A Denver Bronco’s Amazing Journey from the NFL to Artistic Fame
While trading some records recently with another collector (Doug), he asked me if I had ever heard of the Denver Bronco who designed album covers. He passed along the name of Ernie Barnes. Upon returning home I promptly looked up the name and there he was! There is a wealth of information relating to the remarkable story of Ernie Barnes including a tribute web site.
Here is a portion of Ernie’s story:
Back in the late 1950’s the National Football League was a whole different ball game. Salaries were modest. As in other professional sports, many of the athletes had second jobs in the off season. Microscopic scrutiny of athletes on their path from college to the NFL was absent: No combine, a draft drawing little attention, very limited investment in fretting out future prospects.
Ernest Barnes played football in high school in his home state of North Carolina at a time when the nation’s colleges doors were closed for the most part to black athletes. So when it came time for Ernest to consider college, he opted to stay close at home attending the then titled “North Carolina College for Negroes where he attended on an athletic scholarship, playing tackle and center and majoring art, an area of life which had always held intrigue for him.
The National/American Football Leagues
Barnes emerged from college and was drafted first by the Washington Redskins in 1959 who promptly rescinded the pick upon learning that Ernest was a black man. This alone says volumes about how far the NFL has come compared with today’s draft.
Next stop was the Baltimore Colts who picked him up in the 10th round of the draft. In 1960 he was cut by the Colts and picked up by an expansion team, the New York Titans. Barnes was not happy with the Titans viewing their equipment and tactics as dangerous. He quit in October after the death of teammate Howard Glenn who broke his neck during a game.
Then it was on to the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960 signing as a taxi-squad member playing for the future owner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis. The Chargers moved to San Diego in 1961. Barnes was cut from the Chargers and landed with the Denver Broncos in 1963.
Barnes would often draw the ire of Bronco Coach Jack Faulkner when he would be caught making sketches during team meetings. During games, it was not uncommon for Barnes to jot down an inspiration from a play on a scrap of paper, quickly hand it to offensive line coach Red Miller and then rush back into the game (inspirations for later sketches).
I believe that Barnes appears on only one pro football card, the 1964 Topps card shown here where he is wearing number 55 which was not his jersey number which was 62 as a Bronco.
He departed the Denver Broncos after two seasons, signing with the Canadian Football League where he fractured his foot, ending his football career. But his NFL career was not completely finished. New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin actually signed Barnes as a “player” but assigned him to only sketch and paint.
After the NFL Barnes’ journey into the world of art began to crystallize and is well-documented on the internet. Here we skip ahead to the 1970’s. Barnes sketched a painting he called “The Sugar Shack”, a painting which was featured on the TV show “Good Times”, where several pieces of Barnes’ works were featured posing as works of the show’s character James Evans Jr., (Jimmie Walker). The “Sugar Shack” depicted a night spot in North Carolina from Barnes’ younger days, called “The Sugar Bowl” – no longer standing.
Then in 1976, the painting caught the attention of Motown artists Marvin Gaye who contacted Barnes and asked for permission to use the artwork for an upcoming long play title “I Want You”. Barnes enhanced the artwork slightly with the banners you can view which promote several of the tracks on the album.
More Long Play Cover Art and Beyond
And so the work of Ernie Barnes would find it’s way onto the covers of six other long plays from 1976 culminating with B.B. King’s “Rapture” LP in 2000 (all shown below).
Ernie popped up in the entertainment world on a regular basis. Beyond a constant artistic output, he appeared in 1967 on “To Tell the Truth”. He also appeared in the 1969 motion picture “Number One”. He was portrayed as a doctor in “Doctor’s Wives” in 1971 and also had a few bit parts on “Good Times” where his art appeared regularly. He appeared on TV shows “Columbo”, “The White Shadow”, “Dream On”, “Soul Food”, “Boyz in the Hood” and took a role of baseball player Josh Gibson in television movie “Don’t Look Back: The Story of Leroy Stachel Paige”.
Ernest Barnes passed away in April of 2007 – a Bronco for the ages….