On the Corner, by Miles Davis

An album cover art story

Few albums in the history of jazz created as much controversy as On the Corner, the album Miles Davis released in 1972. Stylistically, the music had very little to do with the jazz tradition, and was a departure from Davis’ already out-there jazz-rock explorations found on Bitches Brew and Live Evil, released a couple of years earlier. The album was a result of heavy editing by Teo Macero from tapes that captured long repetitive jams. Miles wanted to reach the black youth audience that moved away from his jazz and fusion albums and was now digging funk: “It was with Sly Stone and James Brown in mind that I went into the studio in June 1972 to record On the Corner. During that time everyone dressed kind of ‘out on the street’, platform shoes that were yellow, and electric yellow at that, handkerchiefs around the neck, headbands, rawhide vests, and so on. Black women were wearing them real tight dresses that had their big butts sticking way out back.”

But only Miles could come up with a record influenced by the minimalist music the like of Stockhausen and the phrasing of Ornette Coleman as an attempt to appeal to that youth. The record tanked equally at the charts, sales and with critics. Some of them called it “An insult to the intellect of the people” while others chose the more precise phrase “Repetitious crap”. Down Beat outdid them all with: “Take some chunka-chunka-chunka rhythm, lots of little background percussion diddle-around sounds, some electronic mutations, add simple tune lines that sound a great deal alike and play some space solos. You’ve got a ‘groovin formula, and you stick with it interminably to create your ‘magic’. But is it magic or just repetitious boredom?” To each their own, but the record survived better than its contemporary reviews and is now hailed as a masterpiece, usually by folks outside of the jazz idiom. And it was all packaged in a great album cover, featuring the drawings of Corky McCoy.

On the Corner inner gatefold

After moving from Los Angeles to New York, Corky McCoy met Miles Davis and the two became friends, sharing an apartment on West 77th Street. They spent a lot of time together, including visits to the boxing gym in the meat packing district where Miles used to practice his favorite sport. Miles, a long time aficionado of art who later in his career spent as much time painting and sketching as making music, asked McCoy to create the cover for On the Corner: “Corky McCoy’s my best friend. I just called him up and told him what to do. In fact, he was afraid to do it, and I… you know, look at those covers, man. He just lives it. Black life! It’s different from white life, Chinese life, whatever. My life’s different from yours.”

On the Corner front cover

 The result was something that the heads of Columbia Records had difficulty swallowing. Miles in a 1973 interview, as only he can tell it: “…when I showed ’em the new cover by Corky McCoy, they told me it won’t help sell any albums. And I told ’em how to merchandize nigger music, man. Put Chinese on the covers. Put niggers on the covers, put brothers and sisters on ’em, whatever they’re going to call us next, that’s what you put on the covers to sell to us.” The host of characters on the cover include a Sly Stone-like youth with an Afro, large shades and a T-shirt reading “Vote Miles”, two shady men with a portable radio, a prostitute discussing business with an older man with empty pockets, and a mean-looking dude with a “Free Me” sticker on his hat. All in all, the best of Blaxploitation, so popular with urban African-American audiences at the time.

On the Corner back cover

Corky McCoy went on to create more art for Miles Davis. The following year he drew the gatefold cover for In Concert, recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The original double-LP package did not include any credits of personnel and tracks other than the inner gatefold drawings with the text Foot Fooler and Slickaphonics. Coda magazine called the drawings “tasteless”. To each their own.

In Concert gatefold
In Concert inner gatefold

Later in the 1970s, when Miles Davis semi-retired from music making, Columbia released compilation albums of recordings made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two of them included Corky McCoy’s drawings. The first was Big Fun, released in 1974 and consisting of material recorded during the Jack Johnson and On the Corner sessions. The Sly Stone character makes another cameo appearance here on the back cover.

Big Fun gatefold

The last cover for Miles Davis by Corky McCoy came in 1976 with the release of Water Babies, dating back to material recorded in 1967 and 1968 for the albums Nefertiti and In a Silent Way. Another urban scene with nude babies in the street delighting in the cool water splashing off a fire hydrant.

Water Babies front cover

And to close, here is a track from On the Corner, the Indian-infused funk Black Satin:

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this in-depth review of classic 1950s Miles Davis quintet recordings:

Categories: Album Art

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