The Sonobeat Singles Sleeves
The story behind each design
Three “big” ideas
Sweetarts' 45 RPM stereo single sleeve, using a photo provided by the band; this is Sonobeat's first picture sleeve (1967)
Sonobeat's second sleeve is for Don Dean's pop single and uses a high contrast image made from a publicity photo Don provided (1967)
Sonobeat's third 45 RPM stereo single sleeve is for rock band Lavender Hill Express and, again, uses a publicity photo provided by the band (1967)
The Conqueroo' 45 RPM stereo single sleeve, using a photo by Belmer Wright and artwork by Gilbert Shelton; this is Sonobeat's fourth picture sleeve (1967)
The "A" side of the sleeve for Lavender Hill Express's second Sonobeat single; the sleeve is two-color, double-sided and uses photos taken on the outskirts of Schwertner, Texas, a rural community near Austin (1968)
The "B" side of the sleeve for Lavender Hill Express's second Sonobeat single; both sides of the sleeve feature two-color printing and use band publicity photos taken on the outskirts of Schwertner, Texas (1968)
When Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr.) started Austin-based Sonobeat in 1967, they had three Texas-sized ideas: first, to create a record label that would showcase Austin qnd Central Texas musicians, singers, and songwriters; second, to record and release all Sonobeat 45 RPM singles in stereo, a format the major labels had experimented with years before but had abandoned; and, third, to distinguish Sonobeat singles with custom picture sleeves, a marketing device the national labels frequently used but that local and regional labels rarely could afford. Creating, printing, and packaging singes in custom sleeves was extravagant, but the Joseys believed it would help capture the attention of record reviewers at newspapers and magazines like Billboard and Cash Box and promote sales at retail record shops.
Things didn't quite work out the way the Joseys had hoped; although all but one of Sonobeat's 24 singles were released in stereo, only seven wore custom sleeves. The reality was that plain unprinted sleeves cost half a cent, but custom sleeves added as much as five cents to the cost of manufacturing and packaging each copy of a Sonobeat single, cutting the profit margin substantially. The retail price of a 45 RPM single was about 79 cents in the late 1960s, and the wholesale price that Sonobeat charged record stores was less than 40 cents. Sonobeat's custom picture sleeves became a cost that the Joseys couldn't continue to justify based on sales results or expectations.
Here's the inside scoop on Sonobeat's seven custom singles sleeves, all of which, except the Conqueroo sleeve, were designed by Sonobeat co-founder Rim Kelley. The Conqueroo sleeve was designed by Gilbert Shelton.
Sweetarts' A Picture of Me and Without You
R-s101 • 1967 • Single-sided B&W picture sleeve
Sonobeat's first release, in 1967, was the Sweetarts' A Picture of Me. When Sonobeat recorded the 'Tarts, the band was already firmly established as one of the most popular University of Texas frat and club bands, playing a mixture of original songs written by Sweetarts guitarist Ernie Gammage and covers of top 40 hits. A year before recording with Sonobeat, the group had released a single on the Dallas-based Vandan label, which Sonobeat producer Rim Kelley had played on his KAZZ-FM top 40 radio show, so it was fitting that Sonobeat's release should be distinguished from the Vandan release with a custom picture sleeve. Rim rubber cemented a publicity photo provided by the band to a sheet of Bristol board and hand set a combination of dry transfer (rub-on) lettering and self-adhesive cut-out lettering directly to the surface of the photo to create Sonobeat's first custom sleeve. Rim had designed KAZZ-FM's hit lists using similar techniques. If you're lucky enough to have a copy of the Sweetarts' single in its picture sleeve, on close scrutiny you'll see a faint outline around many letters in "Sweetarts" and "A Picture of Me". Those words were set with adhesive-backed cut-out lettering whose edges didn't completely disappear when burnished to the photo.
Don Dean's Night Life and Where or When
PV-s401 • 1967 • Single-sided B&W picture sleeve
The very dapper Don Dean managed Club Seville atop the Sheraton Crest Inn (now the Raddison), overlooking Austin's Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake). Sonobeat recorded many jazz and pop acts that appeared at Club Seville, including the Lee Arlano Trio, Bach-Yen, Fran Nelson, and Don, himself, and even used Club Seville as a remote recording studio. Don's single, a jazzy cover of a Willie Nelson classic, was destined to be sold at Club Seville as well as at Austin record retailers, such as J. R. Reed's and The Record Shop, so it got special treatment with Sonobeat's first highly stylized picture sleeve. Don provided one of his publicity photos, that Miller Blueprint in downtown Austin re-photograph as a high-contrast negative, that in turn was reversed into a high-contrast positive print. Sonobeat co-founder Rim Kelley designed the sleeve, laying it out on Bristol board and applying dry transfer lettering directly onto the high-contrast print.
