purdy girl on the cover and insufferable easy listening music within.
Objectification or high art? Probably a little of both.
Context is everything. Imagine a time before cellphones, music videos or color television. Recorded music was an emerging power and the beast demanded product. Audiophiles had to make choices between mono, stereo or quadraphonic. We’re talking the 1950’s and pre-Beatles 60’s; a black and white world that grabbed it’s visceral thrills where it could. Enter The Cheesecake record cover.
In the main, the fledgling record industry was run by ugly white guys. Many of them on the wrong side of 30. Many of the pre-Beatles recording artists not named Elvis or Bobby were session men, film composers, TV composers, studio arrangers and producers. They all made music that was good, bad or indifferent. However, one reality was clear; sticking a bald, bespectacled studio mole with nicotine teeth and goatee on the cover was box-office suicide.
In a marketing move that presaged the MTV era’s obsession with female eye candy, record companies started contracting models for fashion shoots to create album covers that would stop any red blooded American male hot in his tracks and start him reaching for his wallet. Mary Tyler Moore paid the bills as a first call record cover model on at least half a dozen titles. Sometimes you got a twofer when the dish on the cover was also the main course on the vinyl platter (Julie London, Doris Day, Peggy Lee). Often the cover girl would have a tenuous connection with what was going on inside the cover. Other times, the outside cover would capture perfectly the atmosphere of the music on offer.
What follows are some classic examples of The Cheesecake cover during the genre’s heyday, and also some entrants from later decades that were faithful to the original spirit.
Esquivel – Other Worlds Other Sounds (1958)
Almost ten years to the day prior to 1967’s psychedelic summer of love, artist’s minds were in expansion mode courtesy of the space race. Cowboys Vs. Indians were replaced by The Invaders from Mars vs. The U.S. Army. The Russians first entered space with the Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957 and our heads were never the same. Everything seemed possible and the last unknown frontier seemed sexy as hell. This cover is a classic example of Cheesecake appeal crossed with otherworldly allure. Oh yes, the music inside stands the test of time as well.
Tabu by Ralph Font and His Orchestra (1958)
Musicians and artists have always had a bit more license to push the buttons of puritanical mainstream culture. In the 50’s inter-racial lust was beyond comprehension in straight white America. On this cover, its very easy to see the hot vibration between the two characters portrayed. However, musically speaking, Arthur Lyman owns the Taboo sub-genre.
Julie London – Julie (1960)
Here is an example of the Cheesecake in question being the artist in the grooves. Julie London was a top notch pop singer and a actress of some note. Here we have a big budget cover that is a perfect example of Cheesecake appeal provided by the artist herself.
Jackie Gleason was a huge (sic) talent and his mainstream success in the 50’s and 60’s allowed him to venture into music making. Not a trained musician, and only a passable singer, Gleason acted as executive producer and artistic Svengali on an avalanche of chill records that were mostly excellent and easy on the nervous system. His album Lonesome Echo was a chill masterpiece sporting the only record cover ever designed to order by Salvador Dali. Most times however, Gleason’s cover of choice was an expensively staged Cheesecake cover that illustrated whatever mood the rotund visionary wanted to convey.
The Cha Cha Covers
Sometimes Cheesecake cover art ventured into sexual exploitation (and many times) soft core pornography. The term “sex sells” started during the 50’s and early 60’s when it was discovered that discreet pheromone manipulation could flog anything from cigarettes to dish detergent. Cha Cha was a hugely popular form of Latin dance music that pushed forward spicy rhythms and smoldering sexuality. Most Latin flavored albums of the period relied on Cheesecake for subliminal outreach.
Whipped Cream and Other Delights by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass (1965)
For the record, there was no Tijuana Brass, just Herb Alpert rattling around in A&M Studios Hollywood – multi-tracking platinum selling light instrumentals for Radio, TV and the world. This album sold north of 5 million and was a common sighting in the used bins in every thrift shop and record store. Now it’s a rarity due to the recent interest in Cheesecake covers. This cover is considered classic. And in case you wondered, the model is covered in shaving cream. Fun fact, model Dolores Erickson was three months pregnant at the time of the cover shoot.
Roxy Music (The Kari-Ann Cover 1972)
As we moved into the seventies, music became heavier, more serious and artists assiduously avoided any marketing strategy that was arch, crassly capitalistic or that carried the odor of “sellout”. Roxy Music didn’t care. They were cutting edge glam-prog musos of the first order, but also worshiped high fashion and 50’s kitch. Hence, this homage to the golden age of Cheesecake. They would continue to display Cheesecake on their covers for the first five albums. Most notably, Siren – featuring a future Mrs. Jagger – Jerry Hall.
Deborah Harry – KooKoo (1981)
Generally, the idea of Cheesecake was to glorify the beauty imbedded in womanhood. To make something attractive and alluring. Blondie bombshell Deborah Harry took a different tact. The New York punker decided to enlist modern artist Giger to desicrate the form and add some shock and awe. That he did. This cover served to puncture the idea that Cheesecake only existed for the hollow pleasure of the purchaser, and the objectification of the woman.
Bjork – Vulnicura (2016)
We come full circle with latest record from this century’s Cheesecake mutation. Forget Lady GaGa, it was Bjork that shattered the kaleidoscopic ceiling of Cheesecake. She appears on each of her records in different incarnations of herself, but always shielded by a character and a concept that seeks to express the mood inside the record: the epitome of the Cheesecake ethos. However here, Bjork morphs womanhood into an existential hybrid who wears her vulnerability courtesy the gaping wound in her chest, but protected by spikes emanating from brain and embrace. Moreover, with her extraterrestrial, Icelandic aspect, Bjork closes the Cheesecake circle with 1957’s Other Sounds Other Worlds.