Famous Tees of History Series: The Story of The Rolling Stones Logo T-shirt
October 6, 2021
T-shirts are a uniquely American fashion item that spread to the rest of the world, and the famous designs emblazoned on them each have a history of their own. In this series, I’ll be highlighting the most iconic designs in the T-shirt universe, diving into their origin stories, what made them so popular, then taking a look at where they are today and what they inspired.
For the second installment in this series, I’m tackling the story of what’s widely considered the most recognizable band logo of all time, and what many think is the most iconic T-shirt graphic ever created: The Rolling Stones’ “Lips and Tongue” logo.
I thought I knew the story of this design. I was surprised to learn about the controversy dating back to its first inception.
As I dug into the research and mountain of articles about the history of this graphic, it became increasingly clear that there were at least three different designers taking credit for the logo. Some fans make the case that it’s Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger who should get all the credit. And Andy Warhol is involved too– but he didn’t design it.
Some say it was ripped off from another artist– and there’s good reason to think it was.
As I dove deeper, things only became murkier. Do we have a legit mystery here? I’ve tried my best to get to the bottom of it, and I think I (almost) do. I’m sharing what I found, and you can decide for yourself.
Who created the ‘Lips and Tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stones?
This tangled origin story is one that Rolling Stones fans and graphic design nerds have been arguing over for years. Three different people have all claimed credit to varying degrees, and each has its own camp of supporters to varying degrees. Interestingly enough, all three people are still alive. More interesting, none of them argue with each other over it.
So is there anything to argue about? There are at least three different storylines that either don’t line up, or directly contradict each other, and it seems like no one can get these people in the same room. You would think a prestigious publication (like let’s say the New York Times) would come along and figure it out, but a typical article tells just one side of the story.
Let’s take a closer look at the people involved and what they may (or may not) have contributed to rock ‘n’ design history.
Our story starts in England, circa 1969 with the artist most widely-acknowledged as being responsible for the creation of the famous logo, British graphic designer John Pasche. When Mick Jagger came calling to the Royal College of Art in London, Pasche was just twenty-four years old and had limited design experience. But Jagger saw something in his work.
The band was in the process of recording their new album, and Jagger was taking the creative lead in deciding on the visual elements that would accompany their music (and why some people credit him with the concept).
Pasche was first tasked with designing a new poster for the European leg of the Stones’ current tour. After Jagger was satisfied with that work, he gave Pasche the job of creating what he was originally told would be a letterhead or cover page graphic– but would soon become the official logo of the Rolling Stones record label and appear on every release since.
Depending on your source, Pasche’s design was either an obvious reference to Mick Jagger’s facial features, a playful cartoon version of the mouth of the Hindi goddess Kali, or a blatant anti-authoritarian and sexually suggestive symbol for a band who were considered the bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll at the time. Place your bets.
Was the Hindu goddess Kali the inspiration for the Rolling Stones logo?
Jagger was inspired by the crazy tongue of the Hindi goddess Kali and was carrying around picture clippings. But Pasche said he “didn’t want to do anything Indian because I thought it would be very dated quickly, as everyone was going through that phase at the time.” Still, he said the idea “triggered something” and that he used it as a starting point.
Kali is the Hindu goddess of death, time, and doomsday and is often associated with sexuality and violence, but is also considered a strong mother figure and symbol of motherly love. Kali also embodies feminine energy, creativity, and fertility. So, motherly love and also doomsday. Nope, not weird at all.
Is the Rolling Stones logo based on Mick Jagger’s mouth?
This is probably the most popular theory for inspiration, and it’s easy to see why. “Face to face with him, the first thing you were aware of was the size of his lips and his mouth,” Pasche said. And when interviewed about the logo for V&A, he did say the logo was designed “to represent the band’s anti-authoritarian attitude, Mick’s mouth, and obvious sexual connotations”.
That seems to clear it up, right?
Not so fast.
In a more recent interview with his hometown newspaper, Pasche insists that despite the logo’s striking similarity to that of the Mick Jagger’s mouth, he did not consciously draw it with the famous singer’s mouth in mind. Instead, he says it was the Indian goddess Kali that got his creative juices going. Goin’ back to Kali.
