Album covers can express the technological and social advances of different epochs through indirect means.
“Salsa Fantasy” is a term coined by journalist Pablo Yglesias to describe a concept that artist and illustrator Ron Levine wanted to implement when he started creating various album covers for Latin music in the 70s. He was primarily intended to propose a style that could compete directly with the creations of the prosperous American industry.
This article presents the reasons why Ron Levine decided to set out on on that journey. To that end, we have drawn on an interview conducted by Pablo Yglesias in 2011 in which, in addition to his interesting anecdotes, we are being offered a glimpse of a retrospect of all his work, going through his work with the Sonora Ponceña in which he had the opportunity to develop his style.
Album cover design, Fania Records, illustration, Pop Art, La Sonora Ponceña.
Album covers can express the technological and social advances of different epochs through indirect means (Rondón, C., 2008), (Figueredo, M., 2010). The interesting thing about this is that the relative precarious situation in which salsa album covers were designed and the marginality expressed in many cases by the lack of resources with which they were created.
Jerry Masucci’s Fania Records was really focused on supporting that nascent number of singers of Latin origin.
Many of those covers created were concepts on which certain issues closely related to the songs or what the singer wished to express were handled.
In most cases, staging and photography were resorted to express certain ideas related to migration of Latinos in the U.S. and others of social order that prevailed in the lyrics of the songs (Yglesias, P. E., 2005).
In this way, various artists became directly or indirectly involved in the making of their album covers; one example of this are Eddie Palmieri’s album covers where a set of simple but forceful photos and the good mastering of typography can be appreciated (Yglesias, P. E. ,2005).
Although there existed a number of non-Latin graphic designers and artists who engaged in Latin music in the United States during the 70s and 80s, the team formed by Ron Levine and Marshall Lee was the most visible of Salsa in New York.
The two artists, both iconic and revered, worked for Jerry Masucci at Fania Records where Levine created many of Fania’s best known and appreciated covers.
Salsa wonderful photos of Lee would be part of a comprehensive separate study, what interests us in this article is to show the work developed in Ron Levine’s work as a graphic designer and artist.
Throughout his career he played an important role in carrying on the legacy of high quality in the design of album covers initiated by Izzy Sanabria, Walter Velez, Charlie Rosario and other artists and illustrators in the 60s and early 70s.
Below is a review of Ron Levine’s work and some aspects that led him to develop a style so particular that, still today, is applauded by many designers, artists and illustrators who have been involved in the art of creating album covers.
Levine’s childhood: from drawing horses to Ronald Stuart art school Levine was born in 1947 in Brooklyn, New York and moved to Long Island at six years old. His maternal grandparents were Scottish Protestants; his maternal grandmother was Theodore Roosevelt’s nurse in a moment of her life (“She was a big burly woman with hair like sheep,” recalls Levine)
Her paternal grandparents were Jews from Poland and Russia. Her mother, who was born in Glasgow, converted to Judaism when she married her father. She attended art school and, besides being a housewife, she used to work in a professional photo studio and was an expert in dyeing and painting backgrounds oil colors in black and white photographs for weddings.
Her father worked in a textile store and had a knack for textile marketing and fashion in Manhattan.
Levine spent his childhood playing with drums, Jewish folk dances and horse riding. Drawing horses fascinated him and he was obsessed with science fiction illustrations such as Flash Gordon, Disney cartoons, superhero comics, horror and fantasy.
By the age of eight, he was longing to work for Walt Disney; at school he was irreverent in art classes, preferring to draw horses, fantasy characters or Flash Gordon, rather than those boring still life, fruit bowls and colour cards that were classroom exercises.
He motivated himself by drawing fantasy and beautiful horses. Despite his poor grades, his parents knew he had talent, so they encouraged his artistic skills knowing that his career in the arts may not be very financially feasible.
To him, music was a passion almost be likened to painting. Levine formed a band called “The tensions” in which he played drums. He was also the lead vocalist of another band called “The New Rock Workshop” and its members toured and recorded for several years in the 60s.
In addition to playing and singing in those bands, Levine began studying at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he took classes in a 4-year programme. There he reclaimed his passion for drawing the human figure.
At the age of 20 Levine settled permanently in Manhattan anstarted his professional career as an artist. He could not finish the last quarter of his studies, but through a professor he was able to make contact high-profile graphic artists such as Paul Davis, Milton Glaser, Chwast Seymour and Lubalin Herb. After a while he landed a job making magazine covers and also with the famous creative director Tony Palladino with whom he learned various tools of the trade.
In these early works, as may be noted, photography was used as an element of graphic expression, combining some illustration and staging. It was a work concluded between Levine and Lee.
After the first six years, Levine was already doing most of the work for Fania All-Stars together with Lee.
At the same time, Sanabria was occupied with Latin NY magazine, which was a very influential publication for Nuyorican popular culture.
Levine comments that he felt part of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Lo Mato.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Jhonny Pacheco had respect for his illustrations because Levine also knew about music.
However, he says he took an intensive course and went from not knowing anything about Latin music to witnessing its history and evolution in the front row.
After that, he worked for some albums by Rubén Blades in which he began experimenting with portrait photography, which was a realistic interpretation from photography.
