“No one is born sophisticated. It’s a place you have to crawl to, crawling out of hayseed country, over miles of unsanded pavement, past Trouble, past corners and forks with no auto club signs to point you, till you get there and you wake up wiser.”
That was on the back of an album jacket, and the album, it must be said, is not a memorable one. It has a couple of hit singles that everybody knows, and couple of Beatles covers, songs by Dylan and Brian Wilson and Jagger & Richards. The playing, by the guys and gal who played on almost everything recorded in Los Angeles in those days, is fine as far as it’s asked to go, and the young lady on the cover is, as was said, a babe. Mod horizontal stripes top and bottom, red leather mini-skirt and matching boots (the album is called Boots, so your eye is drawn to them, after taking in the way the girl is staring straight into the camera). There is nothing that exceptional going on, except you flip the cover over, and you read.
“A young fragile living thing on its own in a wondrous-wicked-woundup-wasted-wild-worried-wisedup-warmbodied world. On her own. Earning her daily crepes and Cokes by singing the facts of love. Her voice tells as much as her songs. No faked-up grandure, her voice is like it is: a little tired, little put down, a lot loving.”
It doesn’t matter so much that the vocalist doesn’t, couldn’t, live up to that stream of writing. She would have to be a modern Mildred Bailey, a pop Patsy Cline, Tuesday Weld with vocal equipment to match her vixenish allure, to be truly worthy of those words, but never mind: she’s Nancy Sinatra, the daughter of the boss of the label, and the single is unmistakably a fine thing, and if she requires some eloquent prose to give her mystery that a version of “Flowers On The Wall” can’t contain, what of it? The album jacket is a marketing work-of-art, and no one, no one, filled the back of a 12″ X 12″ cardboard space with a more deft touch than Stan Cornyn, who passed away this week.
He made label hype seductive and witty, insightful and novelistic (some of his notes for the elder Sinatra are like miniature short stories). As head of Creative Services for Warner Brothers-Reprise Records, he came up with ad campaigns that made the efforts of other record companies seem creaky, tired, obvious. Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Van Dyke Parks, The Fugs were advertised with copy that acknowledged their commercial limitations (and whatever we now know of Young, Mitchell, The Dead, they were not initially an easy sell). And you could find, on the backs of albums you might not otherwise consider buying by, say, Dean Martin, The Anita Kerr Singers, Trini Lopez, Harpers Bizarre, prose that on its own was worth lingering over in the easy listening racks of your local department store record department. Cornyn also invented the WB-Reprise double-LP Loss Leader sampler, and in the very first one, Songbook, gave out the phone number to reach him and his colleagues in Creative Services: 213-843-5115.
His notes for the masterpiece Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim are as great as they need to be to reflect the genius within. They begin thusly:
“It had begun like the World Soft Championships. The songs, mostly by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Tender melodies. Tender like a two-day, lobster-red Rio sunburn, so tender they’d scream agony if handled rough. Slap one of his fragile songs on the back with a couple of trumpets? Like washing crystals in a cement mixer.”
Here’s something I’ve said to people who have asked me how I got into the music-business racket: I believed I had one skill that could earn me my keep and pay my rent and buy me Buitoni macaroni and Chips Ahoy cookies; I could write some. And all I did the livelong day was listen to music. How could this possibly add up to anything? Stan Cornyn helped me figure it out. Not personally: I didn’t call his number at work. But I read the liner notes and the ads and the artist blurbs in those first few Loss Leaders, and thought, this might be the way. There was someone at a record company who did this stuff??? I could write the essays or the ads, maybe? And lo and behold, I did. And copied Cornyn as closely as I could without getting sued for tone-plagiarism. I wrote a good number of album notes, and moved from publicity writing to advertising writing at Arista Records, and so on.
What Cornyn taught me was that selling through words could have literary merit, that trying to convey, in an advocating sense, what the music within the sleeve, or the music being pitched, had to say, was something almost noble. His work was conversational, with exceptional pitch for detail, and behind it was the idea that one way to cut through the noise of hype was to do it quietly, with humor. Another way was to invite people to enter a Pigpen look-alike contest, or win a date with a Fug, or please, please, check out these Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman albums because we have all these unsold copies lying around. Warner-Reprise was by far the coolest record label of the late ’60s and early ’70s. By far. And not only because the A&R was brilliant, although it surely was, but because Stan Cornyn’s touch, so distinctive, was the key to the label’s public sensibility: it was where Jimi Hendrix and Tiny Tim, Petula Clark and Frank Zappa, The Vogues and Fleetwood Mac, Sinatras and Everlys, were all embraced, and when we sent in our $2 for those Songbook and Record Show samplers, we never knew what we might discover. They were Cornyn’s doing, along with all those classic ads and notes that, really, somebody needs to combine in one volume. Often, they were the best thing about the album.