“When I saw that pointed tongue, it just clicked! You know how kids stick out their tongues if they want to be nasty? A way of being anti-authority and rebellious. At the time, they were the bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll so I thought it was a great idea. People ask me all the time if Mick Jagger’s mouth was the starting point – well it was not, but it kind of fell into place.”
Okay, so his inspiration is a little murky too. The answer is all of the above. That’s not the controversy.
Did anyone save the first sketch of the Rolling Stones logo?
Pasche says he doesn’t have his first sketch– and regrets not keeping it. “I must have chucked them in the bin,” he said. The official copyright of Pasche’s design is 1970, but the public didn’t actually see it until April of 1971 with its debut on the inside sleeve of the Sticky Fingers album– and it’s unclear exactly when that artwork was submitted for the album.
The earliest version Pasche kept was the two-color separation (above), and he’s said repeatedly that the design only took a week to finish (and why he invoiced the band only £50 for the work). This raises the question that goes to the heart of the controversy: did he actually create it that year as it’s copyrighted, or in early 1971 leading up to the album release?
The man who designed the album packaging says Pasche’s logo was not finished in time– making his version the official.
Craig Braun was the owner and creative director of Sound Packaging Corp and considered to be one of the go-to designers for innovative album covers in the ’60s and ’70s. He had been hired for the soon-to-be-classic Sticky Fingers album and was working with Andy Warhol on a cover and packaging design that would soon become a classic in its own right.
It’s suggestive photos and the functional zipper was born from an idea pitched to Mick Jagger by Andy Warhol at a party in 1969. In 2003, VH1 named it the best album cover of all time. The Stones’ iconic logo was printed large and in bold red on the inside sleeve– a version that Braun “developed” from Pasche’s concept. Which he claims is “the official” version.
As Braun’s story goes, Pasche was working with Mick in London, but back in New York he had a deadline for the album release and needed the logo. Again, it’s not clear exactly what point in time this was (crucially either late 1970 or early 1971), but according to him, Pasche’s design was still unfinished:
“Mick had commissioned a young art school student [John Pasche] in London to design a logo, but he had not completed a design. He’d only completed some sketches, rough sketches of it. And Marshall Chess, the newly-named president of Rolling Stones’ Records, was in London said, ‘All I have is a rubber stamp from the sketch,'” Braun explains. “So I said for him to stamp it a few times, put it on a fax which, on a thermal fax machine, the quality is just sh*t, but I could see the silhouette of it, where the art student was going, very fuzzy, and about 3/4 of an inch, so I blew that up to about 12″ and I had an illustrator working for me and I said, ‘I want you to re-draft this for me.’ After many a back-and-forth, trial-and-error fleshing-out with the illustrator, the Rolling Stones’ tongue and lip logo as we now know it was being hatched.”
So what happened to Pasche’s version?
“Pasche hadn’t finished his logo, so I told them to use his on the English album. Ultimately, it ended up being my version, not his, they use everywhere. They use mine for the tours, merchandising, licensing. Ironically, the V&A Museum paid Pasche almost £100,000 for his original logo art, but it’s not the official Stones version”, Braun said.
Regardless of which logo, the album was a huge success, remaining at the top of Billboard charts for weeks, with rock fans clamoring to get their hands on a copy, due in large part to the novel design. A wide-ranging merchandise package coincided with its release, including pins, necklaces, keychains, and of course, those insanely popular T-shirts.
“This album heralded an age of really imaginative and provocative packaging. It also introduced the greatest band logo of all time.” – Rock critic Richard Harrington
Despite two very similar versions of the same logo concept, our story is fairly straightforward so far: Braun’s team did all the work involved in putting together the album packaging, and he has taken credit for developing the finished “official” logo, but he’s not the artist who originally drew it– that credit goes to John Pasche.
Or does it?
Because there’s also this guy.
Ernie Cefalu is an acclaimed graphic designer and a veteran of the golden age of album cover art, with numerous awards to show for it and a long trail of revered work for famous bands. And he has his own creation story of the world-famous logo.
Cefalu says he is the “designer of the original lips and tongue”, which he created, in early 1971.
