Suppose I were to tell you that Ray Charles is not the father of soul music and the Drifters are not the greatest vocal group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll? According to R&B conventional wisdom, that would be akin to claiming that grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry and Mona Lisa was a man. But conventional wisdom overlooked the “5″ Royales.
The “5″ Royales were a North Carolina vocal group popular through most of the ’50s and into the early ’60s. Their style was based on the close harmonies of jubilee gospel, but the Royales — fronted usually by the raspy, pleading, tenor of Johnny Tanner — took those harmonies into richer and more complex territory, incorporating the call-and-response of postwar quartet-style gospel. When Johnny’s brother Eugene Tanner joined the group, taking on some leads himself, he reinforced the more assertive, declamatory style of quartets and soul singers. Songwriter and bass/baritone singer Lowman Pauling wrote lyrics full of down-home wisdom and humor, and suddenly emerged, late into the group’s career, as a concise but explosive guitarist. Steve Cropper, who three years ago released Dedicated, a tribute to the “5″ Royales, learned more than a little from Pauling, whose less-is-more guitar leads also rubbed off on contemporary masters like Jimmie Vaughan.
Pauling and the group were tireless showmen who never hurt for work, but they notched only seven R&B Top 100 singles and two pop crossovers. As a result, when they’re recognized at all, it’s usually for three songs: “Think,” covered by James Brown; “Dedicated to the One I Love,” taken to No. 3 on the pop charts by the Shirelles in 1961 and then to No. 2 by the Mamas & the Papas in 1967; and “Tell the Truth,” a hit for Ray Charles.
In short, the “5″ Royales’ influence has always exceeded their commercial success. But their cult has been growing steadily since the early ’90s — as if to compensate for the group’s obscurity, few devotees are more vocal than “5″ Royales fans — and with the recent release of Soul and Swagger: The Complete “5″ Royales, 1951-1967, their profile should be on the rise as their influence becomes more obvious.
They hailed from Winston-Salem, North Carolina — tobacco-growing country — and formed a gospel group called the Royal Sons Quintet. They signed with Apollo Records in 1951 and released only two singles before going secular (at first as the Royals) with the boozy boogie “Too Much of a Little Bit.” But they hit their stride a year later with “Baby Don’t Do It,” Tanner’s melismatic voice straining against the top of its range and buttressed by emphatic group harmonies. That topped the R&B charts, as did the funereal follow-up “Help Me Somebody,” and those were followed by three R&B Top 10 singles. They continued refining that sound with the likes of “Laundromat Blues,” which played both raunchy sax and double-entendre lyrics against a relaxed jump blues groove. At a time when vocal group harmonies were soft and smooth, this outfit emphasized its hard-edged gospel sound; even the driving pianos and blasting horns couldn’t draw attention away from the vocal blend topped by Tanner’s soaring leads. The hits were coming regularly now, and the “5″ appeared to be on their way.
When their A&R man Carl LeBow jumped to King Records late in 1953, the group followed, and the results were mixed. Musically, they just kept getting stronger, more outrageous — Pauling’s songs better focused, the vocals more daring, the overall sound harder rocking, with Johnny providing crystalline contrast on the ballads — but commercially, they were going nowhere. Backed often by Mickey Baker on guitar, the group turned out a succession of exemplary singles that usually paired a rocking, upbeat A-side like the goofy “Monkey Hips and Rice,” the sexy “Right Around the Corner” or the swinging “Women About to Make Me Go Crazy” with a pain-wracked ballad B-side like “When I Get Like This,” which is prototypical soul at its best. They also flirted with doo-wop on B-sides like “When You Walked Through the Door.” For more than two years, nothing worked. Then, early in 1957, the “5″ Royales soared back into the R&B Top 10, with the short-lived ballad “Tears of Joy” and then, more resoundingly, with “Think” (which also hit No. 66 on the pop charts).
