Searching for Harvey: solving the mystery behind 200 influential gospel and jazz album covers
Decades down the line, the artist who created some of the most celebrated records has been revealed.
“I am Harvey's son. Contact me”
“Harvey is no mystery to me. He was my older brother”.
In December 2014, these two comments ended a decades-long mystery surrounding the artist behind over 200 breathtaking gospel album sleeves, some of the most influential and celebrated records of their era.
In the late 1950s and 60s, Savoy Records was on a roll. From early jazz releases by the likes of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, it pivoted to James Cleveland, Dorothy Norwood, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and just about any major gospel artist from that period. The artwork for every single one of these records was made up of an oil painting and a simple signature, “Harvey". Striking and distinctive, Harvey’s paintings of dream-like landscapes and crosses are all awash with distinct surreal style, flooded with such vivid colour and divine light that there is absolutely no doubt that, when you see one, you're looking at a Harvey.
Robbie Rogers – director of photography and video at Baylor University – wrote his thesis on Harvey while researching the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, and put on an exhibition of the few originals that have been located. “A few years before, [album covers] were in brown paper, they really weren't marketed that wildly,” he says. “1940 was the first album cover. It was still revolutionary at the time.” Robbie first came across Harvey while researching photography use on early album covers. “Every other cover was this artwork named Harvey,” he recalls, “I think Harvey found me”. He discovered that, throughout the 50s, album covers were adorned with straightforward black and white photos of single artists, groups or choirs. It wasn’t until approaching the 60s that, alongside the rise of colour television in every home, colour started to bleed in. That’s when Harvey arrives. He was at the forefront of offering vinyl records as something collectable; an art piece that you yearned to own regardless of the music inside.
Directly or otherwise, Harvey’s influence over the function of album artwork can still be seen today. Look at Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Boston’s Don’t Look Back, Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush; they may not even realise it, but that’s Harvey.
In the 21st century vinyl resurgence, with the internet now in place, a renewed interest in Harvey flourished. Collectors and fans wondered about his identity for years on message boards and even on a dedicated website harveyalbums.com, created by John Glassburner to find every single Harvey and debunk theories about his identity. John was drawn to Harvey while, like Robbie, researching something else. “I kept seeing these wonderfully painted jackets,” he says, “sometimes rustic, sometimes surreal, and sometimes a combination of both. I know nothing really about art and am a lifelong agnostic, but I do love a good mystery”. Theories ranged from the outlandish (Harvey was the secret identity of Savoy Records owner Herman Lubinsky) to the tenuous (could he be the Hawaiian bass and vibes player Harvey Ragsdale? No, probably not). But nothing was known for sure. Even after contact was made with Rev. Lawrence Roberts, long-time producer for Savoy, all he had to say was that nobody ever met Harvey, his paintings were delivered secretly, and he was given $25 for each one.
Harvey’s half-sister Margo and son Keith had the answers to the mystery the whole time, they just didn’t realise anyone cared to hear them. “All we knew was that we had each grieved over him having his reputation lost to time,” Margo says. “We both had wished there would be a way to find where some of it was and to bring attention to it again”. So, having only three original paintings in their possession, they began a hunt to track down more.
It was Keith’s granddaughter Ajane, an accomplished artist herself, who found the harveyalbums site and sent it to Margo and Keith. “As soon as it came up and I saw those album covers, I started crying,” Keith remembers. “But then, when I read the commentary about who Harvey was, it was 100 per cent wrong”. After immediately reaching out to John, commenting on another Harvey article and backing it all up with a beautiful piece written by Margo – who works as an award-winning genealogy and history author – Harvey’s name was finally out there. Though Margo and Keith's claims took years to be accepted, and it took Rogers verifying Harvey's signature years later to finally solidify things, Harvey's life and his wonderful work were ready to be acknowledged.
So, who was Harvey? Harvey Scott Williams (1927-1987) was born in New Jersey to Herbert Randell Williams and Emma Scott Williams, the younger of their two sons. His parents divorced when he was in secondary school and Herbert remarried with one child, Margo Lee Williams, born when Harvey was 20. Harvey’s son Keith Williams was born a year before when he was just 19, putting Margo and Keith a year apart. Harvey drifted in and out of Margo’s life, meanwhile Keith and Harvey were close. “He taught me a whole lot; common sense things, manners and how to cook.” Due to Harvey’s young age, it wasn’t your typical father-son relationship, “he was almost my best friend,” Keith says. “Harvey liked the good life. If Harvey made it, Harvey spent it,” Margo says.
So, New York’s art scene suited him just right. He also worked hard, graduated in music and arts in school, and then joined the Art Students League of New York, working as a class monitor to avoid tuition and later teaching there himself. His time there is a little unusual. Despite the range of classes available, he took the same one 19 times, led by Ernest Fiene. A couple of early works by Harvey that still exist today contain traces of his mentor: two portraits of Keith and Margo, given as gifts to Harvey’s father. “A good period,” Margo remembers, “we were all getting along nicely”. A young Keith, much to his distaste, had to sit for hours in the Native American costume Harvey designed, the painting an homage to their family heritage. Margo’s was arranged in secret with Harvey sneaking around to their house and leaving before their father returned. Both portraits, particularly the one of Margo, resemble Fiene’s portrait work (Portrait of Jeanette, for example), but are very different from the work Harvey would go on to produce. At some point he developed his own style, “Sunday Surrealism”, as Robbie likes to describe it.