His story is less clear, and mostly coming from one source– Cefalu himself. Because of that, people try to diminish his role (or discredit him) in arguments about who should get credit. But Cefalu does seem to have some credible claims to that fame. His Wikipedia page states that he is “credited with being one of the people to design The Rolling Stones logo.”
Interesting. One of the people.
Funny that John Pasche or Craig Braun never mention him.
The problem, as you might have figured out, is that Cefalu says he did his version– supposedly the first– in February of 1971, while the copyright for Pasche’s design is 1970. The timeline doesn’t work. So if Ernie is the original artist, either A) he did the logo a year earlier than he says, or B) John Pasche’s design was retroactively copyrighted to 1970.
What’s Ernie Ceflu’s story?
As Cefalu tells it in great detail, the initial creation of the Rolling Stones logo happened at his first meeting with Craig Braun for a job as Creative Director at the uptown Manhattan offices of Sound Packaging. He’d been noticed for the cool designs he created for the albums Dolls Alive on International Paper Company and Jesus Christ Superstar on Decca Records.
According to Cefalu, Craig Braun (who he describes at the time as “good looking, tall, slim, had rock star hair, great amber-tinted glasses and dressed in a denim pants suit”) asked him if he could come up with the Rolling Stones’ logo on the spot:
“We’ve been working on developing a logo for the Stones, and haven’t hit on it yet. With Walter gone, quite honestly, we’ve been in a bit of a bind– until now.” [Braun] looked at me and asked, “can you go upstairs to the art department and take the lips that you did on this label, add a tongue outside and over the bottom lip like this, and finish it in less than an hour?”
When Braun says “this label” he is referencing the Dolls Alive artwork, and it’s a strong piece of evidence to Cefalu’s claim of credit because the Dolls Alive record label featured disembodied cartoon lips.
That album was released in 1969.
Does Ernie have an original sketch?
He does. Or he did. I could only find it on one website, but it seems to make sense in the context of his story. He was asked to incorporate a tongue into a set of lips he had already created. “Once upstairs, it took me about 40 minutes to do a felt marker sketch complete with lips and a tongue, and I even added some teeth because it just didn’t look right without them.”
Cefalu tells what happened when he showed it to Braun: “Craig stood up and quickly reached out for the sketch, saying “that’s exactly what I was seeing and I really think – no, I am certain – that I can sell it to Marshall [Chess].”
After this, he talks about someone pulling out a bag of pot, and soon he was getting high with Braun and the others at the office (no wonder all these stories are so murky). He goes on and on. And then he goes on:
“Tony [the manager] passed him [Braun] the joint. He took a hit and then came right up to me, put one hand on my shoulder, gave me the joint with the other and said “well, my good man, you have earned a job with us. And, by the way, you just designed the new logo for the Rolling Stones!” The room busted out in cheers and congratulations were given all around.”
Notice there is no mention of Pasche. So how does this timeline overlap with Pasche/Braun’s story? He explained to Accent:
“That’s a whole other story, and it got really political. I was introduced to Marshall Chess, the guy who was managing the Stones. Mick Jagger and those guys really didn’t like Marshall. His dad owned Chess Records and sold it to Atlantic. They made his dad president, and he put his son in charge of managing the Stones. They didn’t really like him, so they took what I had done and gave it to a guy named John Pasche in England, who did a version of it. So, right from the beginning, there were two versions. Mine was used on all the merchandise and marketing stuff, and his was used on the record cover, on the back, and on the sleeve.”
And therein lies the controversy (or maybe just confusion) that continues to this day, even though all three are still alive and hundreds of articles have written. Pasche says he’s the original designer. Braun said his is the “official” because he finished Pasche’s design. Cefalu says he’s the original designer, and his rough was given to Pasche to finish.
What a mess.
But wait… there’s more.
Early Rolling Stones logo merch
To make things murkier, for some reason Cefalu and Braun were given a license to profit from merchandise based on Cefalu’s design, which became known as the “Licks” version. For a handful of years, the Rolling Stones “Lips and Tongue” logo was produced and sold under the banner of a company Braun started just for that purpose called “Rockcreations”.
