Early EPs and sleeve design

By the second half of the 1950s, most EPs came in card picture sleeves with a glossy front, like miniature versions of LPs. It seems impossible to believe that someone had to invent the LP sleeve, with illustration or photograph on one side and information on the other, but they did. And when the first illustrated LPs came out in the late 1940s, sales increased ninefold over those in dull generic bags, but it didn’t occur to record companies to follow along with EP sleeves until the late fifties. In the mid 50s, generic base LP sleeves were still in use by some labels.

Capitol were the first company to invest in specially designed sleeves for Sinatra and for jazz material. MGM were the first to realize that EPs lifted from LPs could share the same sleeve design as the LP.

Colour printing was expensive, and like all printing, price drops with quantity. It made sense to design colour sleeves which could be done in bulk and over-printed with different text in black and white.

It is difficult to decide which sleeves are pre-printed in colour before having black and white overprinting, and which were rather a “design template” with each record printed from scratch. As they got glossier, I suspect design templates are in force rather than overprinting.

EMI- standard EP sleeves … click to enlarge

EMI had die cut EP sleeves for each of the four main labels, along the same lines as company sleeves for singles, but made of stiff card rather than paper, in line with the higher price.

These were the models upon which cardboard retailer sleeves … sleeves designed for specific shops … were based.

I’ll Cry Tomorrow: Susan Hayward, MGM EP 1955 (South African pressig)

The pressing of I’ll Cry Tomorrow soundtrack shows a card sleeve without a die cut centre hole, and a plain white box which could be used to overprint specific information for the record. This meant the sleeves could be colour printed in bulk, then passed through for a simple black and white overprint.

This was the system adopted by the Decca group of labels early on (Decca, London, Brunswick, pre-1955 Decca distributed Capitol).

Till- Part 1: Roger Williams, London EP, 1955

Decca’s London example (Roger Williams, Till- Part 1) is from 1955, and pre-dates overprinting. This is also when they started doing custom picture sleeves without die-cut centre holes. The violin, clarinet and trumpet illustrated went on classical, jazz and “popular” (what we would call easy-listening). 

Decca gallery. Base sleeve designs with overprint … click to enlarge

The Decca Ken Colyer Skiffle Group EP has a closed centre, but is part of the same designer’s work as the open centre sleeve on Till-Part 1. . There were a whole series of Decca EPs with this front design  and an overprinted middle section. They were mainly jazz. The Ken Colyer has sleeve notes on the rear, pointing out that Alexis Korner plays guitar and mandolin, making it valuable.

So take Waltzing With Mantovani EP. Same EP, overprinted on three different base sleeves. Decca EPs have simple date codes (5/56 … May 1956) for sleeve printing on the rear sleeves, and these don’t refer to the record original release date

Waltzing With Mantovani gallery – click to enlarge

The London and Brunswick “music stand” generic sleeve ran for years.

Brunswick (Decca) – same base design for different EPs

The base colour sleeves were prepared in batches and overprinted when they needed a new run of EPs by the artist. It appears they could do mixed batches so the same EPs appear with different colour base printing. The examples above are the music stand base. In 1957 they overprinted. By 1959 and Brenda Lee, they’d realized they could overprint and add a black and white photo in the available blank area.

Dim Dim The Lights by Billy Haley and His Comets comes in five colours, overprinted on three different colour base designs: the cameo (see above), the stage and the music stand. The red ‘music stand’ is 1955. The blue ‘stage’ is September 1956. The green and yellow cameo are both dated October 1956. The red cameo above was January 1956.

The “stage” and “music stand” were rarer, being rated at £40 mint with gold lettering on the tri-centre, £25 with silver lettering. The cameo is £25. I’ll add that the likelihood of finding a mint copy is minimal, so before you get excited copies range from £2.50 to £12 on Discogs.


Gallery – click to enlarge

Decca used the same base designs for some Decca and Brunswick, but kept London EPs separate. The Herd From Mars EP by Woody Herman & The Third Herd is an example of a 10″ LP being split onto two EPs, Volume 1 and Volume 2. In the illustrated copiers above, the Volume 2 was pressed later, and the fonts on the overprint have also changed.

