Out of the Mainstream
The Jack Lonshein Story
by David L. Brown
Record collectors often complain that jewel-case inserts and flimsy digipack covers lack the feel, smell, and aura of an old, heavy, glossy cardboard paste-over album jacket. Yet the loss of the LP sleeve’s twelve-by-twelve canvas is perhaps less disturbing than the slow disappearance of the artists who made those canvases memorable. For instance, the true name of the artist known as “Fazio,” the man responsible for the Crown label’s distinctively creepy cover art, is now lost to history. Thankfully, Jack Lonshein, whose remarkable artwork for the Mainstream label continues to be discovered, is now beginning to receive at least a small portion of the recognition that he deserves.
Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Jack was a loner as a child and, to amuse himself, began imitating the work of popular cartoonists like Otto Messmer (Felix the Cat) and Rudolph Dirks (Katzenjammer Kids). He went on to take art courses at Brooklyn Tech, and, at the age of eighteen, was drafted into the army as a sign painter. Upon his discharge, Jack killed time between periodic bouts of employment by betting on horses with a local bookmaker and record store owner. Knowing that Jack was unemployed, the bookie asked him to help run the record shop.
By 1951, Jack Lonshein was running the shop, Record Rendezvous, and doing all the buying, selling, and general disc dealing. By the mid-’50s, Jack—his coffers swelled by the popularity of the new 7-inch format—was able to open a pair of stores, the Record Room in Astoria and the Record Ranch in Jamaica, Queens. As the proprietor of a now sizable chain of stores, Jack was able to snag musicians like Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, and Betty Carter for in-store promotional appearances. He also liked to sketch huge pastel posters of jazz musicians that he would hang in the store. Unfortunately, these magnificent sketches were lost in a 1958 fire at the store, which was rebuilt eighteen months later and renamed the Scene.
Yet by 1961, Jack had become disillusioned with the record business; the emergence of chain stores, with their cutthroat business practices, finally induced Jack to abandon his now unprofitable business. Shortly after selling the Scene, Jack was approached by Phil Picone of Mainstream records, who remembered Jack’s amazing pastel drawings. Knowing that Jack’s kinetic style would compare favorably with the relatively tame record covers of the day, Phil offered Jack a position designing sleeves and label art for Mainstream. He introduced Jack to Mainstream owner Bob Shad who asked Jack to design the first eight album covers, including titles for Billie Holliday, Coleman Hawkins, and Pee Wee Russell for the Mainstream reissue subsidiary Commodore.
The Mainstream LP covers were manufactured by Globe Albums Inc., a New York City outfit that specialized in heavy cardboard-stock jackets with glossy paste-over cover slicks, a process rarely used today due to the manufacturing expense. Globe’s owner, Leo Margolis, asked Jack to design some generic replacement jackets for sale to the record buying public. This idea proved to be a success as record buyers frequently sought replacements for lost or damaged covers. Some of these jackets featured trendy, psychedelic, pseudo-bohemian artwork, and have occasionally been found housing the only extant copy of some garage-rock rarity.
Meanwhile, back at Mainstream, Bob Shad began to notice that jazz sales were flagging and decided to shift his focus towards the nascent underground-rock scene, which was beginning to receive attention from the newly emerged network of independent FM radio stations. In early 1968, Mainstream began releasing albums by Big Brother and the Holding Company, Superfine Dandelion, Jelly Bean Bandits, Amboy Dukes, Tiffany Shade, Bohemian Vendetta, Tangerine Zoo, Growing Concern, Art of Loving, Ellie Pop, and Orient Express. Though some of these releases were successful, the majority quickly became bargain-bin specials, as Shad’s hopes of receiving support from FM radio went largely unrealized.
During his tenure at Mainstream, Jack became friends with a raspy-voiced lounge singer and jazz pianist named Bobby Cole. Jack tried to get Bob Shad to release an album of Cole’s original material, but Shad failed to show interest. Frustrated by this setback, Jack started his own record label, Concentric Records, in 1966, and fashioned himself as both CEO and creative director. When Bobby Cole’s Point of View album was released on Concentric in 1967, it sold quite well in the New York City area, where Bobby’s constant gigging had earned him a following. At about this time, Cole began performing a yet-to-be recorded Jerry Jeff Walker composition called “Mr. Bojangles,” a recording of which was later released on Concentric in 1968. This would be the label’s only 7-inch release. Jack licensed the master to Date records for better distribution and it began to take off. Unfortunately, the single came out at the exact same time as Jerry Jeff Walker’s version. As both versions were slowly creeping up the charts in the summer of 1968, a frustrated Bob Shad, thinking he had missed out on an opportunity for a long-awaited hit, hypocritically chastised Jack for not releasing the single on Mainstream. Jack left Mainstream as a result of this incident and began doing freelance work on his own. When nothing happened with a design studio he opened with a photographer, Jack took a job at an all-night record store and awoke early each morning to produce tapes with Bobby Cole. Jack brought the tapes to the attention of his old friend Phil Picone who was now working for MGM. The label expressed some interest, but the contract was too strict for the alcoholic Cole. Nothing ever materialized except for tons of rough demo tapes that Jack still keeps in storage.
Throughout this period, Jack designed album covers for Movietone, ABC, Roulette, Royal Roost, and Tico labels, the most famous of these being the Best of Tommy James and the Shondells on Roulette. He did two album covers for Mary Wells on Movietone, as wells as the Love Songs to the Beatles LP on Twentieth Century Fox. His artwork also graced the covers of numerous soundtracks for Mainstream, a multitude of budget albums for Time, and an album of organ-groovers by Philly legend Doc Bagby for the Current label. He also did an amazing portrait of Johnny Winter for an aborted Columbia project that never saw the light of day.
Today, Jack is retired and resides in Manhattan where he does freelance artwork and odd jobs.