Lavender Hill Express' Visions and Trying to Live a Life
R-s102 • 1967 • Single-sided B&W picture sleeve
Visions launched a three-single relationship between Sonobeat and Lavender Hill Express, a top Austin band formed from the ashes of two other hot Austin rock acts, The Wig and the Baby Cakes, that disbanded in 1967. Like the Sweetarts' picture sleeve, the sleeve for Visions was created using a publicity photo provided by the band. However, unlike other picture sleeves designed by Sonobeat co-founder Rim Kelley, this sleeve featured a hand-lettered title. The oval-like black space at the top of the publicity photo called for something special, so Rim drew and inked the title, "Visions", on Bristol board to precisely fit that space. The addition of the "stereo" graphic to the right of the title was an attempt to balance the composition. Printer Powell Offset in south Austin superimpose the reversed-out title over the rest of the sleeve layout, which Rim created with Letraset and Chartpak dry transfer lettering.
The Conqueroo's I've Got Time and 1 to 3
R-s103 • 1968 • Double-sided B&W picture sleeve
The Conqueroo, the singular house band at Vulcan Gas Company, Austin's hippy music venue on Congress Avenue, deserved an idiosyncratic picture sleeve for its Sonobeat stereo single, I've Got Time backed with 1 to 3. Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr. contracted Austin photographer Belmer Wright and The Conqueroo's friend and artist extraordinaire Gilbert Shelton (creator of the '60s indy comics The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Wonder Warthog) to photograph the band and design the single sleeve, respectively. Belmer's photo, shot outside the Conqueroo's rented house just off the University of Texas campus, adds elements – four kids, a dog (or maybe two), and a semi-fisheye perspective – that capture The Conqueroo's personality as an alternative band, long before that term even existed. Gilbert's design, modelled after the Vulcan's psychedelic posters and handbills of the era, perfectly embellished Belmer's photo, creating a sleeve that embodied the Vulcan's – and the Conqueroo's – collective essence. Not knowing which song would be picked as the "A" side for the Sonobeat release, Gilbert hand lettered two versions of the sleeve artwork. Gilbert finished the design just before moving to San Francisco, where he got his big break as an underground comics creator. With two versions of the sleeve artwork, it was a natural to use them both, making The Conqueroo's single Sonobeat's first double-sided custom sleeve. Producer Rim Kelley added the "typeset" material at the bottom of the sleeve using dry transfer lettering. Except for one quirky mistake – the phrase "Recorded live at the Vulcan Gas Co." is embedded in the tail of the Q in "Conqueroo", but the single wasn't actually recorded before a live audience – the sleeve arguably is the best, and without doubt the most unique, in Sonobeat's catalog.
Sonobeat's custom sleeves were printed by Powell Offset Services in south Austin. Powell also printed the blank center labels used on Sonobeat's singles and albums. Special photographic effects (such as the high contrast photo on Don Dean's single sleeve) were made by Miller Blueprint in downtown Austin. None of the original sleeve artwork has been located in the Sonobeat archives, leading us to believe that the finished designs were left with the printer and are now long lost.
Lavender Hill Express's Watch Out! and Country Music's Here to Stay
R-s105 • 1968 • Two-sided, two-color picture sleeve
When Sonobeat released the Lavender Hill Express' second stereo single, producers Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley intended to record an album with the group. This alone justified special treatment for the picture sleeve for Watch Out! backed with Country Music's Here to Stay. The band provided two 8" x 10" photos, both taken on location on the outskirts of Schwertner, Texas, just north of Austin. Band keyboardist Johnny Schwertner's family, of course, hails from the tiny town. Not only did each side of the sleeve feature a different photo, but both sides featured a color overlay applied to the band name and song title. Aligning the color type layer, which Rim set by hand, was a little tricky but came out OK, although it resulted in some detail in both photos washing out. The two-sided sleeve allowed record shops to rack copies of the single in both the rock and country sections.
