The Untold Story of Pioneering Cover Artist Mozelle Thompson
In January 2013, I was listening to Buddah Records’ 1969 release of Black America Vol. 2: The Man of Love, Dr. Martin Luther King when the liner notes caught my eye. They included a paragraph about the artist who illustrated the album cover: “Mozelle Thompson was born in Pittsburgh, PA. He is a graduate of the Parsons School of Design and attended the Art Students League and New York University. He is a profuse illustrator of book jackets and record covers. His magazine illustrations and theatre posters are known throughout the United States, while his courses in commercial art and window display are attended widely.”
I was intrigued as to who this native Pittsburgh artist was and why I’d never heard of him before. The finite amount of information available online didn’t deter me from researching and digging for more. After 22 months of combing through microfilm at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, tracking down and interviewing Thompson’s family members, and piecing together articles, I identified more than 120 Mozelle Thompson illustrated LPs and EPs. With a short career (1953–1969), Thompson appears to be the only prolific African American artist to illustrate album covers. He was a pioneer in his industry, working alongside the first-generation artists who contributed to the history of album cover art within the first 15 years of its existence.
Born in the Hill District in 1926, a young Thompson won awards for his artistic abilities as early as second grade. Like Andy Warhol, Thompson was a student of Joseph Fitzpatrick in the Tam O’Shanter Pallete Saturday classes at the Carnegie Institute. Thompson and Warhol attended neighboring high schools, Thompson at Peabody and Warhol at Schenley. Whether or not they knew each other I don’t know, but considering they were only one grade apart I think it’s very likely that there were some moments when the young artists occupied the same room at the same time. Thompson went on to win numerous local and national awards while studying under Jean Thoburn, who was perhaps his biggest influence.
Drawing and painting were just the tip of the iceberg with regard to Thompson’s talent. A keen eye and passion for fashion and costume design landed him a spot in Mademoiselle. The November 1944 issue of the magazine not only published his award winning dress designs, but they also produced the garment from the seventeen year old’s sketches. When he wasn’t designing beautiful garments, he was a socialite and budding journalist. In the summer of 1945, the aspiring young fashion designer wrote a column titled “The Junior Social Swirl” in The Pittsburgh Courier. He kept readers up to date on who was accepted to which college, who had returned to Pittsburgh and local music events. These events are documented in many Teenie Harris photographs. So far, Thompson is identified in four photographs in the Teenie Harris Archive at Carnegie Museum of Art, with additional images still being confirmed.
Thompson attended the Parson School of Design in 1945, returning to Pittsburgh in the summers where he created window displays at Gimbels department store in downtown Pittsburgh. In 1948, he received a scholarship to study abroad in Rome and Paris. Thompson set sail for Europe that June with a group of 50 students from Parsons. His adventures overseas are documented in a three-page feature in the February 1949 issue of Ebony when he was 22 years old. The Ebony article is an interesting read and insightful on various levels. He speaks briefly on race relations of the 1940s and his aspirations as a young artist. Thompson mostly talks about his interest in fashion design. The article references his commercial work, which had already been published by 1949—floral arrangements in Vogue and fashion drawings in Glamour magazine.
In 1953, RCA Victor re-released the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess LP with a cover illustrated by Mozelle Thompson. This is the earliest of Thompson’s album cover illustrations identified so far. He illustrated several more albums from 1955–1957, but 1958 is the year that he churned out the most album covers. So far there are over seventy LPs and EPs released before 1960 that feature Thompson’s drawings and paintings. The bulk of the albums are classical releases, popular music of the 1950s, and ethnic and international releases. In addition to album covers, he also illustrated a number of magazines, book covers, and theatrical posters, including the original cast album of Purlie and a 1963 paperback edition of A Clockwork Orange. (Which, by the way, looks absolutely nothing like Stanley Kubrick envisioned it.)
Thompson illustrated until the time of his death. The work he created the last year of his life is particularly interesting. It contrasts with his earlier work, both in terms of style and theme, and it’s indicative of the change that was going on in our society throughout the course of his career. This is a change that was eventually reflected in the industry that he worked in, which was gradually becoming more inclusive as the years progressed. In 1969 Thompson continued to illustrate classical LPs and soundtracks, but he also creates a body of Afrocentric work that there was likely less of an opportunity to do in prior years.
Mozelle Thompson’s career and life ended tragically when he fell six stories from his apartment window on December 6, 1969. In addition to illustrating, he taught courses on fashion and window display design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He was working on an illustrated version of the well-known hymn Life Every Voice and Sing at the time of his death.
Thompson’s work spans many industries and mediums. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the work he did for books, magazines, and various posters, but I hope the research that I’ve done up until this point does justice to Thompson’s legacy and introduces this amazing artist to new admirers.
This essay was published in partnership with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Eleventh Stack blog as part of its ongoing Black History Month series. Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–1998) photographed Pittsburgh’s African American community from ca. 1935 to ca. 1975. His archive of nearly 80,000 images is one of the most detailed and intimate records of the black urban experience known today. Purchased by Carnegie Museum of Art in 2001, the Teenie Harris Archive was established to preserve Harris’s important photographic work for future generations. For more information, visit teenie.cmoa.org. You can also read more essays inspired by the social, cultural, and political content of Harris’s photographs by visiting the archives. Image (top): Charles “Teenie” Harris, Artist Mozelle Thompson seated at drawing table, March–May 1945. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.