As Braun tells it: “I got the licensing of that logo through my Rockreations division for a period of three years… and made keyrings, jewelry, belt buckles, badges, watches, canvas bags… all with my ‘Licks’ version of the ‘tongue and lips’ logo.” The logo licensing reverted back to The Stones and, as they say, the rest is history.”
As Cefalu tells it: “My very first assignment was to do a finished ink rendering of the lips and tongue I had sketched. As it turned out, Craig [Braun] had given the logo I did to Marshall [Chess] and the Stones for free. In return, he got the EXCLUSIVE merchandising rights of the logo for one year, showing that it pays to be a best friend to the manager.”
So Cefalu says they got rights for one year, Braun says three. He later says it was five. Who knows. They probably don’t remember how big that bag of pot was either. One thing for sure is that the logo was a rock branding phenomenon. Merch sales were off the charts, and both Cefalu and Braun lament the fact that they didn’t find a way to stay in the business.
Cefalu explained to Rock Pop Gallery: “Over the next few months, I did a couple of other small jobs, but 98% of my focus was on Rolling Stones merchandising: T-shirts, sweatshirts, scarves, hats, foil die-cut posters, belt buckles, embroidered patches, key chains, roach clips and lots of other stuff that Craig sold in-store, through ads, via direct mail, and on the tour.”
Braun says he viewed it “…like a hit record, that they could only last ‘so long’ before something new came along and captured the world’s interest. Well, the merchandising for the Rolling Stones is in the billions of dollars now. Maybe I should have stayed with it and made a longer deal.”
Which Rolling Stones logo came first?
To this day, it’s still a mystery. And considering how legendary the logo has become, it’s understandable that the people involved would each want to retain whatever credit they can hold onto. But still, I find it fascinating that these three individuals, who don’t seem to have any beef with each other, continue to make contradictory claims.
For design nerds and obsessive Rolling Stones fans alike, the main question seems to be: Did John Pasche see Ernie Ceflau’s artwork first, or did some guy at the design agency see Pasche’s artwork first and give the idea to Cefalu?
The truth might boil down to the kind of personal issues and behind-the-scenes politics that don’t make it into magazine articles. As someone connected to the people involved suggested on an online forum: “Since Pasche was working with Mick, and Cefalu working with Marshall Chess, it’s easy to see who would win the contract.”
Cefalu was most certainly involved, but some of the skepticism of his story is warranted. For example, he claims to know nothing of the logo appearing in the Sticky Fingers album, even though that’s where it debuted. He’s also the only one giving himself credit for coming up with the working zipper idea featured on the album cover, which is widely attributed to Warhol.
“For the record, I really didn’t know that there was going to be a Lips and Tongue logo on the final album sleeve – the only time I saw any album art before it hit the stores was in Craig’s office that Saturday when Marshall showed me the comp and I had suggested that they use a real zipper,” Ernie wrote. “As for why they had a second version done for the final album art is a mystery to me. The logo used on all the merchandising was done by me well before the end of February of 1971. The logo that John Pasche did, used on the Sticky Fingers album sleeve and back cover, when you look at the two logos side by side, you will see that they are different.”
The most generous explanation for all three of these guys is that there were multiple artists working on the same concept at the same time– something not at all uncommon in the design world. Apparently, Mick Jagger had been shopping his ‘lips and tongue’ idea around, and probably looked at different artist’s versions until he settled on one (or two) he liked.
As FineArtofRock noted on that long discussion thread: “It’s clear that both Pasche and Cefalu were involved in the logo’s creation, as were probably dozens of other illustrators. Marshall Chess was going all around NY and London during that period and soliciting design ideas from anyone perceived as “good.” Jagger was doing the same, it seems.”
So why does John Pasche get all the credit, and none for Ernie Cefalu who ‘s version was used for the initial merch?
“Cefalu doesn’t own the rights to the logo because he never claimed them, apparently. Pasche did, evidently, which he later sold. I am told that Cefalu does own the rights to his own creation (i.e. his own version), but not for licensing purposes.”
Fair enough, but it still doesn’t answer the question of who came up with it first.