(Johnny) Winter's Rollin' and Tumblin' and Mean Town Blues
Rs-107 • 1968 • Single-sided B&W picture sleeve and double-sided B&W picture sleeve
In summer 1968, Sonobeat recorded an album of material with Johnny Winter's trio, then known simply as "Winter". Two tracks, Mean Town Blues and Rollin' and Tumblin' were selected for a stereo single release to build anticipation for Johnny's album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, that Sonobeat planned to release just before Christmas in 1968. Winter's pounding blues represented a departure from the rock, psychedelic, and jazz music Sonobeat had recorded and released in '67 and early '68. Johnny was one of the most unique musicians producers Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley had worked with, and the Joseys had a hard time deciding which song should be the single's "A" side. Those factors led Rim to design a simple sleeve using a Burton Wilson close-up of Johnny, overlaid with the name "Winter" and the Sonobeat logos on the front, and an array of film strips from Burton's photo session with Johnny, with the song titles, release number, and other customary information, on the back. As with the other sleeves he designed, Rim used dry transfer lettering applied directly to a print of Johnny's photo. Notably, the Winter single marked the debut of Sonobeat's stylized "S" logo. Although Rim does not recall designing the back side of the single sleeve, there's sufficient stylistic and technical evidence – including the use of specific type fonts Rim frequently used – to conclude that, indeed, he did. There also is sufficient evidence that the Winter single was issued in both a single-sided version of the sleeve (just the front) and in the double-sided version; however, there are no copies of the double-sided version in the Sonobeat archives, and it's quite rare to see the double-sided sleeve show up on eBay or phonograph record auction sites, leading us to believe that the double-sided sleeve appeared on as few as 200 and probably no more than 500 copies of the single.
Jim Chesnut's About to Be Woman and Leaves
PV-s112 • 1968 • Single-sided B&W picture sleeve
University of Texas undergrad Jim Chesnut recorded the country-folk pop ballads About to be Woman and Leaves for Sonobeat in 1968. Their release as a Sonobeat stereo single was Jim's first and Sonobeat's 14th. Both songs on the single were written by Herman Nelson, whose large oeuvre of compositions were published by Sonobeat's sister company, Sonosong Music. The decision to create a custom sleeve for Jim's single was influenced as much by producer Bill Josey Sr.'s desire to promote Herman's song catalog as by Jim, himself a talented songwriter who had performed on Herman's first Sonosong demo album. Jim's was Sonobeat's last custom sleeve. To spend an extra four to five cents for each copy of a custom sleeve almost completely offset any profit margin Sonobeat hoped to make with most of its releases. Rim designed this final sleeve using the same technique he had used for the Sweetarts' sleeve: he burnished dry transfer lettering directly onto a publicity photo supplied by Jim.
Other Sonobeat singles were released in generic cut-out sleeves rubber stamped "Sonobeat Stereo". Mariani's Rebirth Day advance pressing was the exception. For that single, Sonobeat used a solid white glossy sleeve rubber stamped with the band's name at the top and "Advance Copy" at the bottom.
Of course, there were many Sonobeat stereo singles released between the Sweetarts' and Jim Chesnut's and after Jim's that didn't get the custom sleeve treatment. Whether or not to spend the extra time and money on a custom sleeve was a simple commercial guess the Joseys made as to which releases were most likely to be local breakout hits if given the marketing lift that a custom sleeve might provide. Those that seemed destined to become hits got a custom sleeve and those expected to have limited sales didn't. In at least one instance – for Bach-Yen's Magali – the Joseys wanted to create a custom sleeve but there were no "cleared" photos of Bach available. Although Bach had many great publicity photos, the photographers who took them prohibited commercial use, and the Joseys did not want to bear the extra expense of hiring their own professional photographer.
Constructing a custom sleeve
1. Pencil out rough design sketches, followed by full-size mock-ups of the most promising designs.
2. Mount a 14" x 17" sheet of smooth finish 100 lb Bristol board, on which is printed a non-reproducing light blue alignment grid, on a drafting table.
3. Cut an 8" x 10" artist publicity photo to size with an Xacto knife and glue to the Bristol board with rubber cement.
4. Align dry transfer lettering (printed on clear acetate sheets that feature repeating full alphabets, numbers, and punctuation), using the grid on the Bristol board, then burnish onto the photo or Bristol board using a wood or plastic stick. Dry transfer lettering was and still is available in many different fonts, sizes, and colors.
5. When a font isn't available in dry transfer format, use cut-out self-adhesive lettering, also on clear acetate sheets; the letters and numbers are individually cut out using an Xacto knife, aligned on the photo or Bristol board using a straight edge, and burnished into place.
6. Add ink-drawn lines and embellishments above or below, but not directly on, the photo.
7. Make sure you have extra copies of the artist's publicity photo and dry transfer lettering sheets, in case tragic and irrevocable mistakes occur during layout.