One of the most interesting remaining mysteries of Harvey is in the details of an unlikely meeting. Harvey was selling his paintings at the Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Exhibit, alongside several other side jobs which, according to Keith, included improving other artists' paintings to pass off as their own – such as making jewellery and designing stained glass for a church. It was here that he met Savoy founder Herman Lubinsky. Lubinsky bought a painting and obviously saw something in Harvey as before long, Harvey was producing several paintings a week for the record company.
It’s not clear whether Harvey was given any direction on what to paint, or if he produced on mass to be assigned later with the text added by Savoy. Lubinsky was a shrewd businessman, by all accounts very much money-first, art-second. Having seen a demand for gospel music, Savoy churned out albums at a remarkable pace. As wonderful as many of them are, they were often recorded over the space of just a day and released not long after. This suggests that they may have had a stack of records ready to go and paintings for the cover. It does seem at times that Harvey may have at least been given a title for some of the higher priority releases. Covers for records like Dorothy Norwood’s The Soldier From Viet Nam or Johnny and Jesus are too specific to have been a coincidence, whereas The Swindell Brothers and Rev. Johnnie Wilkerson’s Holy Train could well have been as simple as pulling a painting out that happened to have a train on it, and using that one. Keith and Margo are unsure of what kind of brief he would have received but they can confirm that the text was added by Savoy.
This is not to Harvey’s detriment. Such is the nature of his work that whether he knew anything about the albums or not, not only do his paintings fit perfectly but they often enhance the music. You can draw your own meaning, forge your own connections, and discover hidden depths the longer you stare and listen. Curiously, Harvey was not a particularly religious man, nor was he a fan of gospel music, just as you need neither of those things to be captivated by his work. Where exactly he was drawing from to create these scenes, however, is unknown.
Another question with a likely darker conclusion relates to his anonymity. Harvey was immensely proud of his work, “he would often come by once an album had been produced,” Margo says, “and bring the album cover with him like, 'look, look at my cover!'” He also wanted fame, and yet his identity remained shadowy. The most probable answer to this is a disappointing one. Keith went on a couple of Harvey’s painting drop-offs; Lubinsky dealt with him directly and alone. He paid $25 in cash, no record was kept, and no credit was attributed beyond his first name signature. This is a startlingly low amount considering how the records sold, James Cleveland’s Peace Be Still for example spent years as the best-selling gospel record of all time. Lubinsky was notorious for withholding artist royalties and generally underpaying artists for their work. He got rich and the artists remained poor. This was, and is, sadly not uncommon, especially with artists of colour at the time. It’s extremely likely that Lubinsky saw a young, exposure-hungry artist like Harvey and realised that, if he became successful, $25 would no longer suffice. He’d also risk losing Harvey to other labels. So when people asked, it suited him much better to say he didn’t know who Harvey was, that the paintings just arrived. “He was naive. He was absolutely taken advantage of by Mr. Lubinsky,” Margo says, “his family won't even discuss any of this with us”.
Harvey wasn’t entirely without success, though; Margo and Keith remember gallery showings, awards and acclaim. The details are hazy and all they have been able to find is a newspaper clipping of Harvey and his father in front of a painting. The caption reads: “one of three winners of the Cecile Awards”. There’s no record of the awards or even the gallery. They’re sure there’s more to be uncovered but, for now, they’re just happy that Harvey’s name is spreading.
Harvey continued doing what he loved and Lubinsky continued to make money. To keep the lights on, Harvey worked as a funeral director and had a natural aptitude for the morbidly artistic side of the work. “He could make people look like themselves,” Keith says, “he did a good job on the makeup and doing the presentation.” Ironically, the job he did to support his art would also be the end of his art. The work was so intensively hands-on that it led to arthritis, meaning he could no longer hold a brush. After producing so prolifically, burning bright and living large for a relatively short amount of time, Harvey was forced into early retirement.
It’s a bittersweet end for an artist who would never truly know his influence, but a legacy that lives on. “I used to fix computer systems,” Keith says, “I went on a service call once that had a stock brokerage office in the Wall Street area. When I went into this guy's office, he had one of my father's paintings on the wall. I said, ‘hey, my father painted that!’” As it transpired, it had been purchased from the same outdoor art exhibit where Harvey first met Lubinsky. This is all Keith and Margo ever really wanted. Margo ends the piece she wrote about him simply by saying, “I’m thrilled to know that his work will not end in oblivion.” With the mystery of his identity solved, there’s no question that this is the case. All that remains is to find out what happened to all those paintings. Over 200 wonderful canvases could be out there, just waiting to be found.