« This isn’t just nostalgia. It’s history! »
Today, Michael Royer (born June 28, 1941), who surely needs no introduction around these parts, celebrates birthday number seventy-seven, and on this special occasion, we have a treat, both for the great man and for the rest of us: part one of an interview Mr. Royer granted us, conducted just a few days ago.
As you can imagine, Mr. Royer has spent decades answering the same queries about his work with Jack Kirby and with Russ Manning, so that’s quite a well-trod line of investigation. We like to approach things a bit differently here at WOT; having long been intrigued by Mr. Royer’s evocative series of LP covers for the Cruisin’ anthology series, beginning in the late 1960s, and frustrated by the lack of solid information concerning said contribution, I figured I’d take a hand, and reached out to Mr. Royer.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Cruisin’ Series, here’s the pitch: « Cruisin’ is a year-by-year recreation of pop music radio during the years 1956 through 1962 [the years of 1955 and 1963-1970 were produced later]. Each album is not just a collection of the top pop music of a particular year, but a total recreation by a top disk jockey (of that year) doing his original program over a major pop music station. That means actual commercials, promotional jingles, sound effects, newscast simulations and even record hop announcements in addition to the original records themselves. »
« Cruisin’ producer Ron Jacobs monitored thousands of feet of tape, travelled over 10,000 miles and rooted through forgotten files and cluttered basements for old commercials, station promos and jingles. »
« What’s so special about these album covers? », you may ask. I’d posit that they’re unique in the sense that, while they each work as standalone pieces, together, they form a quite impressive comic strip, one in which a year or so elapses between panels. Just about every detail has its place, imparting information plainly or quite subtly. Characters come and go, years apart, sometimes entirely offstage, often never speaking a word. It’s graphic storytelling at its finest. And the LPs are pretty spiffy too.
Now that you’re up to speed, shall we begin? Mr. Royer and I spoke on Tuesday, June 2018, and he was most generous with his time and his recollections. I assure you that the minutes simply fly in such gracious company.
Who’s Out There: Mr. Royer, How did you happen to be selected for the job in the first place?
Michael Royer: In 1966, I was working for Grantray-Lawrence Animation on the Marvel Superheroes limited animation cartoon series. And I believe that a man named Paul Gruwell… If you look at the record album, he’s listed in there as the art director… I’m listed as the artist and they misspelled my name.
WOT: Of course. We’ll set that straight.
MR: Paul was one of the guys working on the series and I did some work with him on an outside project he was doing, where he was doing… I guess you could call them slide shows, on the history of the Mormon church.
I was working on these things, and he knew someone at the record company who had this idea for the history of rock ‘n’ roll. And for the life of me, I can’t remember what the young man’s name was. But he’s the cover of one of the records, where he’s coming out of the backroom, through the beads [Cruisin’ 1967]. It’s like a head shop, or something…
WOT: Would that be Ron Jacobs? He was the producer.
MR: Yeah, yeah.
MR: So, anyway, the first batch of covers that went through, I believe, 1968… and the last cover had Peg and Eddie, who were reunited, with her little boy from her fist marriage. And they’re in the front seat of a van, in a traffic jam leaving Woodstock. That cover was never printed.
WOT: No wonder I’ve never seen it!
MR: Anyway, the covers that I did, how many was it? ’54 through…
WOT: Fifty-five. ’55 through ’70, plus one that’s “The Cruisin’ Years”…
WOT: How much latitude/wiggle room were you given? Were research materials provided or not? Were specific cultural signifiers specified, or did you get to pick (or a mix of both)?
MR: Anyway, on those ones that I did in the late Sixties, early Seventies, Paul Gruwell gave me little three-or-four square inch thumbnails… on the covers that he wanted me to do. All I got was his, in my opinion, so-so little thumbnails, which I guess gave him the reason to call himself ‘art director’…
WOT: I was going to ask if he could draw.
MR: I had to do all the research. Each cover had to feature certain items that definitely said that it was that year. Like newspaper headlines, magazine covers…
WOT: Movie marquees…
MR: … automobiles, and I had to look up all that. I went to the library, as we didn’t have “online” then. Ah, on one of the covers where I need the dash, I believe, of a ’57, or ’58 Chevy, I had to go to a used car lot in South East Los Angeles, and with my Polaroid camera, I asked these two big guys in their double-breasted suits if I could, uh, photograph the interior of one of their cars, and they looked at me like… « Okay, white boy, you’re crazy if you wanna shoot it, but we’ll let ya, you know. »
WOT: People do like those odd requests.
MR: It was very interesting researching the cars, and making sure that, even if they were shown from the basement [Cruisin’ 1963], out parked at the curb…
WOT: They had to be accurate.
MR: … you could still tell that it was a Studebaker. You know, and the jukebox had to be, I believe the Wurlitzer that was in places in that year [Cruisin’ 1961]. And so I did all of that. So all of the research materials were not provided by anyone other than me, and the special cultural signifiers had to be newspaper headlines, uh, I think the one where Peg and Eddie are in the basement [Cruisin’ 1963] café, and the Studebaker’s up on the street, there’s a newspaper that says something about “Cuban Missile Crisis” [Cruisin’ 1961 and The Bay of Pigs. 1963’s headline was the Profumo Scandal]…
MR: It’s so long since I’ve looked at these, Richard.
Our interview continues in Part Two!