Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: Motivated in part by your columns, I started a collection of picture sleeves for singles, mostly 45 rpms, and a few Compact 33 singles.

I do have a few questions regarding my new hobby:

Regardless of music type, what is the first hit record with a picture sleeve?

Who had the first No. 1 hit issued with a picture sleeve?

What was the first No. 1 rock single sold with a picture sleeve?

You have mentioned picture sleeves, custom sleeves, and company sleeves. Are these terms synonymous, or is each different?

Finally, who had the most picture sleeves?
—Kirk Duncan, Evansville, Ind.

DEAR KIRK: I had to roll up MY sleeves and get out the calculator, but I do have some answers for you, and they're in the same order asked:

The first two No. 1 hits, commercially available on singles with picture sleeves, were from Columbia and specifically for their Children's Series. Both are Christmas tunes.

First is "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," by Gene Autry and the Pinafores (Columbia 4-56), a perennial favorite since originally issued in 1949. However, the picture sleeve accompanied the 1951 single. One year later, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," by Little Jimmy Boyd (Columbia MJV 4-152) topped the charts. That sleeve has a circular die-cut on the front side, allowing the label to be seen. In 1953, the same sleeve was used but without the die-cut and with a slightly different number (Columbia MJV 152).

Being targeted to young people, neither of these sleeves, nor any in the MJV series, pictured the recording artists. Most of the illustrations were comic character drawings. For example, these two picture red-nosed Rudolph (Autry) and Santa Claus smooching mommy (Boyd). The back sides list other Columbia records in the series.

Moving past kiddie records, the first mainstream No. 1 hit originally sold in a custom sleeve — one that actually pictures the singer — is Perry Como's "No Other Love" (RCA Victor 47-5317), from the summer of '53.

Perry was followed a few months later by a couple more sleeved million-sellers from Columbia: Tony Bennett's "Stranger in Paradise" (4-40121) and Jo Stafford's "Make Love to Me" (4-40143).

The first chart-topping R&R hit with a picture sleeve is Elvis Presley's third RCA single, "Don't Be Cruel" backed with "Hound Dog" (47-6604) from mid-1956. The only reason the answer isn't "Heartbreak Hotel" or "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" is that RCA, inexplicably, didn't make custom sleeves for those two No. 1 hits.

Regarding terminology, any record sleeve with printing is considered a custom one as long as it is made for that specific record. They might achieve that with artwork and/or text, though ones with text only would technically be a custom sleeve rather than a picture sleeve. Unfortunately, too often in the marketplace that distinction is not made.

A printed sleeve lacking a direct connection to its contents is either "generic," identifies and/or pictures the artist, but with no specific titles shown, or "company" (a.k.a. "factory"), where the focus is on the company. These sometimes list and/or picture some of their artists.

"Plain" sleeves without any printing are extremely common and, though very useful to protect the records, have no monetary value. Most are of either white or brown paper.

Tallying the number of picture sleeves for someone is not an exact science. Some artists have more than one sleeve for the same title, special ones made just for promotional use, or EPs (with covers) that are in fact seven-inch 45 or 33 rpms.

Considering all the possible aberrations, I will merely estimate the grand totals, knowing they are subject to whatever parameters one might establish.

Each of these stars have at least 20 custom sleeves:
Elvis Presley 132 (1956-2011)
Connie Francis 55 (1958-1969)
Rick Nelson 53 (1958-1986)
Rolling Stones 49 (1964-2012)
Beatles 47 (1964-1996)
Paul Anka 41 (1959-1983)
Brenda Lee 35 (1956-1985)
Duane Eddy 33 (1959-1986)
Bobby Vinton 35 (1962-1980)
Dave Clark Five 28 (1964-1993)
Annette 25 (1958-1969)
Bobby Rydell 24 (1959-1964)
Buck Owens 24 (1964-2011)
Brook Benton 21 (1960-1965)

IZ ZAT SO? During the vinyl era, what determined whether or not a record company went to the added expense of producing a picture sleeve is still a bit of a mystery.

Now that we know some of the artists with the most custom sleeves, let's turn the list upside down.

After Elvis, the only others with more than 100 songs charted (Pop and R&B combined) are James Brown and Ray Charles. Double-sided hits count as just one record.

James Brown had 132 records on the charts but only 11 of those had picture sleeves.

Ray Charles had 89 records (many with two hits), yet only one came with a picture sleeve. He does appear on two others on which he is "featured," one with Billy Joel and one with Quincy Jones.

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