One of North Carolina's best obscure musical footnotes is the "5" Royales, a Winston-Salem vocal group that was among the most important pioneers in the early evolution of r&b. Even if you've never heard of the Royales, I bet you've heard their songs -- "Dedicated to the One I Love," for example, a gigantic 1960s-vintage hit for The Shirelles as well as The Mamas & The Papas. Gotta say, though, I still like the original best of all.
For more about the Royales and Steve Cropper's very cool new tribute album to them, see the story in Sunday's paper. While I'm at it, below is a long feature I wrote on the Royales back in 1992, when some of them were still alive. Even 40 years past their heyday, the Royales still sounded fantastic and here's proof.
ADDENDUM (12/4/11): Excellent feature on Pauling, from the Winston-Salem Journal.
The Royale Treatment: 40 years after their heyday, influential Winston-Salem r&b group finds fame closer to home
By David Menconi, News & Observer
June 4, 1992
WINSTON-SALEM -- In terms of presentation, the song is pure gospel. Its content, however, is something else entirely.
"Don't rush, folks," John Tanner breathlessly declares to start off. "Just take your time." He sounds as if he's trying to hold something back. Laughter, probably, given the next line:
Give my baby 20 minutes
And she'll make you lose your mind!
Then comes a bizarre honking screech, like the noise a cat makes when you step on its tail, as the band hits the song's groove.
"My baby's got the best machine, the best washing machine in town, " Tanner testifies. His backup singers take up the call and response by squealing suggestively, "Ooh! Ooh! Whadda machine!"
Just bring your dirty clothes, bring all your dirty duds
Don't worry 'bout no soap, her machine is full of suds...
Just relax and take it easy while her machine goes 'round and 'round
If you want to see smooth action, it will cost you 30 cents a pound....
The latest effort from nasty rappers 2 Live Crew? Hardly. It's "Laundromat Blues," a 1953 recording by the "5" Royales that stands as the definitive example of the group's trademark style: gospel-inflected raunch. It's a sound that influenced a who's who in rhythm and blues, that brought them fame if not fortune. And tonight they'll get their due from the state with a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award.
The "5" Royales came by their gospel roots honestly, since they originally formed as a gospel group, the Royal Sons. As for some of their earthy lyrics, well, they were just giving the people what they wanted.
"For a while, we were doing both secular and gospel songs, " recalls group member Jimmy Moore. "And the secular recordings did a little better than the gospel."
"So we went with the flow, " John Tanner says.
"And that was that, " Moore concludes, and both men laugh a bit sheepishly.
Not that they're embarrassed by anything they did as the "5" Royales. It's just that "Laundromat Blues" was a long, long time ago and they're all a lot older now. That time seems even more remote watching Moore sit in the den of his brick bungalow with two of his other fellow "5" Royales, John and Eugene Tanner, reminiscing about the group's glory days.
Moore has a couple of "5" Royales album covers spread across a coffee table, next to a metal sculpture of a pair of hands clapsed together in prayer. That's fitting. The individual "5" Royales don't sing much these days, except in church. They do, however, pray quite a bit.
"That's all behind me, " John Tanner says of his past in the "5" Royales. "I've changed my life, and after a man becomes born again, his past life falls away. I have nothing against secular music, I just don't do it now."
Forty years ago, the "5" Royales were one of the hottest groups going. While they've never been as celebrated as groups like the Drifters or the Platters, they were one of the greatest rhythm and blues vocal groups of the pre-rock era.
Commercial success tells part of the story. During the '50s, the "5" Royales were one of only seven groups to have more than three top-10 hits on the R&B charts. They had five (the same number as the Coasters), one of which was the original version of "Dedicated to the One I Love" -- later an enormous hit for the Shirelles and the Mamas & the Papas.
There's also the group's far-reaching influence as a key link in the evolution of soul music from its gospel roots. No less a figure than James Brown nicked moves from the "5" Royales for his Famous Flames shows during the late '50s.
Someone else who learned a thing or two from the group was Booker T. & the MG's guitarist Steve Cropper, who cites "5" Royales guitarist Lowman Pauling as an idol. Pauling pioneered the use of the guitar in a vocal group context, with a heavily rhythmic style that Cropper and other guitarists picked up on.
Pauling, who died in 1973, was also the group's principal songwriter. Frequently, that meant little more than altering the lyrics to such spirituals as "Talk About Jesus, " which the "5" Royales recorded as "Talk About My Woman" in 1962. Inspiration came from both inside and outside the church.
"Lowman could think of some of the darnedest things, " Tanner says. "We were in a restaurant in Tulsa, Oklahoma, once, and somebody came in and told the waitress, 'I'd like an order of monkey hips and rice.' Well, that just cracked the whole place up. Lowman heard it and wrote a song called 'Monkey Hips and Rice.'"
"Don't forget 'Help Me Somebody, '" adds Moore.
"Yeah, that was a preacher's saying, " Tanner says. "When he'd get hot in his sermon, he'd say, 'Help me, somebody.' Lowman made another song out of that."
Pauling had plenty of church experience to draw from, as he and his band mates all cut their teeth singing in churches around the Winston-Salem area. The group first came together almost 50 years ago as the Royal Sons.
After a series of moderately successful gospel recordings, the Royal Sons changed their name to the "5" Royales and their style to secular in 1952. Along with Moore, Pauling and John Tanner, the lineup included Otto Jeffries and Obadiah Carter. Eugene Tanner joined the group in 1953 to replace Jeffries, who served as band manager.
