Julie’s Sixteenth Birthday – The Story Behind A Notorious Album Cover

Behind every Bad Album Cover is a record, often made with sincerity and naivety. Here is the tale behind one of the more infamous.

Sometimes, fame – or one sort or another – arrives in unexpected ways. For country singer John Bult, it came when his one and only album, of which only 250 copies were ever pressed, was somehow discovered a quarter of a century later by Bad Album Cover Art enthusiasts, appearing in two books by Nick DiFonzo (Worst Albums Cover Ever and Seriously Bad Album Covers) and then inevitably making its way online, as assorted websites picked it up as a prime example of record sleeves that not only fail to make the LP look remotely appealing but also send out a very different message to the one intended.

Look at that cover – a rather too pleased-looking older man, half-finished cigarette and half-drunk beer beside him, holding the hand of a young woman who looks all too resigned to her fate. Bult (for that is he) seems to have been anticipating Julie’s Sixteenth Birthday with the same level of eagerness that British tabloids used to count down the days before their glamour models could legally be shown topless.

Of course, as with all albums with notoriously bad cover art, there is a story behind this bizarre and creepy image. It’s a sad tale of a career unfulfilled, naivety and exploitation – of the performer, not ‘Julie’.

John Bult was a would-be country singer, one of the thousands who visited Nashville and perhaps had a chance to break through to the big time, but never quite made it. Returning to his home town of Lake Charles, Bult decided to make a record independently in the hope of it acting as a calling card. He enlisted producer and songwriter Teddy Broussard to help out – Broussard was hardly a success himself but knew more about the business than  Bult, and more importantly, could write him a few songs. Bult, having been stung in the past, decided that he didn’t want to risk being tied down to a contract, but it ultimately allowed Broussard to take control of all aspects of production and packaging. This was not a good idea – Broussard was clearly not a man with either an eye for aesthetic appeal or an awareness of how combinations of imagery and title might be interpreted by… well, anyone.

Julie’s Sixteenth Birthday is not, as it turns out, a hymn to chasing jail bait, but rather – spoiler alert – a maudlin death ballad in which a drunken father kills his own daughter in a car crash on her sixteenth birthday. Dark stuff. Have a listen and you might see the album in a different light. It’s not particularly good, but it is not the seedy tale that you might have been expecting.

The song was written by Broussard, who decided to name the album after it, even though there were much better song titles (Travellin’ on a One-Way Street, perhaps) to choose from. Bult had expected the cover to be a shot of him with his guitar, but Broussard had other ideas. Having met sixteen-year-old Kim Whitehead in a restaurant where she was having a meal with her parents, Broussard thought she had just the look of a doomed teen and convinced her to be the cover model, bringing to life the title song. The image was supposed to show a serious conversation between father and daughter, but Vic Monsour’s photography didn’t quite capture that vibe. The location was supposed to look like a living room, but of course actually appears to be a run-down bar, adding to the seedy feel of things. The photo that Bult expected to see on the front cover was instead relegated to the back.

Bult continued his career, selling the albums at shows until all had gone and it had vanished into ancient history. As these things do, copies eventually ended up in thrift stores where fans of the kitsch and the bizarre eagerly snapped them up, leading – decades after its release – to a weird sort of fame for Bult. It was hardly the fame he wanted, though – who would appreciate being mocked for their terrible, wildly misguided album cover, with their music ignored? To see his album now selling for $100 plus, solely on camp value, hurt him – especially as he never approved of the artwork to begin with. “It chaps me real bad,” he has been quoted as saying. “The whole thing still makes me mad, even after all of these years.”

In 2007, Bult self-recorded a new CD but ultimately decided against releasing it. Perhaps the thought of people buying his work just to mock it was too much to bear.

DAVID FLINT

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