Picture sleeves, also known as picture covers or picture bags, are the printed paper sleeves that protected 45 RPM singles. While the use of picture sleeves, as opposed to plain sleeves or ones bearing the logos of record labels, was widespread in the United States and France during the 1950s and beyond, this colorful packaging did not gain popularity in the U.K. until the 1970s. Thus, sleeved copies of Beatles and Rolling Stones 45s from the 1960s were those pressed for the U.S. market.
The biggest American act of the 1950s was Elvis Presley, whose original five 45s and 78s for Sun Records in 1954 and ’55 were protected by “Sunburst” sleeves. Reissues of those records for RCA, as well as new recordings, featured photographs of the young singing star.
Other classic picture sleeves from the 1950s includes those printed for 45s by Ricky Nelson, as he was known in 1957, when his single for Imperial, “Stood Up,” featured a dreamy, teen-heartthrob portrait on its cover. That same year, an equally handsome Johnny Mathis released “Chances Are” on Columbia.
The Beatles landed in the United States in February of 1964, but their sleeved 45s preceded them. The earliest examples are “She Loves You” on the Swan label and “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” backed by “I Saw Her Standing There,” for Capitol. The Rolling Stones responded with a blues rocker popularized by Bo Diddley called “Not Fade Away” on London Records, but their big U.S. hit would not come until 1965 with the release of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Home-grown bands had their hits and classic, vintage, picture sleeves, too. In 1964, the Beach Boys released “Fun, Fun, Fun” for Capitol, followed in 1965 by “California Girls” and then “Good Vibrations” in 1966. The Supremes had a string of chart-toppers for Motown Records during those same years, many of which featured the same trio of portraits of Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson on their picture sleeves. An especially rare picture sleeve from 1967 is the one for “Break On Through” by the Doors.
Other musicians whose pictures sleeves have visual appeal, if not extraordinary value, are those for country stars Merle Haggard, whose “Sing Me Back Home” features a shot of the singer/songwriter looking over his shoulder. As for Johnny Cash, the black-and-white photograph from 1968 of him leaning against the wall of Folsom Prison is a classic.