On most songs, one of the Tanner brothers would sing lead with the rest of the vocalists handling backup. Pauling often used his deep bass voice to punctuate the answer part of the group's gospel-style call and response -- a humorous touch later used to great effect by the Coasters on novelty tunes like 1958's "Yakety Yak."
Buoyed by the chart-topping success of hits like 1952's "Baby Don't Do It" (which has the immortal chorus of, "If you leave me pretty baby, I'll have bread without no meat"), the "5" Royales had their biggest years from 1952 to 1954. During their prime, they were putting 100,000 miles a year on a series of station wagons while touring the country with a stage show second to none in terms of wildness.
"We'd be walkin' into a joint, and Otto our manager would have all these briefcases," Tanner says. "People would stand back and say, 'Oh, they're some business guys. Look at all those briefcases they're carrying!' Then we'd go back in the dressing room and five or six fifths of liquor would fall out of the briefcase!
"Canadian Club, Grand Dad, Ancient Age," he continues. "When we started out, Canadian Club was our drink -- 'cause it was mild, you know."
"I got to where I couldn't stand it, " Moore says, chuckling.
"But you know, it was fun then, " Tanner says. "We were havin' a good time. Or rather we thought we were havin' a good time. That was our fun then."
One of the group's more unusual performances happened in Durham with Ray Charles, whose female backup singers, the Raelettes, failed to show one night. The "5" Royales were passing through on their way north to Washington, so they put on their pink suits and filled in for the Raelettes.
Like most black groups touring the country, the "5" Royales ran into their share of trouble on the road, most of it in the South. In particular, Eugene Tanner remembers Mississippi as being less than hospitable.
"You just didn't get out of the car in Mississippi when you stopped for gas then, " he says. "That was the deal."
There was also the time in Savanah, Ga., when a jewelry store was robbed while the "5" Royales were in town. So Moore and Tanner wound up as suspects in a police lineup -- with Little Richard, who also was performing in the vicinity.
Moore and Tanner escaped that incident intact. But another time, they were arrested in Raleigh for playing dice in the dressing room before a show.
"I couldn't believe it, " says Tanner. "We went all over the country gambling, then got busted back home. It's funny now, but that was a terrible feeling."
Birmingham, Ala., was another city where the "5" Royales had some bad luck. John Tanner recalls the time the Ku Klux Klan threatened to blow up the dance hall if they went through with a scheduled performance (they canceled it).
They also passed through Birmingham on the day in 1963 when Bull Connor's policemen put down civil rights demonstrations with dogs and fire hoses. The police pulled the group's station wagon over and detained them long enough to make them miss their show, forcing manager Jeffries to pawn a ring for gas money.
"The good people did outweigh the skunks," Tanner says. "But there were some bad things that happened."
By the early '60s, the "5" Royales' string of hits ran out and members started leaving. They kept at it for a few more years, but time had clearly passed them by. The surviving group finally called it quits in 1965.
"You don't have to have any discussions about breaking up when things are going bad," says Tanner. "You start missin' those meals, buddy, you don't have to talk about it. You're only as hot as the records. You can perform all you want, but you won't draw anybody if the records don't hit."
While Pauling continued touring and recording for a number of years before his death, the rest of the "5" Royales quit the music business altogether and mostly confined their singing to the church. Moore moved to New York and worked for Westchester County before retiring to Winston-Salem six years ago.
In Winston-Salem, John Tanner ran a dry-cleaning business, Eugene Tanner worked in a tobacco plant and a metal shop and Obadiah Carter drove a bus. Except for 56-year-old Eugene Tanner, the survivors are all in their mid-60s.
For decades after they broke up, the "5" Royales' legacy rated little beyond the occasional footnote in rock history books. But recent years have found them belatedly getting a measure of recognition. Noted critics like Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett cite the "5" Royales as a historically important group. And in his 1989 book "The Heart of Rock & Soul, " Dave Marsh rates four "5" Royales songs among the 1,001 greatest singles of all time.
Now the "5" Royales are finally getting some attention closer to home. The city of Winston-Salem named a street after them last year, and there's also the Folk Heritage Award.
It's fortunate that the "5" Royales are getting some recognition, because they were never paid what they deserved. Most of the group's recordings were released on King Records (also recording home to James Brown), which was owned by the notoriously tight-fisted Sid Nathan. When asked if they ever received any royalties from record sales, Moore laughs derisively.
"Royalties? What's that?" Moore asks. "We had fame, all right, but no fortune. Sid Nathan, I don't even like to talk about that man. He was a money man -- for himself. He didn't want to pay anybody, and I can't recall ever getting a dime out of him. What little money we made was on the road, and it was tough trying to take care of a family while touring all the time."
"It brings bad feelings if you think about it, " Tanner says of the money situation. "But I'll say this: What's fair you'll get, and what isn't fair there's no use thinking about. Confucius said that nothing is as bad as it seems, but thinking about it makes it so."
At tonight's award ceremonies, the "5" Royales will sing a few spirituals (sorry, no "Laundromat Blues"), with Robert Burriss filling in for the late Pauling. It will be their first public performance in almost 30 years -- and also their last, even though they've had offers to reunite as a gospel group.
"The '5' Royales and gospel don't jive, " says Tanner. "The '5' Royales was 'Laundromat Blues.' Our spirituals didn't sell 40 years ago, and that's when we sounded good. I don't know why we'd think we could do better with that now. You've got to quit while you're ahead."
"It is hard to give it up, " Moore says quietly.
"But we've all gotta give up one of these days, " Tanner concludes.