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Cover Story Interview – Jesus Christ Superstar – with designs by Ernie Cefalu

ecjcsupercov05091Subject: Jesus Christ Superstar – a 1970 release on Decca/MCA records, with design & illustration by Ernie Cefalu

The musical by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar was a re-interpretation of the “Gospels According to John” and dramatized the events of the last week in the life of Christ; the relationships between Jesus, his followers and the people and players in Roman Empire-occupied Jerusalem. While it may not have been the first record billed as a “rock opera” (this honor probably going to Tommy by The Who, followed shortly thereafter by The Kinks’ Arthur), Jesus Christ Superstar was most-certainly the first grand-scale musical production brought to the stage with a rock music score, and its success laid the groundwork for those to follow.

Released on Decca/MCA records October, 1970, the record was an international smash, first in the U.K. and then in the U.S., hitting #1 on the Billboard charts in 1971.

It featured a stellar cast of players including Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian (purveyor of the best falsetto scream in Rock for many years) as Christ, Murray Head as Judas, and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. Its success provided the resources for the first stage production on Broadway (directed by Tom O’Horgan) October, 1971. The play received a total of 7 Tony, Drama Desk and Theater World nominations in 1972 and won the Theater World Award (Ben Vereen as Judas) and the Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Composer (Andrew Lloyd Webber).

The success continued as Yvonne Elliman and Helen Reddy had hit singles in 1971 with their recordings of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from the rock opera. Soon after, director Norman Jewison took a strong cast and crew to the Middle East to film his adaptation of the play, which hit the theaters in 1973 and won two 1974 Golden Globe nominations for stars Ted Neeley (Jesus) and Carl Anderson (Judas). A revival of the play was also nominated in 2000 for a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

Over the years, I have seen at least a half-dozen stagings of the play, including a community theater version in Orange County, CA and a modernized retelling in the late 1990s featuring Roman soldiers dressed in leather and jack boots, set with multi-tier staging and bright lights. Even so, all those years later, it was a thrill to hear the opening peals of the guitar in the “Overture” and songs such as “Superstar”, “Everything’s Alright” and “Gethsemane” – as powerful as they were decades earlier.

After contacting designer Ernie Cefalu earlier this year for an interview to talk about one of his (other) famous creations, I discovered that he’d done the iconic Angels for Jesus Christ Superstar (the album) and the drawing of the cast, found on the inside of the gatefold. I knew that this would be a great place to start on what will be a 3-part mini-retrospective of his career as an influential album cover designer. It turns out that this cover was his “big break” and so, if everything’s alright with you, let’s turn this Cover Story over to Mr. Cefalu – read on…

In the words of the artist, Ernie Cefalu (interviewed in May, 2009) –

In the beginning… is where my story begins, so it’s the perfect place to start. Toward the end of 1969, I was a designer at Carloni Advertising in Manhattan – my first gig in the “Big Apple” after graduating from California College of Arts & Crafts. One of my first assignments was to create a campaign and all the graphics for International Paper Company’s national sales meeting, where they introduced all of their new paper stocks for 1970. I created an Off-Broadway musical presentation – fashioned after the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall – complete with 10 original songs, skits and a chorus line of beautiful dancing girls. Our production, at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, was called “Dolls Alive.”



The promotion included an element that was a record packaged in an octagonal album cover. They had recorded the production songs and pressed an album as a take-home memento of the show. The campaign received a lot of visibility and was on public display in NYC for a few months. During that time, a graphic design “headhunter” named Jack Greer, had seen the campaign, and contacted me to see if I’d be interested in other opportunities. In particular, he had a placement opportunity that required someone fresh, with album cover experience. Since I kind of had one, he now had someone he could put into the list of candidates.

The first opportunity he brought me was for a NYC agency, Norman Levitt Advertising. Mr. Levitt was a retired Marine Master Sergeant and ran the agency like he was still in the Corps; polished, straight laced and buttoned-up. It was like a carry-over from the agencies of the 50’s – what a trip! I, on the other hand, had just come from the West Coast where 95% of my classmates lived in communes in Haight Ashbury. I had hair past my shoulders and a full beard. That was a 360 from Norman’s agency, where if your sideburns were below the middle of your ear lobe you were labeled a “Hippie.”

