Judge an album by its cover?

Try judging a cover before the songs are written

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For 40 years, Michael Mendel had a say in making iconic album art for major labels. From David Cassidy and Gladys Knight and the Pips, to the inside cover of “The Godfather” soundtrack, Mendel has a story to tell about every album’s cover art. 

“I loved going to work,” he said. 

Now, 80 of the album covers he designed are on display as part of the exhibit, “Just For the Record,” at the Vintage Artists Gallery at Riverdale Senior Services throughout the rest of April. 

Mendel fled from Germany with his family when the Nazis took over in 1938. He made a life for himself in the Big Apple after graduating from City College of New York and picked up a job at an advertising agency. He found his way into album art after he was hired to design the back of Latin albums at Columbia Records.

But soon enough, Mendel had a hand in designing every part of an album cover, allowing him to open his own graphic design studio, freelancing for other companies like Verve Records and Capitol Records. 

Before the luxury of Photoshop, designs were printed on paper and glued on cardboard. But Mendel’s job was more than just paper and glue — it was collaboration with an entire team.

“To create any album, you sat with either the record producer or the performer” or the record company, he said. “Now usually the concept of an album should be, ‘What’s behind the album cover?’ It’s supposed to express what’s going on in the music.”

Yet every album was a challenge, Mendel said. “Sometimes the record (had not) even been recorded yet. It made it difficult to catch the mood.”

Despite these day-to-day obstacles, Mendel said nothing beat hearing songs from an album he worked on while listening to the radio, or seeing his finished product in the flesh, so to speak.

“Going to a friend’s house, turning (an album) over, and seeing it says ‘art director Michael Mendel,’ that’s the thrill,” he said.

Although he doesn’t follow album art these days, Mendel recognizes its place in contemporary music. 

“Album cover art has become an art form,” he said. 

Mendel and his wife have made a home in Riverdale over the last eight years, and he was thrilled at the chance to display his work at Riverdale Senior Services. So far, Mendel said he’s received nothing but positive feedback from people checking out his work.

“What’s so beautiful about this exhibit being here is that these old folks … will remember the personality of that time,” he said. 

Mendel’s album designing days might be over, but he’s ventured into a new kind of art: watercolor painting. He started in 2009 and has made 360 paintings that are inspired by his other home in the Catskills — barns, animals, harbors and more. 

Learning to paint, Mendel said, is “hit and miss.” 

“I taught myself. It’s a learning experience every day.”

Watercolor painting and album cover art are two experiences that are like day and night, Mendel said. And he likes it that way. 

“When I paint, I’m the boss,” he said. “I decide what goes where.”

Still, Mendel is proud of his new exhibition. 

“I’m pleased with what I’m presenting here,” he said. “There’s no rotten apple in this pile.”

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