By Robert Price / For the Herald
He didn't paint the Mona Lisa. But Robert “Bob” Heimall's unique artwork – and its context in pop culture – is sure to endure, like all great art, for many years to come, or as long as rock music exists as part of our cultural landscape.
Heimall pioneered, mastered and enhanced the art of record album design during the heyday of rock 'n' roll in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. But his career, ultimately spanning six decades, ended up being much more than that. And his new book, “Cover Stories,” chronicles the circuitous route he took through the world of “sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll” to find a different god, the God of Christianity.
“I'm a Christian now and this is a spiritual book,” said the man who had partied with the likes of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Heimall's book, self-published and available at Amazon, starts out with the stories behind the art – stories of how Heimall got to know many of the rock legends of the time, even became friends with some of them, while designing their album covers. But, whether intended or not, it quickly turns into an autobiography.
“It's not only a book about the music; it's about my whole life, where I started and where I ended up. It's a memoir,” Heimall said.
It's also a testament to an art that has come full circle, with the renaissance of vinyl records. “Vinyl outsells CDs now,” Heimall said. “Everything seems to go back. It's a retro thing.” Which is fine with him. “I'm an analog man in a digital world,” he said.
Where he started
Heimall grew up in Livingston and lived on a farm in Vernon for the last 39 years, before recently heading back to his beloved Jersey Shore. He's now a resident of Cape May and, at 76, the former surf bum is pondering a return to the waves.
While in Vernon, Heimall commuted to New York City and still found time to join the Sussex County Arts & Heritage Council, which staged a few exhibitions of his work over the years. He also mentored for the Sussex County Teen Arts Festival.
From a chance meeting with Morrison, frontman of The Doors, on his first day of work at Elektra Records in 1968, Heimall dealt with all the various, sundry and unique personalities in the music business over the next 40 years.
“The common thread was the music and creativity and art,” he said. “I always listened to the music for about a week first. My job was to transform the music into something visual. And I had to get a feeling for who they were. I had to know the artist, the emotions, the message … where they were coming from.”
Elektra, headed by Jac Holzman, had many of the top rock and folk artists of the day in its stable – The Doors, Harry Chapin, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Butterfield Blues Band, Bread – and Heimall worked with most of them. In 1971 he became the youngest art director in the music business at Elektra, and when Warner Brothers bought Elektra, he stayed on to work for Arista Records and Clive Davis.
Davis and Holzman are both icons of the music business. But Heimall saw one major difference.
“Jac was one of the best things to happen to the record industry. Still is. He was always into it for the art, not the money. Clive is just the opposite,” Heimall said.
Holzman wrote the foreward for Heimall's book and in a sentence explained the importance of Heimall's job: “Encouraging an appetite for purchase became the responsibility of the front cover art and the enticement of the accompanying notes.”
Heimall graduated from Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art in 1964 and spent the next few years working for ad agencies and design studios for eight or nine months at a time before heading each summer to Wildwood to surf.
But in 1968 the only job he could find was selling ties at Bloomingdale's, that is until his employment counselor sent his portfolio to Elektra. The rest is history.
“I had finally found my 'sweet spot',” Heimall says in the book. “I loved art and I loved the music.”
The music and the stars
Two of Heimall's favorite artists were Harry Chapin and Jim Croce, both of whom died tragically – Chapin in 1981 in a car crash and Croce in 1973 in a plane crash. Chapin, whose first hit and signature song, “Taxi,” inspired Heimall to design the “Heads & Tales” album cover using taxi-cab yellow with a black-and-white checkered photo border, was an astute businessman in addition to a great storyteller through song.
And Croce played his whole “I Got a Name” album acoustically, one on one, for Heimall in his New York hotel room. Heimall would be among the last few ever to hear Croce sing. Two weeks later, Croce's plane went down after a concert in Louisiana. Croce's lead guitarist, Maury Muehleisen, also died in the crash. His sister, Mary Muehleisen, is among the many people who helped Heimall put together his book.
“I remember I was driving to work, listening to Pete Fornatel on WNEW, and the news came on. I had to pull over. I just lost it and started crying,” Heimall related.
But Heimall's favorite artist was a blues and gospel guitarist named Lonnie Mack, who was also an executive at Elektra and worked with other artists, including The Doors. “He played that wedge guitar and I remember him doing a remake of the song 'Memphis.' He was a country boy from Indiana and a Christian like I was, so we really hit it off,” Heimall said.
What about favorite covers? Heimall designed hundreds of album covers, many memorable ones. But his personal favorites, he said, are The Doors' “13” and “Absolutely Live,” and Carly Simon's “No Secrets.”
By the time Heimall met Morrison, the “Lizard King” was on the wane, physically and otherwise. But The Doors were still a hot commodity. Heimall recalls having to deal with conflicting forces – the band, including Morrison, wanted equal billing in the album art, but the record company wanted Morrison out front. Heimall tried to compromise, but Morrison still ended up the focal point of both albums.
Heimall used to photograph The Doors whenever they played in New York. One night, in the photo pit at the Fillmore East, a fellow photographer told Heimall she would marry “one of these stars” someday. Her named was Linda Eastman and she would, indeed, marry Paul McCartney.
Heimall had a special relationship with Carly Simon, having worked with her from the beginning of her career. For her first two covers, he successfully experimented with colorizing black-and-white photos taken by her brother, Peter. Simon was so pleased that she sent Heimall a warm thank-you note, which he still has framed in his studio.
The stories are too numerous and interesting to recount here, but Heimall also worked with Yoko Ono after John Lennon's death on their “Mike and Honey” album; Dickey Betts, formerly of The Allman Brothers; British Invasion holdovers The Kinks; Patti Smith; Barry Manilow; Cyndi Lauper; The Four Tops, Kool & the Gang, and James Brown, among many others.
Finding his way
In 1976, Heimall and his first wife, Patti, divorced, leaving him to care for their young daughter. This was perhaps Heimall's first realization that the fringe elements of his career were not helping his personal life.
A car crash in 1978 that almost killed him further sobered Heimall and brought him closer to Christ.
He had lived in New York, California and Hawaii, but found solace and inspiration on a farm in Vernon, “Victorian Acres.”
About a month before John Lennon was murdered in New York in 1980, Heimall married Victoria Stephenson. They will shortly mark their 39th anniversary.
Heimall now contends that God was looking out for him during the whole ordeal of his life and career. He now does missionary work, notably in the Dominican Republic, where he met fellow missionary, literary agent and writer Caroline Golin, who first planted the idea for the book and helped Heimall get it off the ground.
“That was 10 years ago,” Heimall said. “All the publishers loved it, but they saw it as a coffee-table took and said those don't sell anymore. The digital world is making them obsolete. I finished the book four years ago, but it took me three years to get all the clearances.”
But it was all worth it, he says, because “this is a book about how you can come to God through all your experiences.”
“Cover Stories” is Bob Heimall's rock 'n' roll diary – an inside look behind the scenes of the music business, the good and bad of knowing the stars of that business, and where it can all ultimately lead.