“Captain Fingers” Lee Ritenour, Burbank, California ©1977

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Lee Ritenour, a young, upcoming jazz guitar player and already one of the busiest session players in L.A., was just starting to work on his second album in 1977 when I got a call from his producer to do the art direction and photography for his cover.

Lee was getting well known by his nickname, “Captain Fingers,” and that’s what they wanted to call the album. I liked the title, and knew from experience that I’d likely come up with and discard two or three cool design solutions before settling on a keeper to develop as a final design. Meanwhile, just to get things rolling, I flew down to L.A. to do a photo session with Lee at his home in Burbank, both to get to know and talk with him, and also just to get something “in the can” that we might actually use in some way just in case we never developed any better ideas. (Hey, it happens.)

He was a technically savvy guy who worked with a custom-built guitar synthesizer system that he also endorsed. When I saw it, I realized that its large control panel would actually make an interesting visual background for a formal portrait of Lee while providing some clues about his musical style and sensibilities. To counter the potential coldness of an image dominated by what was essentially a ‘70s computer panel, I lit Lee and his guitar controller really warmly to give the overall picture an almost painterly feeling. And I made sure that the Captain’s fingers were conspicuously present in the shot, supporting the guitar vertically.

As it turned out, I actually did develop an alternate idea for a “Captain Fingers” theme that inspired a front cover photo-illustration I did, as well as the overall look of the package. In recalling famous captains of the past – Bly, Queeg, Ahab, Video -- I kept coming back to Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick.” Moreover, Lee often played a big, white, hollow-body Gibson L-5 jazz guitar that increasingly reminded me of a white whale. I started thinking about showing what a giant, limber L-5 might look like swimming around in the ocean while it was still “alive,” just before being captured by guitar hunters (with phone-plug harpoons, no less) and brought back to be sold as the dried, stiff guitar we see hanging up for sale in a music store like a duck in a Chinese restaurant window.

However, we still used the portrait I’d taken of Lee, albeit adapted to a black-and-white, steel-etched engraved look that was in keeping with the overall antique feeling of the 19th-century whaling motif. In fact, Lee never even saw any color version of the photo until 2004 – 27 years later – when he came up to the Bay Area to play at Yoshi’s jazz club in Oakland and I gave him an artist’s proof of this very giclée photo to take home to L.A.

Of course, after all that time, Rush Creek’s Steve Zeifman took a color photo of me giving Lee the print for posterity. I don’t think we’ll be doing a limited edition of that snapshot anytime soon, but one never knows.