London used a different music stand base extensively. The Louis Armstrong is a 1954 pressing and Brunswick (who used this design less), the Slim Whitman on London is 1954 too, and the Bobby Darin with added photo is a 1959 pressing … five years of the same base.

Note that those photo overprints on matt sleeves came several years after the Decca group were using glossy colour sleeves elsewhere.

Gallery – click to enlarge

The Slim Whitman EP came in at least three variations according to the Rare Record Guide with changing colour, matt and gloss finish and different centres. The earliest examples have the drum base sleeve.


The independent jazz label, Esquire, was mainly pressed by Decca, and perhaps the sleeve printing was sourced from the same printers. Their early sleeves for EPs are reminiscent of Decca designs:

Then later:

In the early 50s, as they ventured onto 10″ LPs then 12″ LPs, the policy was the same. Base sleeve with overptinting.

EMI base designs

EMI were stricter in their division between the four major labels … HMV, Columbia, Parlophone, and MGM. They persisted longer with die-cut centre hole sleeves, but then once they embraced overprinting, were prepared to go to two-colour printing rather than one (a significant price differential then), and to use gloss card on the sleeves far earlier than Decca.

Columbia gallery … click to enlarge

HMV classics base design

HMV Jazz gallery … click to enlarge

Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight : Louise Dumaine, EP, HMV, September 1955

These are 1958 to 1959, and one of my favourite designs. Jazz to HMV conjured up New Orleans. Like Decca, by 1958 they had realized that while overprinting in black and white, they could slip in a B&W photo in the same blank area.

HMV also started designing sleeves with a space specifically for photo inserts:

Cole Porter’s Greatest: David Rose, HMV EP, January 1956

This base design had a wide range, from Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin Polonaises to Alma Cogan singing Where Will The Dimple Be to Max Bygraves warbling Anyone Can Be A Millionaire to Roy Rogers, The Singing Cowboy. The background colour changed.

HMV EP catalogues: left October 1955; Right June 1956
Note the “extended” HMV listening dog

gallery – click to enlarge

Parlophone base design … click to enlarge

The Parlophone base design doesn’t even look like a base design until you see two of them. The Elton Hayes was originally released way back in 1953 in the die cut sleeve. This is later, though undated. The Humphrey Lyttelton Jazz With Lyttelton No. 3 is an example of an LP split into three EPs for the money-pressed British public. Buy one a week? It comes from 1956.

From December 1955 Parlophone catalogue

I liked Parlophone’s “More Music For Less Money!” slogan. But really EPs cost very much the same as two singles.

Parlophone were justly proud of their new glossy EP sleeves in ‘pochettes’ in October 1956:

Parlophone catalogue October 1956


MGM was EMI distributed and had one of the classiest base designs. Earlier ones were matt card, replaced by glossy card later. As usual, LPs from films were split into two or three EPs and they used an orange base and a yellow base, using one of each for two EPs from the same film.

gallery – click to enlarge

For much of their EP output the space could be filled with MGM film stills. However, they also had some “non-movie” artistes and these got a cartoon drawing in the space.

gallery – click to enlarge


In the mid-50s the American Mercury label was Pye distributed (between label-hopping spells with Oriole and EMI). They introduced a base design with photo inserts. Both the illustrated EPs were released in 1956.

gallery – click to enlarge


Philips had a generic design which was used for its Musical Gems series, which were mainly classical with the odd exception like a couple of Paul Robeson selections. At this point Philips only did popular music on 78 rpm, but the “Minigroove” Musical Gems series was around four minutes a side at 45 rpm, somewhere between a short EP and a long single. Philips did “gems”. Fontana did “cameos”. Both used thin paper stock, which was the same as their early picture sleeves on singles. Neither were attractive designs.

Philips also had several stock designs … design templates … but they don’t appear to be simple overprinting on a base stock piece of card.

Nixa had base EP designs before they were bought by Pye … and very basic LP templates too.

gallery – click to enlarge