Despite the pleasant working atmosphere, Levine had some conceptual discussions with Masucci in relation to logos and title text sizes in typographies, resulting in controversial results in some cases.
Since Latin music was marginalized for many years, the designs of the 60s and 70s used a shoestring budget, considering that Fania All-Stars was neither Columbia nor Atlantic Records, for many of the typographies almost everything had to be created manually and with basic techniques such as the use of masks, photocopies, adhesive tape and rubber cement.
In this way, there was a lot of handmade work in which Levine’s photos were taken to the extreme. All the lines were done by hand and then tinted with rapidograph pens. Levine says that some of the typographies created had no concept behind them, however, illustration to produce a quality product take a long time.
Creativity was blooming as was humor. Many musicians used to dress up in costumes and pose with girls.
Subsequently, he was called to work in the covers of La Sonora Ponceña given that the aesthetics of this orchestra’s pieces were in line with his expectations about fantasy illustrations.
La Sonora Ponceña.
Many of the covers created by Levine and Lee challenged the concept of the Latin identity’s representation, this can be better seen in the LP’s created for La Sonora Ponceña from Ponce, Puerto Rico.
The record label Fania Records offered that differentiation to new musicians, giving them the opportunity to say something interestingusing their covers. Sanabria had already begun to develop a concept, but were at the hands of Lee and Levine that a classic representation of the style based on comic-inspired illustrations, some humor and Pop Art was truly shown.
Ruben Blades With Strings
This is how contextualized ideas and stories were developed; an example of this is a cover where a representation of the conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon in full body armor (something incongruous with the use of a sweater), a guitar on his shoulder, a maraca in one hand and a parchment in the other one.
When Levine took charge, there was some controversy concerning how the group should be represented; however, Levine was quite good in the eyes of the fans.
Given that they felt the story needed to be told in some way and the problems and artistic freedom so important to salsa in the 70s were illustrated with authencity through his creations.
These creations that came out from an initial idea of Juan Ponce de León’s representation mutated and became the issue of many album covers that not only told fantastic fictional stories related to music, but also changed the traditional image of the Latin album.
Sonora Ponceña albums (Musical Conquest – Back to work).
Sonora Ponceña Musical Conquest
Despite the success of Levine’s work with the public, Sanabria, who always tried to remain within the limits of Latin culture, criticized him precisely for distorting music and its culture.
Sonora Ponceña Back to work
However, Levine defended his idea by saying that Latin music and its artists very good music), had not received before the support as is provided to American music and artists. Given that Levine had been linked to the creation of covers for rock bands, he always felt that the quality of Latin music covers was very poor due to the low budget.
Sonora Ponceña albums (Determination – Night Rider).
Sonora Ponceña Determination
In this way with his fiction proposal, Levine put Latin music on a par with some American artists who had recognition (Boston, ELO, Earth, Wind, Fire, Kiss and Yes).
Levine believed the covers should reflect the image of success. Fortunately, he had the support of Masucci, who, motivated by Levine, invested more money in the covers using the same premise.
Sonora Ponceña Night Rider
With his proposal for the covers, Levine wanted to show that Latin music was part of one of the biggest music scenes in the world.
He remarked that each of the covers had the same standard of treatment as a work of art; it was worked with great care and detail.
Finally, the last cover created by Levine for La Sonora Ponceña was made in the digital age – On Target (1998). There is a kind of hybrid between samurai and barbarian, with certain influences of the aesthetics of video games, fast-moving typography management with a flatter illustration but with a three-dimensional look.
The CD was released the year after the death of Masucci.
Sonora Ponceña On Target.
The concept proposed by Ron Levine allowed to explore from creation not only the various ways of making known a musical group, but also the establishment of a style that spread among the public to such an extent that his work on each cover is recognized as a work of art at present.
On the other hand, he was a pioneer of a style with which Latin music was not initially identified in its beginnings (fiction illustration, Pop Art, humor.) Yet, despite economic constraints, he designed several album covers with the best quality, they are even on the same level as those created on American record labels with higher budgets.
1 Pablo E. Yglesias (DJ Bongohead), Cuban-American graphic designer, artist, DJ, percussionist, writer and art curator. Email: [email protected]
2 Member of the Research Group Camaleón.
3 Member of the Research Group Palo de Mango.
4 Music festival, art and Hippie congregation; held on 15, 16, 17 and the early morning of 18 August 1969, in Sullivan Country, New York.
By: Pablo Yglesias
Graphic Designer [email protected]
Javier M. Reyes Vera
Professor of the Design Department
University of Valle
Alejandro Ulloa Sanmiguel
Professor of the School of Social Communication
University of Valle
Figueredo, M. (2010).
Album cover design in the 1970s.
Creation and Production in Design and Communication [works of students and Graduates] Nº 35 (2010). pp 99-102 ISSN 1668-5229 99
Rondón, C. (2008).
The Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music from the Caribbean to New York City The University of North Carolina Press.
Yglesias, P. E. (2005).
Cocinando. Fifty Years of Latin Album Cover Art.
New York: Pricenton Architectural Press.
Received: June 30/ Approved: November 28, 2013.
For Santa Maria’s bongo album Afro-Indio, Levine produced a masterful watercolor of ritual imagery focused on African culture.