WILLY AND LOBO AND THE MAN WHO RODE SHARKS*
It was my first trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast, and Mr. Cantwell was introducing me around. He’d booked Willie Royal and I for a night at the Crow’s Nest in Venice, down by the jetties where Roberts Bay flows, like a lazy oil spill, into the Gulf of Mexico.
Jay Cantwell recently gave up his agenting to play rock and roll: a consummation devoutly to be wished. Back in ’83, though, he had his greedy little fingers in everything (good quality in an agent!). He was on Sarasota TV’s sports show, and he announced pro wrestling. He was promoting a boxer, and checked into the gym regularly to give lessons and compete at racquetball. Jay got me to lug a camera more than once, and we were in the press box for the Tampa Bay Bandits’ first USFL football game against the Boston Breakers.
Cantwell was doing a great job , getting me radio interviews and gigs, taking me up to Sarasota to sing the national anthem at a wrestling match between Dusty Rhodes, “the American Dream,” and Black Jack Mulligan. Cantwell announced the match and I kept time, ringing the bell and holding the championship belt while Dusty’s manager, Dirty somebody-or-other, skulked about, trying to surprise me and steal it.
“What do I do if he tries to take it, Jay?”
“Hit him in the face with it. Kick him in the balls. They can go after the belt, but if they hurt you they get a big fine and they have to pay your hospital bills.”
Wow! A trip to the hospital, FREE!
Cantwell, of course, was a macho guy who took great pride in his athletic injuries. I think somewhere he has a trophy case of signed casts. As a ring announcer, he always volunteered if they needed one more wrestler, or an extra to dive into a melee. Probably on first name terms with the ER staff.
Me, I just wanted to play music and stay pretty.
Fortunately, Dirty Whatsis left me alone. The worst thing that happened was when Black Jack slammed Dusty into a ring post right in front of me and I got fake blood all over my shirt and had to look at Dusty’s blubbery “Dream” ass and love handles. Luckily, the blood washed off, along with the sweat that shook from those dreamy peroxide-stressed locks.
Willie Royal, on the other hand, was scary—he played that well. Shortly after I met him, he went down to Mexico, where he and a German flamenco guitarist and fellow-surfer formed a duo. As “Willie and Lobo,” they garnered a Grammy for a genre they sort of invented, “Gypsy Jazz,” beautiful stuff, and mad.
Willie was a real spellbinder, and a little cocky, too, but he had the right. He stole the stage on every tune. Tall and thin, supple as Gumby, Willie bent and twisted nodding over his violin, which groaned and squealed and sang a dance that had every foot tapping, every head nodding in time, Willie’s total absorption focusing all attention on that magic fiddle.
I admired his virtuosity. A tad jealous, though, of all the attention he was grabbing, until I sang my song “Hot Springs" and the front table sent us drinks.
My album release was “Animals, Vegetable, and Mineral Springs.” The springs in the song “Hot Springs” were at Sleeping Child outside Darby, Montana, and “Hot Springs” had been a popular tune when I was front man for the Live Wire Choir out of Missoula. The Rockies being riddled with geologic faults, some folks there heat their homes with the warm waters that bubble up from underground. The song was a crowd pleaser out West, but I didn’t know if Floridians would relate until Willie and I played it at the Crow’s Nest.
The front table turned out to be Willie’s folks, Colonel Bill and Shirley Royal, who invited me to sit with them on break.
“We live at a hot springs,” Shirley bubbled. “You have to come over for a swim and see Bill’s fossils!”
Bill was a living legend, Shirley told me, and not just in Venice. He’d been featured on “The Huntley Brinkley Report” and the BBC. He actually caught sharks with his hands and rode them, like some trick-riding cowboy, up to the surface. They were hugely strong, Bill told me, but they they tired fast dragging his huge frame around on their backs. Played out, they were loaded alive into a boat, and kept alive for the Cape Haze cancer research team of Dr. Eugenie Clark.
Willie and I drove out to the springs the next day, and after we helped Bill mix concrete and patch his driveway, Shirley served us lunch. Bill presented me his book, The Man Who Rode Sharks, and signed it, and I gave him my album.
As Bill tells it in the book, he was stationed during the 1950's on a naval base at Johnston’s Island, “ a dot in the Pacific 760 miles southwest of Honolulu, a speck of land three fifths of a mile long.” Boredom and the beauty of the reef drew him to spend most of his free time underwater; and he really got a kick out of tempting fate. If there were no sharks around, he went looking for some.
Bill had gotten his taste for wrestling large sea creatures earlier, when he was struggling to feed a large family during the Depression. From a bridge in Bradenton, he hooked an enormous Jew Fish (er, “Goliath Grouper”), and when he couldn't haul it up, dove in and dragged it to shore by the gills. After his stay on Johnston he met Dr. Clark, and his curiosity and energy matched her need for live sharks.
“Hot Springs, hot springs…fulla dead things”
The dead things in my song were “teeny tiny callouses of other people’s feets,” but the dead things at Warm Springs were fossils Bill had pulled out of the springs. He showed them off after lunch. Mammoth bones, human jawbones, tusks and thighs, a whole ossuary was plastered into the Royals' huge chimney.
“The University of Florida anthropologists decided that man first came to Florida 3,500 years ago. Stuck to their guns, too, even when British scientists carbon-dated one skull I found at 7,000 years old.”
Bill, at 80, was still diving daily into the warm waters of the springs. He dove deep, too, and today his ashes are interred in a tiny cavern he explored, over two hundred feet down. If you’ve been down more than a few feet, you can imagine how much pressure that would be, and that had affected Bill. He fell right over while we were doing the driveway, and came up laughing.
“Touch of the bends,” he explained. “Hits me once in a while.”
At Warm Springs there’s a memorial to Bill. Like a lot of pioneers, he was treated as a charlatan by the establishment in his day. Despite the reticence of Florida’s anthropologists to validate Bill’s finds, however, the Orlando Sentinel reports that Warm Springs is rated the “most significant underwater prehistoric research site in the world” by scientists worldwide.
The last time I saw Bill Royal was at the Gingerbread Man in Sarasota. He was there to see Willie, and I was there to watch Pete Ermes, a piano player I’d met. Pete was Gregg Allman’s golf partner, so there was a damn fine jam going on, with Pete, Gregg, Willie, and a gaggle of others. I was drinking Israeli beer and chatting up Jimmy Fadden, the Dirt Band’s drummer. Some agents had dragged him to one of my gigs, and the band had briefly considered covering one of my tunes.
Bill fell down that night, but that never embarrassed him. He was an energetic dancer, and may even have slipped. Anyway, he and Shirley had been into the crème de menthe.
Bill lived to be 92, and he was still swimming daily, exploring underwater wonders, at 91.
I lost touch with Willie until I picked up Robert James Waller’s book, Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, which opens with a paean to Willie and Lobo on page one. I called Cantwell Entertainment, and Jay told me, yeah, Willie and Lobo had won a Grammy.
I checked Willie's Facebook page from time to time. Even called him once, suggesting I open for them. He was friendly, but declined. Then he retired, developed Alzheimer’s, and shortly passed away.
(*From my memoir, working title Tough Trip Through Paradise)