He had some very notable accounts though, including New York Life, Waring Appliances, IBM, ITT Palm Coast, Omega Watches and Decca Records. As he and his people interviewed me and looked through my book, they all fixated on the same peculiar piece – the album cover that I had created for International Paper’s sales meeting take-away kit. Mr. Levitt then explained to me that the two art directors and the account manager on the Decca business had befriended the Creative Director at Decca, Bill Levy, and were leaving to start their own agency, taking Decca Records with them as their “flagship” account.

Although I found myself up to the challenge of a “toe-to-toe” competition, for me it’s all about the vibe and the personality of the agency, which was, in this case, almost overbearingly negative. Even though this is what I’d always wanted to do, I knew I didn’t want to do it here, so when it came to the part of the interview that they asked me what salary I was looking for, I immediately added an extra $25K to my original figure. I blurted out the inflated figure with great zeal, assuming that they would have to be crazy to agree to my request and, therefore, insuring that I would not get the gig.

Mr. Levitt sat back in his chair with his glasses now setting up on his forehead and, as if in deep concentration, turned away for a minute. He turned back, looked me straight in the eyes, and said “it’s much more than we were thinking, so let me think it over and get back to you.” I left the interview that afternoon feeling good that I had squelched any chance of them hiring me, and as I walked through the park that laid between the New York Life Building and the “F” train back home to Brooklyn and Bonnie, I remember thinking to myself what had just happened was a good thing and that there would be plenty of better opportunities coming my way. Yep, all was right with the world.

However, in no time flat, I was an explosion of mixed emotions. I wished that I hadn’t priced myself out of the running, but on the other hand, tomorrow would be a new day with new opportunities. What a great chance it would have been to compete, but what a crazy place it would have been to work. Then again, there was Decca Records – what a “Big Prize.” If that weren’t enough, what was I going to say to my wife, Bonnie, and “Jack the headhunter”? She’s going to want to know how it went, and he’s going to be really pissed off when he finds out what I had done to blow the job opportunity! By the time I was at my front door, I had played out every scenario possible and finally concluded that it was best that I did what I did and I would have certainly hated it there.

As soon as I opened the door, Bonnie was standing there with a great big smile on her face and, because we were still newlyweds, I was excited that she was so glad to see me. She told me that Norman Levitt had called and wanted me to call him the minute I walked in the door. She picked up the phone, dialed the number and, before I could say a word, she handed it to me. Mr. Levitt answered and, after a brief exchange, he asked if I would meet him the next day for lunch at the New York Athletic Club. I agreed and hung up the phone.

I didn’t say anything to Bonnie that night about what I had done at the interview, other than it went really well and that it was a good sign that Mr. Levitt wanted to see me on a Saturday. But I also prepared her by saying that I wasn’t sure about the vibe of the place. I told her that the people all looked like CIA agents and even though I had worn a tie with my best denim work shirt, railroad overalls and work boots, I still felt very much out of place. She comforted me by convincing me that I was just being overly paranoid.

Needless to say I didn’t sleep very well that night, but by noon the next day I found myself sitting across the table from Norman Levitt. He didn’t waste any time telling me more about his dilemma with Decca Records and the three ex-employees trying to secure the account. What they didn’t know was that the President of Decca was a long-time friend of Norman’s and how he had agreed to announce that there was going to be an “agency shootout” for the account. It wasn’t going to be the slam dunk they had thought.

Then Norman served me the “coupe de gras” – the “shoot out” project was going to be something Decca had been keeping under tight security for months and was projected to be the biggest album of the year. No one had ever done anything like it, everyone at the label was pumped about it and ready to support the release. It was to be a highly controversial Rock Opera by two unknowns in the USA – Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The album was titled Jesus Christ Superstar. He finished by saying that he was a gambling man and that he had a good feeling about me. He was certain that I was who he needed, and so he accepted my proposal.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I was both flattered and excited about the possibilities. It looked as though I was in the right spot, at the right time, with the right stuff. By now, my pulse was racing and my heart was pounding – what a rush! And so I threw caution to the wind and accepted his offer, providing that he approve a few more simple requests. First, that I wouldn’t have to cut my hair. Second, that I wouldn’t have to shave my beard and, lastly, that I touch and control every creative and graphic aspect of the project. He looked me straight in the eyes, smiled, extended his hand and said “I don’t care if you painted your balls purple and hung upside down in Macy’s window, if you really think that we can be the dark horse out and still win the day, it’s a deal.” Now, the stage was set for this shoot-out.

The agency briefing was 9AM Monday morning, with Norman and I in attendance. This one was important enough for him to be there personally, but not so obvious that we would have to fill the room with our people. At first, Norman and I found ourselves in the executive waiting room at Decca Records, waiting for minutes that seemed like hours – but soon we were greeted by the Creative Director, Bill Levy, and were shown into the biggest conference room I had ever seen, with all these really “straight” record company “Hippies” sitting around a huge table.

The meeting started out in true agency-selection spirit – i.e., one of foul play. We were informed that the opposing agency had actually been briefed three days earlier and already had a weekend head start. The “favorite” always gets an advantage, and in this case it didn’t bother me as much as it did Norman. I’m a firm believer in two basic truths – the first is that “it’s not how you run the race, it’s how you cross the finish line!”, with the second being that “actions speak louder than words.” We spent the better part of the day being briefed by the Decca team and, try as he might to put on his “natural positioning” face, it became quite obvious to Norman and I both that good old Bill was rooting for the other team! Quite honestly, while Norman took notes, all I could really think about was getting the Hell out of there and getting busy creating.

We were also given the earliest presentation spot – first thing the following Monday – which gave the other agency even more time to hone their work. The lead position has always been perceived to be the “hot box” slot while I, on the other hand, feel it’s the “best” slot, because I get to set the bar, and I pride myself on having always been an almost impossible act to follow. I want the client to be thinking about me even as they’re looking at my competition!

By the meeting’s end, I had already started doing some thumbnail sketches that I thought had real promise. I left the meeting with the printed lyrics, some rough tracks, still photos of the cast members and a one-week deadline. I love what I do, which makes the conceptual process come easier than the details. Thank God for Norman, who loved all the details. We bonded that day with a common goal… we were ready to “kick some ass” and take the prize!

Looking at my early 60’s works, you’ll see that I was really into compositional balance and symmetry in graphics – very comfortable to the eye, complementary to the composition and memorable to the brain. But truth be told, it was a combination of great drugs, including “Humboldt Bud”, the Beatles and Peter Max’s freedom and simplicity that heavily influenced me throughout the 60’s.

And so for the next six days, I lived, slept and ate Jesus Christ Superstar. I also spent lots of time visiting churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan, not only for reference material and creative inspiration but for spiritual assistance as well. Pure creative adrenalin enabled me to look beyond all the implications, politics and egos and allowed me to focus on “the prize” and what I needed to create in order to attain it. The one thing that I did know was that if I ever needed to “pull a rabbit from a hat”, this was the time. Except for an occasional peek in and a “how’s it coming” from Norman, I was pretty much left alone. As I look back on that, Norman was truly the gambler he said he was, with nerves of steel. What a leap of faith he was taking with such a big prize at stake, all on a gut feeling about something he saw in me. I owe him more than he will ever know.

The following days and nights flew by and on the Friday before the presentation, we had an account meeting with our internal Decca team to review, tweak and finesse the concepts I had created. From at least 100 rough sketches, I took the best four – two solid winners, and two more that had potential – and made tighter comps of those to present to our team.

At this point, this is where it gets like a movie and, if I were a writer, I could not have written it better. As I presented the concepts, I purposely saved the best one for last. Anticipation and acceptance built with the first and second ideas, and the third one became #1 with a 1-2 punch! But when I laid out the fourth concept, everyone in the room reacted the same way – “that’s the one” – after which Norman, who had been quiet during my presentation, said “here’s what we’re going to do. We are only going to present one idea – Ernie’s # 4″. Norman continued to explain how he felt that the best way to sell this and to secure the business would be to project the confidence that we had as professionals, with our years of experience and success giving us the clarity to be the agency most “in touch” with consumers. Presenting this one concept and direction would best illustrate all of that, and so this plan was unanimously accepted and the one that we executed upon.

I remember thinking to myself “I can’t believe this – it’s way too surreal. This kind of stuff doesn’t really happen in real life!” I was also starting to relax a bit and the enormity of what I had done up to that point – and what we were about to do and all its implications – was starting to sink in. I guess that I was so wrapped-up in the whirl wind of what I had been doing for the last four days that the only thing I could think about – besides not letting anyone see how much I was shaking – was that I had to keep pinching myself to make sure this wasn’t a dream. I couldn’t wait to tell Bonnie.

Because it was originally going to be a triple record set, I had designed a unique cross-shaped configuration that would house three albums while eliminating the need for a libretto – the lyrics being displayed clearly and easily was an imperative. Soon after, the design was eliminated altogether because we were told that it would now be a two-record set packed into a box.


That Monday morning meeting couldn’t come soon enough for me. As we were called into the presentation I remember thinking, “what am I doing here?” and I started to sweat and shake a bit. As I turned to make sure Norman hadn’t noticed my hot flash, he smiled at me, winked, and said “don’t worry kid, you’ll be great.” After that, all was right with the world again and I was OK. Norman opened the presentation by bringing Bill Levy up to speed on our thinking and strategy. He explained that what he was about to see was the winning concept, and that we were so certain of it, we were only presenting one look.

It was the first time I had ever seen a professional salesman set up a pitch and strategy to sell creative before, and I must say, to this day, “Man, what a pitch!” – it was just beautiful. He sold me, right at that moment, along with the client. Then it was my turn to show the work. Bill was so moved by Norman’s set-up that, after I revealed the Angel logo and saw the astonished look on Bill’s face, I knew he was blown away and thinking “how are the other guys going to top this?” For the next two-and-a-half hours (for a meeting that was scheduled for one hour) we walked him through how I had arrived at this particular logo and other important aspects of our design. He was so excited but, at the same time, trying to keep his composure, and I must admit that it was an amazing high and one I chase to this day. For a creative, it is the best feeling in the world, and I found a whole new level of respect for sales that day which I still carry with me 39 years later.

The next morning when I arrived at work Norman was there to greet me, smiling from ear-to-ear and giving me the amazing news that after the other agency’s presentation, we had been chosen. And if that weren’t enough, we were to be at Decca Records that afternoon for a meeting with Bill Levy, Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber and the President of the Label – what a great way to start a Tuesday! That meeting went great, and everyone loved the concept, the package and the logo. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber were both really genuine and positively thrilled with what we had done. In hindsight, that type of meeting – with that kind of opportunity and with that level of players – is as rare as chicken’s teeth. I have since been very blessed to have had more than my share of those moments in my life.

For the next month I worked exclusively with Bill, who, by the way, was a good guy and a great Creative Director. We shared meals, drinks and some sweet California Bud! We became good friends and together created all the advertising, merchandise, trade packets, DJ kits, posters, the libretto illustration & lyrics (see below), and invitations for Superstar. It was a ton of work, but I loved every second of it, as well as learning all of the “real world” stuff that they don’t teach in school. It was an awesome month, with the fruits of our labor culminating in a very private, by-invitation-only live production, featuring the original cast, staged in Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Manhattan.


It was the winter of 1969 and while it snowed outside, inside the performance filled the church. In attendance were record label executives, Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Mayor, the City Council, various religious clergy and other dignitaries, the press, Bonnie and me. As a topper, we sat with Bill, the President of Decca Records, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Tim Rice. In front of the altar, but behind the cast, were my angels standing 30’ tall!

At the end of the performance, after Andrew and Tim were singled out, they had me stand with them as they announced who I was and what I had contributed. With all this, and the love of my life there to experience it with me, I felt that life just couldn’t get any better – truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience – one that I will never forget. At the end of that monumental week, I remember thinking to myself what my initial take and feelings of the opportunity were, how wrong I was, and what a big mistake I almost made. Now the die had been cast, my fate sealed – my future was destined to be in the record business.

Bill took me under his wing and for the next few months he taught me the album cover business. We created about 12 more albums together and he showed me what makes a great Creative Director.

My tenure at Norman Levitt was to be shortened by another call from “Jack the headhunter,” but not before I had convinced Norman that “if he had one guy who looked and thought like me, a few more would be great!” Before I left I had assembled a great “Hippie Crew” that kept it happening for him and the Decca Record account.

Just a quick sidebar – It wasn’t long after these events that I was sought out by producer Robert Stigwood to work with him and his team creating all the graphics and show programs for his Jesus Christ Superstar stage production.

The Jesus Christ Superstar album was my first cover that had achieved major notoriety and huge global success right from the start. What I didn’t know was that in less than 3 months time, what I had accomplished with the Jesus Christ Superstar campaign had placed me on a “fast track” to a new project that would ultimately dwarf the first and position me to create what became the single most-recognizable icon in the music business today and probably the biggest thing that would ever happen in my career…but that’s another story.. (Editor’s note – Part 2 coming in July – stay tuned!).

About the artist – Ernie Cefalu –

eccsbio0509Ernie Cefalu is the owner and Senior Creative Director of HornBook Ink. the original cyber-agency with an arsenal of 25 world-class creative professionals.

Recently, Ernie was Senior Creative Director and Co-Owner of Y & M Associates in Los Angeles, an agency known for its breakthrough business solutions fueled by keen strategic focus and unparalleled creative design. He sat at the helm of this cutting edge boutique and his eye, and hand, touched and guided every client’s assignment. He remains a leader in this industry.