Even Marshall Chess tries to grab some credit for the concept, saying it was him and the band that came up with it (inspired by a gas station?), but confirms that there were many artists involved early on:
“I was driving along to meet the band and saw a Shell petrol station with the classic yellow logo. It was so beautifully simplistic. I mention this later when I’m sitting around with The Stones, saying that we should come up with a design that is totally recognizable without having the band’s name on it. Out of that conversation came the idea of having the tongue and lips. As label manager, it was my job to audition a variety of artists who came up with an extraordinary variety of tongues. As soon as we saw John Pasche’s now-famous design, there was no doubt that was the one and we bought it outright.“
It’s entirely possible that Pasche doesn’t mention Cefalu for fear that it would put his design legacy in jeopardy. Some people speculate that the copyright was filed retroactively: “Marshall Chess will probably take the secret to his grave. There was probably some business interests/benefits involved with getting Pasche’s copyrighted and owned and declaring it the first.”
Then there’s this reasonable explanation (and bit of drama) from an insider who says Ernie Cefalu was first:
“I can’t comment publicly on Ms. Chess’s comments, but the rest is pretty straight forward. Basically, Ernie did the design and was sitting in a room with Marshall Chess. Chess took the design upstairs and gave it [faxed] to Pasche and told him to give it “more animation”. If you talk to Ernie, he’ll tell you he likes Pasche’s version better than his own. So the powers that be wanted to both modify his version and wanted a bit of obfuscation on who had done it … The only reason Craig Braun pops up trying to throw garbage is that he’s still pissed off at Ernie for leaving his company to start Pacific Eye & Ear and becoming a huge success. I may just post the email he sent me.”
He never posted the email.
So it was either Ernie Cefalu or John Pasche. We may never know who did it first.
Unless… we go back in time a couple of years.
Was the Rolling Stones logo copied?
While the Stones were touring the US in 1969 as well as recording Sticky Fingers, back in London another famous British rock band you may have heard of called The Beatles released one of their many smash records, Abbey Road. At the same time, a book had been published called “The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics“, featuring illustrations by the artist Alan Aldrige.
In it, there’s one particular illustration that has caught the attention of a few people who nerd out about this stuff (like me):
Plot twist! “Inspire” is a charitable term indeed. Yes artists subconsciously borrow styles from each other, and yes there were shared graphic trends of the time, but this appears to be a blatant copy. What gives it away is the distinctive shape of the lips, the shine, the way they slightly angle back. Someone who was a contemporary of Pasche remarked in the comments:
“John was a student graphic designer in Brighton UK in 1969, and frankly it’s totally inconceivable that he didn’t see the ‘Beatles Illustrated Lyrics’ book when it was published.”
If we isolate the lips from Aldridge’s illustration and compare them to Pasche’s design, it becomes even more clear:
Inspired or copied? I’ll leave that to your judgment. Not many people seem to be aware of this, but those that are tend to agree that Pasche’s name should have an asterisk next to it in the design history books. The most generous explanation is that Mick Jagger showed Pasche the illustration and said “I want it exactly like that.’
Isolating the mouth is the only significant change.
Was that something new?
Tom Wesselman was one of the great pop artists of the ’60s, and his Mouth series did just that– isolate the mouth. There’s teeth, there’s tongue, and there’s big red lips. Well before 1969. And I’m sure he partied with Andy Warhol.
I’ll just leave it at that.
“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” – Pablo Piccaso
The Rolling Stones logo through the years
Regardless of who created it, the logo’s enduring cultural impact is undeniable. Over fifty years later it’s still getting printed on T-shirts worldwide. It’s been redone, revived, revamped, remixed, reimagined, parodied, and of course, knocked off more times than anyone could possibly account for.
Similar to the “I ❤ NY” design from my first Famous Tees of History post, it’s taken on a life of its own over the years.
The concept has only gotten bigger, literally. Much to fans delight, the Stones have made all kinds of crazy stage constructions of their ‘Lips and Tongue’ for tours, including gigantic inflatables. In 2012, they built a set up that extended into the audience for their 50th Anniversary. The biggest version was the stage for the Super Bowl halftime show in 2006.
You can find the T-shirts everywhere online. You would think the market would be saturated by now, but it seems people can’t get enough of it, and Stones fans will buy up whatever new variation the band comes up with. They have played with the concept to no end, which is a testament to the band’s creativity and their status as rock fashion icons.
