John Berg, the art director for Columbia Records who designed classic LP covers for Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Sly Stone and more, died of pneumonia at his home in New York, The New York Times reports. He was 83.
Berg worked on over 5,000 records during his 25-year tenure at Columbia, earning Grammys for his work on Dylan’s 1967 Greatest Hits collection, Barbra Streisand’s The Barbra Streisand Album, Chicago’s Chicago X and Thelonious Monk’s Underground.
Those covers showcase the multi-faceted components of Berg’s style, which included an excellent eye for photos as well as a love of unique typography and sly sense of humor. Dylan’s Greatest Hits, for instance, boasted a close-up of the musician shrouded in a halo of light, while Chicago X featured the band’s famous logo — which Berg also helped create — emblazoned on a bar of chocolate.
Berg also made frequent use of the gatefold cover, which opened like a book and allowed for twice as much artwork. For Dylan’s classic double LP, Blonde on Blonde, Berg placed a close-up of the artist’s face — sans any text — on the cover, while the album opened to reveal a vertical, nearly-full length portrait.
Berg’s innovative covers were as much a product of his own artistic sensibilities as they were indicative of his eye for talent. As art director at Columbia, and later creative director and a vice president by the time he retired in 1985, he commissioned works by noted contemporary designers, illustrators and photographers like Richard Avedon, Paul Davis, Milton Glaser, Edward Sorel, Tomi Ungerer, Jerry Schatzberg and W. Eugene Smith.
In a 2013 interview with his alma mater, Cooper Union, Berg said his photo acumen was one of his greatest traits: “I will actually look at your pictures,” he said. “All of them. I mean relentlessly. I will find stuff the photographer never knew was there.”
His eye proved especially fruitful on perhaps his most iconic work: Bruce Springsteen’s seminal 1975 LP, Born to Run. The photo — Springsteen gripping his guitar, leaning on the shoulder of Clarence Clemons, hiding a smile in his hands — was not the one the rocker had envisioned. But Berg could not abide the dour photo Springsteen had chosen.
“Springsteen wanted to use a picture that looked like what John Updike used on the back of his books,” Berg said. “I hated that kind of stuff. We already had one of those [The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle] and we managed to mess with the type so that it was acceptable to me.”
While scouring photographer Eric Meola’s contact sheets, Berg found a handful of Springsteen and Clemons pics, but all were similarly stolid. “But in this one, they were just breaking up, or whatever the emotion was. It was perfect. It oozes charm. So I told Springsteen and Meola that I wanted to use it as the fold-out cover. I said, ‘Now I gotta try and sell this thing upstairs to management because the cost is twice as much to print a gatefold.’ The product manager came down and said, ‘We love it!’ But I cooked all that up. What I was doing was selling Springsteen the idea to avoid having another John Updike cover.”