That one starts on a bruising downbeat, with the group chanting and clapping hands before Johnny’s lead breaks in to issue a warning to a lover who’s on her way out the door. But what’s new is the bristling licks filling the holes between vocals. That’s Lowman Pauling, stepping forward on blues-drenched guitar for the first time since the early Apollo sessions, except that where he sounded relatively restrained back then, now he’s unleashed and going for broke. The final element of the group’s singular sound was thus in place, and Pauling would only get wilder on succeeding records. Yet his uninhibited interjections always melded with the group sound; he never stole the show, only enhanced it.
“Messin’ Up” b/w “Say It,” the follow up to “Think,” was a two-sided gem, the former a breakneck “mea culpa” shouter, the latter an ominous plea with doomy background vocals and especially nasty guitar. Then came “Dedicated to the One I Love.” To those conditioned by the innocence of the Shirelles’ remake or the dreaminess of that by the Mamas & the Papas, the nuanced toughness and tenderness of the original, with Eugene Tanner singing lead, will come as a shock. Even more shockingly, it didn’t chart, at least not until three years later, when King Records boss Syd Nathan sweetened and reissued it to piggyback on the Shirelles’ hit.
Indeed, that seemed to be the Royales’ lot in life — the doctored ’61 reissue of “Dedicated” marked their last visit to the pop or R&B charts. They turned in quality material nonetheless: Both sides of the single “Double or Nothing” b/w “Tell the Truth” could have been hits, the A-side a mid-tempo Eugene Tanner vehicle brightened by shimmering, unusual harmonies and the latter a typical stomp. “The Slummer the Slum” (a dance romp the band never bothered to title, leaving an employee of the label to try to make out the lyrics), “The Real Thing” (with unprecedented, unison lead vocals by the whole group), the bouncy “I Know It’s Hard But It’s Fair” (in which Johnny exuberantly declares his love for his best friend’s girl), “Wonder Where Your Love Has Gone.” All have impassioned lead vocals with imaginative and often innovative harmonies, plus guitar outbursts unlike anything else on record at that time.
But perhaps that was the problem. There was so much going on in most “5″ Royales records that listeners simply couldn’t follow. Or maybe King was so busy with other artists on its huge roster of R&B and country stalwarts that the label thought the group could make its own way without support. After a final solid session early in 1960, the Royales left King, though Pauling continued to release singles with the company on his “El Pauling” side projects. The group landed first at Willie Mitchell’s Home of the Blues in Memphis, where they reeled off a string of soul singles that were outstanding by most any standards except their own. Then, they began bouncing among various labels. By late ’62, Pauling was hiring out as road guitarist for Joe Henderson (“Snap Your Fingers”) and others while remaining with the Royales when he could. When Johnny Tanner left late in ’63, the writing was on the wall; though they apparently recorded as late as 1967, they labored their last few years in almost complete obscurity, dwarfed by the new soul mainstream they’d created.
Pauling quit in ’65. An epileptic, he died at age 47 on December 26, 1973 while working as a janitor in a Brooklyn. A local fan got a street named after the group in their native Winston-Salem in 1991, and helped them win a North Carolina Folk Heritage award the next year, which they celebrated with a reunion concert in Raleigh; since then, all the members, original and otherwise, of the Royal Sons and the “5″ Royales have died off, one by one. But that Folk Heritage award sparked new interest in the group which has climaxed, for now, with the release of The Soul and the Swagger. The package recalls the heyday of box sets, unsurprising given that producer James Austin once did same for reissue titans Rhino Records. Swathed in hot pink, it features a comprehensive history by Bill Dahl, annotation of all 141 tracks by Tom McCullough, and replicas of the labels of every single released. A handful of tracks are issued for the first time ever, while others are exceedingly rare; what’s most outstanding to a longtime fan like myself, who’s been listening to the group since the early ’70s, is how much of this music I’d never heard before — and how well much of it stands up alongside the stuff I’ve been cherishing for 40 years. Could it make the “5″ Royales the Nick Drakes of R&B, an act almost unknown in its day but a household name a few decades later? That would be almost too much to ask. But one can hope.