Gary Burden, left, with Neil Young on Malibu Beach in California in 1975. Henry Diltz
Gary Burden, who beginning in the late 1960s designed memorable album covers for Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Doors and numerous other stars of rock and folk-rock, died on March 7 in Los Angeles. He was 84.
His wife and frequent collaborator, Jenice Heo, confirmed the death. No cause was given.
Working in the predigital era, when music was sold primarily on vinyl and artists were often trying to make a personal statement with their albums, Mr. Burden created cover after cover that seared their way into the minds of fans.
He designed the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album in 1969, featuring a Henry Diltz photograph of the three on a ragged couch. He also designed the cover of Ms. Mitchell’s acclaimed 1971 album, “Blue,” a striking close-up of the singer in blue and black tones. He put the Eagles in Wild West regalia for “Desperado” and Mr. Young in a cheesy yellow jacket for “On the Beach” (1974). Among his most recent work was Conor Oberst’s “Salutations,” released last year.
In a 2015 video interview with NPR’s “World Cafe,” Mr. Burden had a simple description of his work. “How to visualize the music,” he said. “That’s been my mission.”
Mr. Burden’s design cover design for “The Papas & The Mamas” (1968) redirected his career. He used a photograph by Henry Diltz, his frequent collaborator, as the cover for “Crosby, Stills & Nash” (1969). From left: Dunhill Records; Atlantic Records
Mr. Oberst was one appreciative beneficiary.
“Gary always wanted the album packaging to reflect the spirit of the music and the wishes of the artists as much as possible,” he said by email. “He was often at odds with record labels when they sought to cut costs at the expense of what he and the artist had envisioned. Gary usually won those battles.”
Mr. Burden was born on May 23, 1933, in Cleveland to Lowell and Agatha Burden. He grew up primarily in South Florida, perpetually restless.
“I came from a very conservative family,” he said, “and I didn’t fit in. I don’t know why it was chosen for me to be their kid.”
But his escape route from that conservatism was unusual: At 16, persuading his mother to lie about his age, he left home to join the Marines. After leaving the service, he ended up in California, living what he described as a beatnik life for a time but eventually studying architectural design at the University of California at Berkeley. It was Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas who redirected his career in the 1960s.
“I met her and she asked me to do a remodel of her home in Laurel Canyon,” he said, referring to the section of Los Angeles where many musicians were settling. “So she’s the one who said, ‘You know, Gary, you should make our new cover; you know how to design stuff.’ ”
Mr. Burden dressed Neil Young in cheap polyester clothing for the cover of Mr. Young’s “On the Beach” (1974) and was nearly bitten by a horse taking the cover photo for “Crazy Horse” (1971) Reprise Records
He designed the group’s 1968 album, “The Papas & the Mamas,” and that was that.
“I blew off my three-piece suit and never looked back,” he said. “That was kind of when I was born, the real me. Before that I was living somebody else’s idea of who I should be.”
The Mamas and the Papas were on the Dunhill label, and Mr. Burden in short order got the designing assignments for other Dunhill groups like Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night. Through Ms. Elliot, he also met numerous other performers living in and around Laurel Canyon, including Mr. Young, who became a regular customer and collaborator.
Mr. Burden designed more than 40 albums for Mr. Young, beginning in 1970 with “After the Gold Rush,” and later they collaborated on designs. When Mr. Young won his first Grammy Award, in January 2010, it wasn’t for his music, but for “best boxed or special limited-edition package” for “Neil Young Archives Vol. 1,” an art-direction honor he shared with Mr. Burden and Ms. Heo.
In a 2015 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation , Mr. Burden said that his cover for Mr. Young’s “On the Beach” was his favorite.
“This was about America in the ’70s when everything was cheaper than it looks,” he said. The cover is a photograph of a beach scene, a piece of a Cadillac jammed into the sand beside some yellow beach furniture, Mr. Young in the background, his back to the camera.
A striking, moody closeup of Joni Mitchell adorned Mr. Burden’s cover for “Blue” (1971). He used a photograph of Jim Morrison and The Doors standing in Los Angeles’s Morrison Hotel to illustrate the 1970 album of the same name. From left: Reprise Records; Elektra Records
“Neil and I went to a store that sold cheap polyester clothing and we got a jacket and pants for him to wear,” he recalled.
The band with which Mr. Young has often performed, Crazy Horse, released an album in 1971, titled simply “Crazy Horse,” that provided Mr. Burden with another of his many stories. The cover is a distorted close-up of a horse.
“I seldom, if ever, took the photos myself, because I was very intimidated by the camera,” he told the CBC. “But I took the picture of that horse. It was trying to bite me, and after I had the image, I stretched it so it looked totally weird.”
Mr. Burden teamed with Mr. Diltz for many of his covers. One assignment became the Doors’ 1970 album “Morrison Hotel,” featuring the band (whose lead singer was Jim Morrison) in the window of the Morrison Hotel in Los Angeles. The manager at the front desk, Mr. Burden recalled, refused them permission to take the shot.
“So we went outside and I thought we could just take the picture outside with the sign in the background,” he said, “but as we were doing that I noticed the desk manager leave and get into the elevator, and we ran in.”
Mr. Burden in 1970. The first album he designed for Mr. Young, “After the Gold Rush,” was released that year. Henry Diltz
Mr. Diltz, who was outside, photographed the band members just inside the front window looking out.
The first Crosby, Stills & Nash album cover, a photograph also taken by Mr. Diltz, is among the most famous rock images of the period, and resulted in an amusing tale that Mr. Burden liked to tell. The image shows Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and David Crosby — in that order — on a beat-up couch in front of an equally beat-up house. The group, Mr. Burden said, was so new it hadn’t named itself when the picture was taken.
Once the band was named, “we decided, O.K., we’ll just go back tomorrow and reshoot it, and you guys can sit in the proper order,” Mr. Burden said in the “World Cafe” interview. But they found an empty spot where the house had been.
“Back at the back of the lot was a stack of wood and building materials,” he said. “They had bulldozed it and just pushed it back out of the way. We obviously decided that was God telling us that we should go with what we had, so we did.”
There was no immediate information on survivors other than his wife.
The advent of the CD and digital downloading naturally affected Mr. Burden’s work, though he continued to design.
“As times changed in the music industry,” Mr. Oberst said, “he adapted to the new formats and technology, but the LP was always his favorite — he said because it felt the best to hold in your hand and was the easiest to roll a joint on.”
Gary Burden (Album Cover Artist) on World Cafe: Sense of Place - LA
Gary Burden (Album Cover Artist) on World Cafe: Sense of Place - LA Video by World Cafe