Tom Wilkes dies at 69; Grammy Award-winning art director and album cover designer
Tom Wilkes, a Grammy Award-winning art director and album cover designer whose work included albums for the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Neil Young and other music legends, has died. He was 69.
Wilkes, who was diagnosed with a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1999, died of a heart attack June 28 at his home in Pioneertown, Calif., said his daughter, Katherine Wilkes Fotch.
FOR THE RECORD:
Tom Wilkes obituary: The obituary of album cover designer Tom Wilkes in Saturday’s Section A said Wilkes shot the cover photo for Janis Joplin’s 1971 “Pearl” album. The photo was taken by Wilkes’ then-business partner, Barry Feinstein. —
Wilkes was partner in a Long Beach advertising firm when he became art director for the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival for which he created all of the graphics and print materials, including the festival’s psychedelic posterthat was printed on foil stock.
“In fact, he won an award from Reynolds aluminum for the most creative use of aluminum foil,” Fotch said. “He was always very proud of that.”
Music producer Lou Adler, who produced the landmark music festival with singer John Phillips, said Wilkes “caught the spirit of the time” with his festival graphics.
“Most of the artwork in that particular culture was coming out of San Francisco, and what Tom did was he took a San Francisco look, or niche, and made it international,” Adler said. “You can see a lot of the posters from that period and say, ‘Oh, that’s the ‘60s.’ With Tom, it isn’t dated. There’s a very special look to it.”
The Monterey pop festival “catapulted” Wilkes’ career into the music industry, his daughter said, beginning as art director at A&M Records.
During his heyday, Wilkes designed or provided the art direction or graphic design for scores of album covers, including designing the covers for the Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet,” Neil Young’s “Harvest,” Eric Clapton’s “Eric Clapton,” Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” and George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” and “All things Must Pass.”
As he did with many of the albums, Wilkes also shot the cover photo of Joplin for her 1971 “Pearl” album, which shows the flamboyant singer lounging on a settee.
“Their photo session was the night she overdosed,” Fotch said.
In 1973, Wilkes won a Grammy Award for best recording package for the Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir.
David Fricke, a senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine and an admirer of Wilkes’ work, said that “the magic and the sort of importance of album design was to be able to catch the eye, to try and get a sense of what the music and the personalities were inside and also make you want to buy it.”
Wilkes, Fricke said, “was able to capture a certain essence of what was on the record and the person who made it.
“You look at something like Neil Young’s ‘Harvest,’ the texture of the cover and that very simple, almost antique lettering, and you get a feel of what Neil was trying to do in that record, the honesty and the grit and the deep Americana of what that record represents now.”
And the cover for “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” Fricke said, “with that pose of [a muscle-flexing] Cocker almost like a circus strongman captures the carnival atmosphere of what those shows were like.”
Adler, for whom Wilkes designed the “Tommy” album as well as a number of Cheech and Chong albums for his Ode Records label, described him as “very creative” and “very volatile.”
“He was very, very independent and sometimes difficult to deal with because of his strong convictions on what he was doing,” he said.
But the end product, Adler said, “would be very unique and special, as evident by his artwork when you look at it.”
Born in Long Beach on July 30, 1939, Wilkes graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1957. He attended Long Beach City College and graduated from what was then known as Art Center School in Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena).
After two years as art director at A&M Records, Wilkes was a partner in Camouflage Productions, a partner in Wilkes & Braun Inc. and art director of ABC Records. Then, in 1978, he launched Tom Wilkes Productions and also became president of Project Interspeak, a nonprofit environmental and human rights organization.
A longtime Topanga Canyon resident, Wilkes moved to Pioneertown in 1992 but continued designing album covers and working with Project Interspeak, among other things.
“He loved the high desert, and he always had a place out here since I was a child,” Fotch said by cellphone this week while driving to her father’s home. “We’d come out here to race motorcycles.”
Wilkes recently completed writing a memoir, which would include his artwork, and was seeking a publisher before he died.
“It’s called ‘Tommy Geeked the Chicken,’ ” said Fotch, who is unsure of the meaning of the title reference. “I haven’t read the manuscript yet. I’m almost afraid to find out.”
Wilkes was married and divorced three times. In addition to his daughter from his first marriage, he is survived by his brother, Dennis Wilkes, and three grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today at First Presbyterian Church of Orange, 191 N. Orange St., Orange.
Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations in Wilkes’ memory be made to fund ALS research and sent to the ALS Assn. Development Department, 27001 Agoura Road, Suite 250, Calabasas, CA 91301.
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