Jim McCrary dies at 72; photographer shot Carole King ‘Tapestry’ cover


Photographer Jim McCrary was on the verge of shooting one of his most famous images when he stopped to ask singer Carole King if the cat sleeping across the room could be part of the tableau.

He remembered the results of a Kodak survey that found “after children, the most popular thing people photographed was their own cats,” he later said. “I saw a cat, and I wanted to get something good.”

When King assured him that her pet was docile, he carried the tabby and its pillow to the window ledge and into the frame. By the third click of his camera, the cat had slipped away but McCrary had what he needed: a picture of both the barefoot songstress and her whiskered feline that became the cover of King’s landmark 1971 “Tapestry” album.

McCrary, a rock photographer who created more than 300 album covers for A&M Records, died April 29 of complications from a chronic nervous system disorder at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, said Colleen Pollard, his niece. He was 72.

“He was so important both to me and my artists,” said record producer Lou Adler. “Conceptually, he always understood what the person was about and was able to photograph their personality. A perfect example of that is the ‘Tapestry’ album.... The idea of having the cat, that brought a personal feeling to it.”

Largely self-taught as a photographer, McCrary joined A&M Records in 1967 and was the label’s chief photographer over the next seven years. He had an “artistic eye” and a “sensitive touch,” Herb Alpert, the musician and record executive who is the “A” in A&M Records, said last week in a statement to The Times.

“You learn a lot about people as a photographer,” McCrary said in a 1971 Times feature about King. “When you turn the camera on some people, it is a frightening experience for them. It brings out their insecurities.” But King had been “as natural as anyone” he had photographed.

For the Carpenters’ 1969 debut album, “Offering,” McCrary drove north on Highland Avenue and posed the serious-looking duo on the side of the road. When the album was repackaged as “Ticket to Ride,” he shot them, smiling this time, on a rented sailboat in Lake Tahoe.

He took an informal photograph of the Flying Burrito Brothers on the A&M lot in Hollywood for the group’s self-titled 1971 album. By then, rock-country pioneer Gram Parsons had moved on from the band, but photos McCrary took of Parsons in Nudie Western wear — complete with marijuana-leaf embellishment — to promote the Burrito Brothers’ 1969 album became the most-requested images from McCrary’s archive.

From 1974 through 1990, he operated his own photo studio in Hollywood on La Brea Avenue, where he lived upstairs and devoted a room to model trains. He specialized in hard-to-shoot still-lifes and portraits.

Musicians were still on the roster in the late 1970s when a shy Michael Jackson arrived for a photo session for his “Off the Wall” album. The shots ended up not making the cover because Jackson was unhappy with how he looked in them, Pollard said.

To loosen him up, McCrary asked his niece, then 18, to dance with Jackson. As they were about to start, Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” was playing on the radio but was not yet a hit.

“Jim did not know Michael’s music and changed the radio station,” Pollard said. “I yelled, ‘No, that’s his song.’ The looks on Michael’s face and his manager’s were priceless.”

It was a prime example of why McCrary soon left rock photography behind, Pollard recalled: “He said he just didn’t feel connected with the bands anymore.”

James Willard McCrary was born Aug. 31, 1939, in Los Angeles County, the middle of three brothers. His father was a pigeon farmer in Chino.

At El Monte High, McCrary was the school photographer. He studied at UC Berkeley but left to serve in the Army and worked in intelligence in Japan in the early 1960s.

McCrary also attended Pasadena City College and Art Center College of Design, where he taught in the 1970s. He started his career in local photo studios and worked in Rockwell International’s photo department.

In 1990, he co-founded Pix Camera, a Hollywood store that specializes in equipment for professional photographers.

“He was a big, big fellow,” Adler said of the 6-foot-4 McCrary. “For his physical size, he never was imposing. He seemed to fit in, and a lot of the times, you didn’t even know he was there — a great sort of tribute to the way he photographed.”

McCrary, who moved to Palo Alto from Glendale about 18 months ago, had one son from his only marriage, which ended in divorce.

In addition to his son, Jason, he is survived by two brothers, Wylee Dale McCrary and Doug McCrary.

Services are pending.