Blue Note Stereo by Design

There is ample collector documentation of variation in Blue Note mono and stereo labels, their respective addresses, text, colour, typesetting and fonts. Likewise pages of heated discussion of the merits of mono, stereo, fold-downs, and general sound-engineering stuff. The area of Blue Note I thought was under-documented, if that is possible, is that of manufacture, merchandising, and branding of the Blue Note stereo product, brought out into the mono world of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Stereo by design.

As a reminder, our very own excellent resident authority on Van Gelder’s transition from mono to stereo, DG mono, created this impossibly cute graphic of what you should expect to hear from early stereo Blue Notes: front-line instruments positioned on left or right side of the stage, rather than the more modern “centre of attention” model. Some listeners find this “hard panning” not to their taste, others tolerate it better. First Pressing Fundamentalists should look away now.

Rudy’s Two Track Mind

To cater for the growing stereo market, in addition to a conveyor belt of new titles, Van Gelder returned to his two-track tapes, and gradually began to re-master carefully selected Blue Note sessions for stereo.

Based on my study of Kind of Blue auction numbers, at least four out of five record sales at the end of the ’50s were mono, but stereo grew and grew, until by the mid-60s many records were issued only in stereo.

By the end of 1959, the first year of Blue Note early stereo, Rudy mastered seven stereo editions from the Blue Note back catalogue:

May: BST 4003 Blakey, Moanin’ , BST 4008 – Silver, Finger Poppin’
June: BST 1593 Donaldson, Blues Walk
July: BST 1563 J Smith, Plays Pretty
August: BST 1554 Blakey, Orgy In Rhythm
September: BST 4013 McLean, New Soil
December: 84017 Silver, Blowin’ The Blues Away

The following year Van Gelder added another ten back catalogue stereo editions. The pace- just one a month – and the choice of titles illustrated which artists and titles were seen as priority at that time, including not one but two albums of The Three Sounds.

March: 84015 Blakey, At Jazz Corner Vol1
April: BST 4011 Smith, The Sermon
May: BST 4014 Three Sounds, Bottoms Up
June: BST 1577 Coltrane, Blue Train
July: 84029 Blakey, Big Beat
August: 84030 Smith, Crazy Baby
September: 84026 Byrd, Fuego
October: 84042 Silver, HoraceScope
November: 84027 Redd, Music from The Connection
December: 84044 Three Sounds, Moods

Eight more stereo titles were added in 1961, and a further dozen in the first half of 1962. In total only 35 of 186 albums in the back catalogue prior to July 1962 were remastered for stereo. From this point forward, new titles would be issued in both mono and stereo format. The rest of the back catalogue would need to wait for Liberty or Japan to issue a stereo edition.

Stereo sent packing

The earliest session Van Gelder recorded to two-track tape was 1554, Orgy In Rhythm, enabling a “stereo release” BST 1554. Without a stereo jacket, but a stock of mono jackets, Blue note simply stickered the mono cover with a “stereo” label.

Five of the seven titles remastered for stereo in 1959 were packaged in stickered mono jackets. Up to 4014, the labels have mono four digit catalog number prefix BST, there after, five digit starting wth 84015.

The stereo sticker also had a hidden utility. As sales of stereo rose and mono declined, Blue Note needed to think about the availability of stereo jackets, and offload surplus mono jackets. This was the fate of my copy of BST 4011 below. It is a Plastylite pressing, with stereo NY USA labels, accompanying inner sleeve first half 1966. Not the April-60 stereo first release, but a later pressing in a surplus mono cover. .

Surplus no more. To cut costs, old stock consumables would be “repurposed” – old labels, old mono jackets. Little did they know that fifty years later, in an electronic market place, collectors would be poring over the detail of such mismatched items.

The Sermon, and House Party, are the only Jimmy Smith albums I can bear to play, and only because of their line-ups. I mean, Kenny Burrell, Tina Brooks, Lee Morgan? This is the jazz aristocracy, rather than Smith’s endless budget trio outings. I note I haven’t posted The Sermon, let’s just keep it that way. If some Blue Note artists were under-recorded, or under-appreciated, Jimmy Smith enjoyed plenty of attention, with 24 Blue Note releases to his name, more than any other Blue Note artist, overtaking Art Blakey’s 20, and Horace Silver’s meagre 14.

Another example: 84106 had a regular stereo release in April 1963, but is also found with a stickered mono cover. Blue Note needed to match the demand and pressing orders between mono and stereo formats. Too many mono covers? No problem, send Stella out for more Stickers. And donuts.

The Rise and Rise of Stereo.

As stereo home listening began to increase in popularity, Blue Note recognised record buyers and dealers needed to differentiate stereo from mono merchandise. Stereo records could not be played on a mono record player without damage. As music listeners began to upgrade to a new home stereo-grams, record dealers were having to stock both formats each new title, and no doubt grapple with returns from some mistakently purchasing the wrong format.

