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Uncovering the Mystery of Albie Louw

By:  Christina Bruce Nov 2, 2012
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Uncovering the Mystery of Albie Louw

The album cover of Wonderful One, which features a smiling model perched atop a stack of cushions, chin on one hand and a glass of Coke in the other.

It all started with an album cover — to be more specific, a photocopy of one. Jamal Booker, an archivist for Coca-Cola, was struck by an image while he was cataloging some items from the company's international collection early last year.

The black-and-white paper copy showed the cover of Wonderful One, a 1959 record by South African jazz pianist Albie Louw. Next to the title sat a smiling model perched atop a stack of cushions, chin on one hand and a glass of Coke in the other. Booker knew that image: He had seen it on poster ads and calendars in the archive.

The find struck Booker as "really, really unusual," he says. "That would be like Adele or Rihanna having a Coca-Cola advertisement on their album cover."

How did the ad end up as an album cover, and did the album even exist anymore? Booker, a music fan and record collector himself, began a months-long quest to find out.

At first, a Google search for "Albie Louw Wonderful One" didn't turn up much. But buried deep within the results, Booker found a website for a vinyl reseller in South Africa. He wrote to the owners, Graham and Judy Vos, who happened to have a copy of Wonderful One among the thousands of records in their collection.

"We almost feel we are a minor custodian of South African music …. That's why we have Albie Louw albums carefully cataloged," Graham says. Booker immediately pounced and bought the album from the couple for 50 rand, or about $6.

Who Is Albie Louw?

So it was confirmed: The album did, indeed, exist. The reason why it featured a Coke ad, though, was still unknown. The model had nothing to do with the record, and the music was instrumental, bearing no direct references to the drink.

Booker made a digital scan of the cover image and put up a blog post asking readers for help. "Does anyone have any information on Albie Louw?" he wrote. "We are really interested in hearing the story of why he selected this Coca-Cola image for the cover of his album — maybe he was a Coke fan??"

About two weeks later, a music enthusiast in South Africa came across the post and commented not only with an answer but with Louw's contact information.

Louw is a well-known jazz artist in South Africa, now in his late eighties and still playing gigs. Unofficially dubbed "Cape Town's Keyboard King" while gaining popularity as a pianist in college, he eventually landed a record deal to make a series of albums, the first of which was In Tune With South Africa.

Wonderful One, released internationally in 1959 on EMI's His Master's Voice label, was the ninth volume of the In Tune series. Louw played all of the songs in just two sittings, roughly 20 minutes of music per side, without any breaks for sound quality or consistency.

A copy of that album is very tough to find these days.

The Missing Link

Jacob Clarence, a music enthusiast and record collector in Sundra, South Africa, happened to be searching for Albie Louw's name shortly after Booker published his post. He also happened to know Louw.

"I met Albie [early] in 1962, and then I think it was about three years ago when we met up again for an interview on the radio," Clarence told Booker earlier this year. "From there on, I kept in contact with Albie."

Using the tip from Clarence, Booker got in touch with Louw and finally got the story of the album cover. So was Louw a fan of Coke? Yes. Was that how the ad ended up on the sleeve? Well…

"Actually, I was a bit upset," Louw says about the choice of art. Louw's label was working with Coca-Cola, which has a long history with music, and the label had selected the image without his input. An April 1960 letter from Coca-Cola's Johannesburg office to colleagues in New York touted the deal: "I thought you might be interested in seeing how we capitalized in conjunction with a local recording company on the wonderful New York [material]."

Louw was shocked when he saw the cover, which arrived in the mail. "[The label] thought that they could get a free sleeve from Coca-Cola, because Coca-Cola is advertising, or they charged Coca-Cola for the advertising, I don't know. But it was on my sleeve," Louw says. At the time he considered suing the record company for aligning him with the brand without his consent.

Meeting Albie

Despite the history, Booker got a warm welcome from Louw when, a year and a half after the archivist set out to learn the album's story, the two met in person at Louw's home in Cape Town. Louw even offered Booker a glass of Coke, and said of their new connection, "It's my popular talking point nowadays."

Louw told Booker about the appeal of Coca-Cola when he first encountered it in school in 1938: "What we liked so much about it was it kept its fizziness. It didn't go flat so easily. It was fun drinking all this fizz." He also loved ice cream floats made with Coke.

Louw counts piano great Art Tatum among his influences, which can be heard in his playing. In addition to Tatum, Louw lists Carmen Cavallaro, Count Basie and Peter Nero among his favorite musicians. He was quick to pick up Coca-Cola's "Open Happiness" jingle on piano during Booker's visit, even though he noted that Booker's pitch was "all over the place" when Booker tried to whistle it. (That's "a common phrase people use to describe my singing, whistling and what have you," Booker admits.)

The rare copy of Wonderful One that Booker purchased from the Vos couple came with an extra vinyl copy, which had no matching sleeve. The original now resides in the archives of Coca-Cola's Atlanta, Ga., headquarters. The extra record? That was given as a token of thanks to Jacob Clarence, the blog commenter so crucial in piecing together the "Who Is Albie Louw?" mystery.

Learn more about Louw by checking out the behind-the-scenes story on the Conversations blog.