Frazetta's Portrait of Ringo Starr
The caricature of Ringo Starr for Mad Magazine was a momentous commission for Frank Frazetta. Mad Magazine has a long history of running a wide variety of material on the back covers: fake ads, magazine parodies, comics, and more. For 48 years, Nick Meglin, “the heart of Mad,” was responsible for recruiting many of the artists and writers who eventually came to be known as “The Usual Gang of Idiots” after editor Al Feldstein got tired of listing individual credits in the masthead of the very first Mad annual, The Worst from Mad #1. (Tcj.com) In 1964, Meglin recruited his lifelong friend, Frazetta, to paint a spot-on visual parody of the painted Breck Shampoo ads of the mid-'60s that featured long-haired Beatle Ringo Starr.
(Frank Frazetta & Nick Meglin, 1955)
Frazetta's reputation as an artist quickly evolved after this commission which was published on the back cover of issue #90 (October 1964) of Mad Magazine.
Frazetta’s “Ringo Starr” portrait caught the eye of United Artists films, which then commissioned Frazetta to do his first poster art for a movie, What’s New Pussycat?
, a 1965 comedy written by Woody Allen. For one day’s work, Frazetta earned his annual salary, $4,000 USD. It changed his life. The success of What’s New Pussycat? led to further poster commissions for a whole slate of movies: After the Fox, The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Night They Raided Minsky’s and The Gauntlet.
In 2012, Mad Magazine, Art Director, Sam Viviano commented on the impact of Frazetta’s Ringo Starr illustration, “The best use of MAD's back cover, for me, was as a vehicle for ad parodies, which were always so carefully put together that at first look they seemed to be the real thing. This back cover features a takeoff of the ads for Breck Shampoo which had been running for decades in magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Harper's Bazaar. These ads featured pastel portraits of beautiful young women with silky long hair, rendered from 1936 to 1957 by Charles Sheldon and thereafter by the illustrator Ralph William Williams. (The campaign ended with Williams' death in 1976.) MAD's takeoff, with the headline, "Make Beautiful Hair BLECCH," portrayed — rather than a beautiful young woman with long, silky hair — a not-so-beautiful young man with long, silky hair (a novelty in 1964) — specifically, Ringo Starr, drummer for the Beatles. The portrait itself was painted with full Ralph William Williams lusciousness by infrequent MAD contributor Frank Frazetta. As an impressionable 11-year-old, I was fascinated by how a single image could be both beautiful and grotesque, precisely accurate and extravagantly exaggerated. It firmed up my ambition, already stoked by countless pages of Mort Drucker art, to pursue a career as a humorous illustrator." (MadMagazine.com)
Frazetta only worked for MAD Magazine on two other occasions. He illustrated a back cover for issue #106, in October 1966 and the cover for issue #338, in August 1995.