The music trade press like Billboard documented each week’s releases for their sales potential, and their availability in “monaural and stereo”. Radio stations were still broadcasting in mono, but home consumers were being bombarded with Stereo as The Next Big Thing.

Blue Note responded to the growth of interest in stereo by having Van Gelder remaster selected titles. I can’t imagine his heart was in it, but he did his best. The problem was packaging and selling the new format to a largely mono world.

Enter the stereo logo

In the Summer of 1959, Blue Note designer Reid Miles produced a new mono/stereo logo that would replace the stickered mono jacket with a purpose-built stereo declaration, printed on the jacket cover art.

Miles tried out this colourful mono/stereo logo on three titles. In his first experiment, 4013/ 84013, he integrated the new mono/stereo logo with a section of artist portrait.

For some time Reid Miles had made very effective use of narrow portrait selections in his cover designs. Moving on from the great Francis Wolff portraits, these portrait slices enabled greater interaction between the image of the artist, their instrument, typography, and other graphical elements, maintaining balance within white space. He was apparently not a great jazz fan, but definitely a great graphic designer

A different solution was adopted with 4015 and 4016, Art Blakey at the Jazz Corner of the World. The design here needed to differentiate two Volumes of At The Jazz Corner, as well as the mono/stereo of each Volume. Reid decided to synchronise the key colour of the logo with the font colour of Art Blakey and jazz corner of the world. Deceptively simple, the connecting “at the” is plain white, emphasising the coloured text.With the same unifying artwork this successfully differentiated Volume 1 from Volume 2. and within each volume, he was able to differentiatiate the stereo from the mono . A very elegant design solution, particularly effective isolated against a monochrome blurred location picture, quite possibly the actual corner of the jazz world.

Only three records were given the experimental mono/stereo logo treatment: 4013, 4015 and 4016. Side by side, you see how Reid tried out different weights of fonts, contrasting the 8-series catalogue number with the 4-series, juggling all the elements. I particularly like the “subliminal” transformation of the mono disc symbol with it’s spindle hole, into a central listening point facing a stereophonic half surround. Visual communication genius..

Ultimately, perhaps the mono/stereo logo design was too strong, unbalanced other elements of design. As can sometimes happen, the tail begins to wag the dog. Another way needed to be found, which permitted the economical use of the same cover artwork, but print modified mono and stereo versions of the cover paper slicks, for pasting down onto the cardboard jacket. A solution was required which didn’t overly constrain creative graphic design.

However, the gold stereo sticker was not entirely redundant. Van Gelder’s schedule of back-catalogue stereo remastering continued through 1960. Whether by accident or design, some of the new stereo titles had sufficient existing stock of mono covers to avoid the cost of manufacturing a new stereo cover. Surprisingly, this included our old friend 1577, which Rudy remastered in stereo for release in June 1960 (not recommended in stereo, but no accounting for taste)

In my recent study of 1577, I had overlooked the stereo stickered mono cover. By definition, it consists of covers from stock that had been manufactured before mid-1960, a time stamp not evident in the generality of mono editions. See green tint, grey catalogue number. Somewhere in the heavens Rudy is having a laugh.

Other titles first released in stereo in 1960, just a few months behind the mono, were given Reid Miles final solution to mono/ stereo branding: the oval and rectangle logo.

The new logo kicked off with Horace Silver Blowin’ The Blues Away. Pictured below, laminated stereo jacket 84026, released in September 1960, three months after the mono, and among the first to get the new oval and rectangle treatment.

Clear stereo “branding” – the word mono is not used, merely absent – and the catalogue number prefix 8 can be dropped in or left out. With offset lithography, simply two identical aluminium plates to print the front cover art paper slicks, one with the stereo text, one without. Simple, effective, and very cost effective.

Up until mid-1962, the stereo edition would trail some months behind the release of mono edition.However with the same cover art in the bag, preparation for the stereo jacket was in hand. The experimental design gave way to the more practical solution, the addition of the word STEREO in the rectangle, and the figure 8 in the oval. The colour fill of the box and oval could be synchronised with the typography or artwork, or left in outline, unfilled. On Fuego, red fill, Donald Byrd under red light. Genius. A design solution that can be implemented independently of the cover art, and applied to all cover art, continuous perfect branding.

As regards where we came in, on audio matters, early Blue Note stereo leaves a lot to be desired. I try to avoid pre-1962 stereo, though some are quite tolerable. It is doubly problematic with some 80’s Japanese reissues where the loss in quality of transfers combines with hard stereo panning to produce, what shall I say, horrid records. Some of these were Japan-only releases  for the hardcore enthusiast, and do not make a good musical experience.