So many knock-offs in the market would typically be a problem for bands who make such a big chunk of their revenue from merch, but the Stones don’t seem to mind (swimming in money helps). Plus, going after all the knock-offs would be playing whack-a-mole. Take one down, another pops up. They’d need a full-time lawyer just to file cease-and-desists all day.
It can be hard to know what’s a knockoff and what’s official. It doesn’t help that they themselves created so many variations on their logo– dating all the way back to the beginning. You can buy merch from their official store, if you want to be sure you’re supporting the band, but the selection is slim pickings. So enterprising online T-shirt sellers fill the vacuum.
“When I’m out and about on holiday it’s always a bit of a surprise when somebody comes around the corner wearing a T-shirt or whatever, I’m always amazed that its been merchandised so much and traveled so far around the globe.” – John Pasche
The Rolling Stones 50th-anniversary logo
An even greater testament to the iconic logo’s staying power is when they tapped the influential artist Shepard Fairy to redesign it for their 50th anniversary, he didn’t change it one bit. Surprisingly, his only contribution was typography: working the numbers 5 and 0 into the band name. He admitted feeling it was best to leave well enough alone.
“I was very humbled and honored to be asked to work on the 50th anniversary logo, so my objective was to service and showcase the Stones’ legacy rather than try to make my contribution dominant.” Fairey explained, calling John Pasche’s 1971 lips-and-tongue logo “the most iconic, potent, and enduring logo in rock ‘n’ roll history.”
Influence of the “Lips and Tongue”
The Rolling Stones were influential in so many ways, it hard to know how much the logo had to do with it. It was a symbiotic relationship between the music, the personalities, the fashion, and the iconography they created along the way. They personified the rebellious rock ‘n’ roll attitude during a time of massive cultural upheavals, and carry on that legacy.
“I think it’s stood the test of time because it’s a kind of a universal statement. Sticking out your tongue at something is very anti-authority and a protest, really, and I think young people of various generations have picked that up.” – John Pasche
Sticking out one’s tongue is now a commonplace sight in the rock and pop world. Can we trace that back to the Stones?
Or maybe not.
Where are they now?
John Pasche has designed many album covers, posters and other work over his lifetime, and received numerous awards, but is still best known for being the designer of the original Rolling Stones logo. He worked for the band for four years, received a share of merchandising royalties, and then sold the copyright to the band for £24,000. He went on to design for major artists such as The Who and Paul McCartney. In 2008, the Victoria and Albert Museum in England acquired his original artwork for $92,500. The Art Fund, who partially funded the bid, called it “one of the most visually dynamic logos ever.” Pache lives in the UK.
Craig Braun is known for revolutionizing the album cover to an interactive experience and working with artists such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, and The Velvet Underground as well as the Stones. He went on to become the head of marketing for the world’s biggest record labels: Warner, Elektra, and Atlantic. For the past two decades, he has been an actor in dozens of film, TV and theater productions. His cover for Sticky Fingers stands as one of the greatest music packaging designs of all time, and he’s credited as designing the “official” Rolling Stones Logo. Braun lives in New York.
Ernie Cefalu is known for designing over 200 album covers for some of the world’s most legendary musical acts, such as Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Aerosmith, The Bee Gees, Black Sabbath, and Jefferson Airplane. He founded the agency Pacific Eye and Ear and is now the owner and Creative Director of the “cyber-agency” HornBook Ink, whose clients include a bevy of major brands in the Fortune 100. He’s received three Grammy nominations, 10 Music Hall of Fame awards, four awards from the LA Art Directors Club, and 25 gold and platinum albums from bands he worked with. Cefalu lives in Los Angeles.
If you enjoyed this, check out my first entry into the Famous History of Tees series: The True Story of the I ❤ NY T-shirt. Next in the series will be the iconic “Smiley face” design, which has a strange and twisty story as well, so look out for that.
And when you’re ready to design your own entry into T-shirt history, use our free Design Studio to get started!
About the Author
A graduate of the Multimedia program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Imri Merritt is an industry veteran with over 10 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry.