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Cover Story Interview - Illustrator Lee Conklin
By Mike G, RockPop Gallery
(more articles from this author)
2008-03-21
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The cover of Santana's debut record was adapted (at Santana's request) from a poster design originally done for a concert performance at Bill Graham's legendary San Francisco venue, the Fillmore West. This iconic image done in pen and ink was certainly one of the best examples of early psychedelic art.

Both guitarist Carlos Santana and artist/illustrator Lee Conklin hit their stride in San Francisco's mid-60's cultural scene, with Santana finding a wide variety of music being played in the clubs (Tito Puente's salsa, folk, Gabor Szabo's jazz and in 1966, a concert by the great blues guitarist B.B. King at the Fillmore West that would greatly influence the development of his own personal style) and Lee Conklin meeting a number of aspiring artists - Victor Moscoso, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, and many others - who were producing the promotional posters and related graphics for events at the Fillmore and at Family Dog's Avalon Ballroom and other venues.

Soon after his B.B. King-inspired epiphany, Santana formed The Santana Blues Band (later shortening it to simply "Santana") and the band made its debut at the Fillmore in June, 1968 (playing a 4-nite stand that was released in 1997 by Columbia/Legacy in a set titled Live at the Fillmore 1968). Santana impressed Bill Graham so much that the band became a regular act at the Fillmore, packing the auditorium regularly.

And then came the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and the band's legendary performance there on 8/15/69...

Santana's debut album was released the same month and featured great examples of what would be both "the hits" ("Evil Ways" and "Jingo") and well-known examples of the band's musicianship - particularly after their performance at Woodstock - such as the powerful "Soul Sacrifice" (written to be premiered at Woodstock and a particularly impressive showcase for drummer Michael Shieve, I must say). The record peaked in the Top 5, going on to remain on the charts for over two years and ultimately selling over four million copies. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the album #150 in their 2003 list of the "Greatest Albums of All Time".

This album featured a classic line-up including Carlos Santana on guitar/vocals, Gregg Rolie on keyboards and vocals, and the awesome rhythm section consisting of David Brown on bass, Michael Shrieve on drums, and Michael Carabello and Jose "Chepito" Areas on percussion.

Lee Conklin also became a favorite of Mr. Graham and produced a particularly trippy poster (aka "BG-134" to collectors) promoting two multi-day shows at the Fillmore (8/27-29/68 featuring Steppenwolf, the Staple Singers and Santana; 8/30-9/1/68 featuring The Grateful Dead, Sons of Champlain and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band - amazing!), with the resulting pen and ink image so impressing Santana that Lee was asked to create the cover for Santana's debut, the details of which are presented here in today's Cover Story. So grab a pick, practice your Sustain, and read on...

In the words of the artist, Lee Conklin - (interviewed February, 2008) -

I didn't start out initially to be an artist, but while I was studying History and Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I took on the role of cartoonist for the college paper called the "Calvin College Chimes". I met my wife Joy there, left school, got married and moved to Florida. The Army grabbed me and I cooked for a year in Korea. They let me out in 1967 and we moved to Los Angeles.

In L.A., I did some pen and ink work and some of it was published by the Los Angeles Free Press (remember "Don't be a creep, buy a Freep"?), which was cool, and I read an article in Time about the "Summer of Love" and that San Francisco was becoming the center of the Universe for music and art and since I wanted to be a cartoonist, my wife and I decided to move up there to see what we could find.

I heard about the Fillmore and that Bill Graham was hiring artists from the area to make posters for his upcoming shows, and so one Friday night I went there with some drawings and showed them to him. He must have liked what he saw because he asked me if I could do a poster over the weekend for the following week's show! He chose one of the drawings I had already done and I spent the weekend doing all of the lettering.

From then on for the next two years, I had a pretty steady gig doing posters for Bill and the Fillmore West (Ed. note - he did over 30 posters in 1968-69). At the same time, the Santana band was playing there pretty frequently and I was well aware of their music, both from performances and their demos, which received extensive airplay on FM radio in San Francisco. One day, Bill asked me to do a poster for a show that Santana was headlining and so, with a little inspiration from a Muse named MaryJane, I remembered seeing a picture of a lion in a book of animal picture I had and used that image as the basis of my drawing. Even then, I knew that I was making art for future generations and so even though Bill usually liked posters in color, I detailed this one in pen-and-ink. I only made one image, and the next morning he told me that he was going to print is as it was, so he must have been happy with the results.

Santana also thought that the image was really great, so afterwards he contacted me and asked me to redraw the image for the cover of his debut record. Although the drawing I created really was not inspired by Santana, I guess that the details and the nature of the images impressed him and the people at the record label. My challenge has always been to subvert the poster form to whatever my muse insists on and then to convert my psychedelic experiences to any medium I'm working in. I made it my mission to translate my psychedelic experience into paper. Later on, in the early 70's, I took acid and when I went to art class, all I could do was sit and stare at the teacher...LSD had little to do with my most-creative efforts (as a druggy, I am over-rated)!

About the artist, Lee Conklin -

Lee Conklin was born July 24, 1941 in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and grew up mostly in Monsey, New York. Lee's dad was a house builder, his mom was a nurse and he was the youngest child in a family of three brothers and three sisters. Lee graduated from Spring Valley High School in 1959 and attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan for several years, where he studied philosophy and history and met his wife Joy. In 1972, Lee and Joy had a son, Quinn, and in 1979 a daughter, Caitlin. They have lived in various parts of Northern California over the years.

Lee is now a fulltime artist working out of his home studio in Columbia, California where he continues to create his incredibly-detailed works of poster art (which, according to Lee, he calls "New Age cheesecake"!).

Conklin's Fillmore posters remain amongst the most-popular and highly-prized with today's poster collectors - a true testament to his prodigious talents.

To see more of Lee Conklin's current work, please visit his website at www.leeconklin.com

To see Lee's "Lion" print in the RockPoP Gallery collection, please click on this link -http://rockpopgallery.com/items/lee-conklin/list.htm?1=1

To see all of the Santana-related items in the RockPoP Gallery collection please click on this link - http://rockpopgallery.com/items/santana/list.htm?1=1

Santana philanthropy update - Santana and his ex-wife Deborah founded their Milagro Foundation in 1998, which has distributed nearly $2 million to date to organizations that "promote the welfare of underserved children in the areas of health, education, and the arts."

To learn more, please visit the Milago Foundation's website at -
http://www.milagrofoundation.org/

In addition, Santana has joined the fight against AIDS in Africa through a partnership with ANSA - Artists for New South Africa (in 2003, all of the proceeds from Santana's U.S. tour were donated to this cause). To learn more about ANSA, please visit their web site at http://www.ansafrica.org/ .

Other organizations he has championed include Hispanic Education and Media Group, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, Childreach, Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, American Indian College Fund, Amnesty International, and the LA-based Museum of Tolerance.

About Cover Stories - Our 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 1968 and 2008, Lee Conklin - All rights reserved.


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