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OBITUARIES : Alton Kelley, 1940 - 2008

Artist caught mood of the psychedelic rock genre

June 04, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Alton Kelley, a San Francisco graphic artist whose psychedelic posters and album covers captured the mood and music of the Grateful Dead, the Steve Miller Band, Journey and other top rock 'n' roll groups of the '60s and '70s, has died. He was 67.

Kelley died Sunday at his home in Petaluma, Calif., according to publicist Jennifer Gross. The cause was complications from osteoporosis.

With his creative partner Stanley Mouse, Kelley helped launch a poster art revolution in the mid-1960s, turning out vividly colored works for concerts at the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium, where Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service were among the headliners.

"Kelley was one of the first to see it coming, the rise of the psychedelic era in San Francisco," Paul Grushkin, who wrote "The Art of Rock, Posters From Presley to Punk" (1987), said this week. "He was a pioneer."

Using images inspired by vintage prints and lettering that flows like smoke, Kelley and Mouse designed graphics now considered emblems of the psychedelic age.

The best known of them all is a skull and roses design they created for the Grateful Dead.

"Kelley had the unique ability to translate the music being played into amazing images that capture the spirit of who we were and what the music was all about," Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead said in a statement this week.

The album covers that came out of the Kelley-Mouse collaboration with the Grateful Dead included "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty" in 1970.

The idea for a skull and roses came from an illustration in "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," a collection of poems by the Persian poet who died in 1123. Kelley once explained that he found the illustration in a library book, enlarged the image, and added color and other details that dramatically changed it. "I knew right away it was a classic, " he said in a 1995 interview with the Palm Beach Post.

He and Mouse created several other graphic images that became signatures for certain bands. Among them is a Pegasus that looms from the album cover of the Steve Miller Band's "Book of Dreams" in 1977 and a scarab on the album cover of "Departure," by Journey in 1980.

"Images Kelley and Mouse put on playbills, posters and album covers became a major part of the music experience of the time," Dell Furano of Signatures Network, which merchandises rock artworks, said in an interview this week.

Kelley was born June 17, 1940, in Houlton, Maine. After high school he worked as a mechanic and took art classes but never graduated from art school. He moved to San Francisco in about 1965 and helped found the Family Dog Collective, a group that produced some of the first psychedelic dance concerts in San Francisco, with light shows, dancing and poster art as part of the program.

He met Mouse about a year after he arrived in San Francisco. At the time, the Haight-Ashbury district was starting to bubble over. "It was really fun. Everybody was really enjoying themselves," Kelley told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. "We all came out of the rock 'n' roll world."

When they began working together, "Stanley and I had no idea what we were doing," Kelley told the Chronicle. "We had free rein to just go graphically crazy."

Their posters combined images borrowed from Native American and Chinese art, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, reworked in acid colors and swirling letters that were a dramatic break with tradition. "Before that, all advertising was pretty much just typeset with a photograph of something," Kelley told the Chronicle.

"It was a glory period for record album covers," Grushkin said of the artists' inventions. "Kelley and Mouse created art that captured what the music sounded like."

Kelley continued working as a graphic artist throughout his career, sometimes teaming up with Mouse. Their most recent project was for the March induction ceremony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

Kelley is survived by his wife, Marguerite; three children; two grandchildren; his mother, Annie; and his sister, Kathy.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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