Longtime East Hampton resident John Berg, 83, the award-winning former art director for Columbia Records who oversaw the creation of album covers featuring some of the most iconic pop culture images of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, died of pneumonia on October 11, 2015 in Southampton.
During a 25-year stint at Columbia Records that started in 1961, Berg had a hand in the creation of more than 5,000 album covers, working with a diverse array of artists across a wide variety of musical genres and disciplines. Musicians in the Columbia stable he worked with included: Bob Dylan; Bruce Springsteen; Thelonious Monk; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Chicago; Bessie Smith; The Byrds; Lead Belly; Barbara Streisand; George Szell; Santana; and Simon and Garfunkel, to name only a few.
As a testament to the fine art quality of the images for which he was the art director, some 95 of Berg’s album covers were featured in a retrospective at Guild Hall in East Hampton that opened in October 2012 and was extended beyond its original January closing date to February 2013. His work is also included in “360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story” (2012) by the historian Sean Wilentz.
In addition to his own creative imagination and design skills, Berg--who had never worked on album cover design when he was hired by Columbia--drew on the gifts of other designers, artists and photographers to obtain the look he was after for different musicians. The designer Milton Glaser; the illustrators Paul Davis, Edward Sorel and Tomi Ungerer; and the photographers Richard Avedon, Jerry Schatzberg and W. Eugene Smith were among the artists who received commissions for album covers from Berg.
In an obituary for Berg in The New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that “hallmarks of Mr. Berg’s work included stylistic ecumenicalism, cheeky wit, innovative typography and the frequent use of gatefold covers, in which the album opened like a book and yielded twice as big a canvas for artwork.”
Nominated for 29 Grammy Awards for his album covers, Berg won four, for his work on “The Barbra Streisand Album” (1963), “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” (1967), Thelonious Monk’s “Underground” (1968) and “Chicago X” (1976).
One of his most renowned design efforts, for “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits,” is as well known for the poster included with the purchase of the album as it is for the backlit photo of Dylan that appears on the cover. Berg commissioned Milton Glaser to create the now iconic poster image, an illustration of Dylan silhouetted in profile, with psychedelic swooshes of color representing Dylan’s tousled hair.
Like much of the work for which Berg was the art director, Glaser’s poster has gone on to have an artistic arc of its own. On the East End of Long Island, it was most recently seen in wider distribution as the cover image on the program for last December’s 2014 Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival. The Barbara Keys documentary on Glaser, “To Inform and Delight,” was honored with the 2014 HT2FF Filmmakers’ Choice Award and screened on the last day of the festival. www.ht2ff.com.
Discussions of Berg’s work almost always include mention of his design for Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 “Born to Run” album. The Eric Meola photo of Springsteen laughing as he leans on E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons made the album cover what the Times obituary called “one of the most totemic of all time.” The design was so well known that it inspired numerous imitations, by artists as disparate as Cheap Trick and two Muppets posing in an identical position on the Sesame Street album “Born to Add.”
Born in Brooklyn on January 12, 1932, he grew up in Flatbush. He was a cartoonist for the student newspaper at Erasmus Hall High School, and, after graduating, went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Cooper Union in Manhattan. www.cooper.edu/art/news/john-bergs-greatest-hits.
According to the Times obituary, he worked for advertising agencies, including Doyle Dane Bernbach, and for magazines, including Esquire, before joining Columbia as an art director. He was later named creative director, and was a vice president of Columbia when he retired in 1985.
Survivors include his second wife, the photographer and illustrator Durell Godfrey, and a daughter from his first marriage, Kristina Berg. He was predeceased by a son from his first marriage, Lars.
In an interview with Hamptons Art Hub at the time of his retrospective at Guild Hall, museum director and chief curator Christina Mossaides Strassfield described Berg’s work as “so innovative.”
“He decided how the album would be represented,” she said. “In some cases, you might remember the album cover more than the music.”
RELATED: "Last Look: John Berg’s Album Covers" by Pat Rogers. Published February 24, 2013.
"Album Cover Art Directed by John Berg" by Pat Rogers. Published October 26, 2012.
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