Ernie started his career on Madison Avenue in the late 1960’s. He was hired at Norman Levitt Advertising and his award-winning work for Decca Records (including designs for the Jesus Christ Superstar album) quickly established his creative genius and created demand for his talents.

Ernie’s drive and passion for excellence led him to a new chapter in 1970 when he joined forces with Craig Braun, Inc. in New York. Knowing the importance of first impressions, he wanted to make a mark on his first assignments. The results have become rock icons – the tongue logo for The Rolling Stones and the rule-breaking Sticky Fingers album. Three months later, Ernie opened a satellite office for the agency in California where he would be the head Art Director. The hits kept coming for Ernie..Led Zeppelin III, Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, Cheech & Chong’s Big Bambu, and Captain Beyond, among others..

In 1972, Ernie was at the top of his game and knew it was time to leave and start his own agency. He opened the legendary “Pacific Eye and Ear” agency where, over the next 13 years, he created another 183 album covers for rock legends such as The Doors, Aerosmith, The Bee Gees, The Guess Who, Black Sabbath, Jefferson Airplane, Grand Funk Railroad, and Iron Butterfly. Pacific Eye and Ear was now on the map forever – easily recognized as one of the top three album design companies in the country.

In the late 80’s, as work in the music business was slowing, Ernie knew it was time to reinvent himself. He would “go mainstream” where traditional advertising was expected, but he would offer clients a very different kind of service and product. If they were half as bored as he was with status quo in advertising, packaging design, consumer promotions, and merchandising materials in stores, he knew he would have an exciting, thriving business. He felt he was really in touch with people – he understood how they thought, how they felt and how they acted. Ernie felt different businesses require different solutions…but they all need an attitude, a heart and a soul. Ernie could provide that connection.

In 1989, Ernie added an unlikely account to his client roster – Nestlé USA. Over the next decade, his work helped over 20 brands in Nestlé’s five divisions post double-digit sales growth. As word of mouth grew, he added Sara Lee, Wolfgang Puck, Sizzler, La Brea Bakery, Jerbeau Chocolates, Adams and Brooks and many more food companies to his client base. At InBev USA, he worked on all the national promotions for Beck’s, Bass, Stella Artois, Labatt and Koknee Beer Brands. He soon cut across industries and added clients including K-Mart, Disney, Universal, Game Works, Valvoline, Nature Made, The National Hot Rod Association, Mopar, Baskin Robbins Ice Cream and Matell/NASCAR, among others.

Today, he is retained by Avery Dennison and Honeywell/Novar and Odyssey Gear as their in-house Creative Director, with Cott Beverage (the #1 non-name brand beverage company in the World), HSBC Financial, Chang Beer (Southeast Asia’s #1 Beer), Coca Cola and Energy Club being the most recent additions to Ernie’s client roster, and with the 2009 release of Burton Cummings’ new album, this brings the total number of albums designed to date to 209. He has received three Grammy™ nominations for his work, 10 Music Hall Of Fame awards, four awards of excellence from the Los Angeles Art Directors Club, and has been presented with 25 gold and platinum albums by some of the bands whose album covers he had designed.

He is a dynamic speaker who captivates and electrifies audiences as he travels the country. If you ask him to reflect on his illustrious career his response is always the same…”Career? What do you mean, I’m just warming up. Wait till you see what’s next”.

To see more of Ernie’s work – and to purchase an original work from his collection, please visit his web site at

About Cover Stories –

Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “The Making Of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.

In each Cover Story, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.

We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.

All images featured in this Cover Story are Copyright 1970 – 2009, Ernie Cefalu – All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2009 – Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery ( – All rights reserved.

2 replies on “Cover Story Interview – Jesus Christ Superstar – with designs by Ernie Cefalu”

An amazing story and so well told. I felt like I was there, I love the all the details as much as the album cover itself. I have seen the opera performed many times and in other countries and the one consistently universal graphic that translated every time were the angeles that Ernie created. I also visited his original album cover art site and it is amazing he has the original angel art as well as lots of other iconic covers, job well done and I cant wait to read the next installment. Thank you so very much for sharing your story and I have always been a huge fan of all Pacific Eye & Ears work. – Neo

I am beyond impressed with all the work that Ernie Cefalu has done. For along time, it seemed like he got no credit. No he is finally getting the credit and respect that he is due.

Great story too!


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