It is safe to assume that most Skynyrd fans will not recognise the name Sandra Okuma. However, all Skynyrd fans will be familiar with Sandra’s handiwork. Her claim to fame is that as an illustrator with MCA Records, she helped create the cover that graced Skynyrd’s live LP, One More From The Road.
Her journey to MCA began at art school in California where she attended Los Angeles Trade Technical College studying commercial art. She then found her first job, working for movie giant Universal Studios:
“I started at Universal Studios as a production artist, that’s the person that puts together the ads and promotional materials for the movies.
“It so happened that the people from the record division were also in the same building and I used to help them out whenever they needed me. At the time it was three separate labels: Decca, Kapp and Uni, which eventually became MCA Records.”
The label moved to another building and Sandra went with them working firstly as a production artist and also dabbling in design and illustration. MCA’s art department was a hive of activity. Led by director of creative services, George Osaki, his team came up with logo designs, billboards, ads, and LP covers for the label’s impressive roster of bands: Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who, Sonny and Cher, Elton John, Olivia Newton John, Wishbone Ash and country artists Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
Sandra explained the chain of events that led to her becoming involved in the production of the cover for One More From The Road:
“George Osaki was my boss. He was the one who would meet with the band, they would confer and they would come up with the concept. He met with the band and they discussed it. I’m not sure if it was George or the band or both of them that came up with the concept. He would then hire either freelance illustrators, photographers or whatever was needed to complete the cover and in that particular case it was me.
“I went to his office and he did a real rough layout and told me what he wanted and I took it from there. I did the illustration on the LP, the painting of the curtains and the road. It was a large piece of original art.
“The lettering on the cover, it wasn’t me. It could have been George, he was real good at that sort of thing. He did a lot, he did Street Survivors, he did the lettering at the top of that LP, the one that started out with the flames. For One More From the Road, I think he farmed it out to a hand lettering artist.
“The way they did it back in the day was that you would have the illustration on one board, and then you would have the photo on a separate board and the lettering would be on an acetate overlay for positioning. The actual hand lettering was an original piece of art also. The printer would then put them together. All the original art stayed, everything we did belonged to MCA, if it was done there. The band would have the final say. The recording artist always had the final say.
“The cover was just the beginning, you had so many other things to do such as ads, billboards, t-shirts, everything that goes along with promoting an artist. If I was doing a promotional piece, I would take the elements that they gave us and make something out of it. I made a cigarette box with the skull and crossbones and a red burst behind it, like a logo. They used it on different things. I remember doing it. I didn’t do the bone lettering.”
Sandra recalls the shattering experience in October 1977 when she learnt that Skynyrd had been involved in a plane crash. It was a traumatic time for MCA staff:
“I remember the day. I was scheduled to leave a couple of weeks after the plane crash and it was devastating. I went to work, I didn’t know it had happened. Everyone was so quiet then I heard what had happened, it was really horrible. Devastating. They were at their peak, doing incredible things.”
Sandra never met the band in person, but believes that she was in a privileged position working for MCA, at the time one of the world’s top labels dripping with superstar rock acts:
“I didn’t realise at the time what a fortunate position I was in to have that job. I knew it was a really good job, there are so many things I could have done in hindsight. I could have met them if I’d wanted to.
“I left the business forty years ago. It’s amazing to me the following that they still have. That is amazing to me, that makes me feel really great. I loved the band, I loved the music.”