The Man Who Painted the Cover of Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’ Album Didn’t Get Paid What It’s Worth

AP Photo/Dear

Musicians, writers, and visual artists may work in different mediums, but living on the bottom of the capitalist food chain has cursed us with many common problems. Instead of finding unity, though, even the underdogs form a hierarchy and screw each other over.

For The Outline, Robert Silverman tells the story of his father’s regrettable success painting the cover of one of Jethro Tull’s best-selling albums. As the band became famous, the Aqualung cover art ended up on everything from coffee cups to t-shirts, and Silverman’s father, Burton, received no more payment for his effort than his initial $1,300 flat fee. Burton is now 89. He still feels he’s been wronged. The way it all went down has become rock and roll mythology. Now the Silvermans tell their story to set the record straight.

If he couldn’t win in court, perhaps, dad surmised, Anderson might be willing to join the (non-existent) battle against Warner Bros, and help win some token equity in the continued use of the painting, somehow. In the fullness of time, dad has come to realize how half-baked this plan was, but in 1991, he penned a letter to Anderson, asking for help. “As a champion of goodness, truth and beauty, would he entertain to put in some kind of word on behalf of another artist,” is how dad describes his entreaty.

Using his corporate stationary and in a haughty tone, Anderson said any dispute regarding royalties and the rights to the artwork were between dad and Ellis. He also doubted that Ellis would fail to spell out future rights in a written contract (he did), yet again insisted falsely that dad modeled the figure on the front and back cover after him, and suggested dad could not “legally hold copyrights in an artistic representation of a real person.”

An artist can maintain the copyright for a representation of another human being, famous or not. But Anderson’s sense of entitlement in the letter, the combination of grandiosity and the insistence on false claims, plus his side hustle selling autographed lithographs — bearing Anderson’s signature, to be clear, not dad’s — on the cover still bugs dad to no end.

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