Soul music is often defined as the moment when gospel and blues met and formed a new sound. Ray Charles is often given credit for this, but there were others, most notably the "5" Royales, who had immense success as a live act, but never sold as many records as such a pioneering group should have. With the release of the 131-track collection Soul and Swagger: The Complete "5" Royales, the group has finally gotten the recognition they deserve. Fresh Air critic Ed Ward has the story.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This FRESH AIR. Soul music is often defined as the moment when gospel and blues met and formed a new sound. Ray Charles is often given credit for this, but there were others - most notably, the '5' Royales who had immense success as a live act but never sold as many records as such a pioneering group should have. With the release of the 131 track collection "Soul and Swagger: the Complete '5' Royales," the group has finally gotten the recognition they deserve. Our rock historian Ed Ward is a longtime fan and has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEDSIDE OF A NEIGHBOR")
5 ROYALES: (Singing) I was standing by the bedside of a neighbor. Alls well in time - oh, Lord - oh Lord, then I asked him.
ED WARD, BYLINE: If you had a gospel group in the Carolinas or Virginia in 1950, the group to beat was the Royal Sons - four teenagers and a guy in his late thirties from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They had their own radio program, and the guy who engineered it made some recordings and sent them to Apollo Records in New York. Apollo is a Harlem-based label run by Bess and Ike Berman that issued a lot of great jazz records - Dean Martin's first sides and some blues - and, like many labels, did some gospel on the side. Bess Berman signed the Sons to her standard contract which stated they would record secular music if asked. This clause had caused Appolo's best-selling gospel artist Mahalia Jackson to storm off the label, but the Royal Sons didn't have a problem with it. Apollo continued to release Royal Sons 45's. But a new name, the '5' Royales, appeared on the other records. In 1953, it started with the band topping the R&B charts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, BABY DON'T DO IT")
5 ROYALES: (Singing) If what you say is true - that you and I are through - if you leave me pretty bad, I'll have bread without no meat - I've given you all of me.
WARD: Lead singer, Johnny Tanner, sounded like no one else in the business. And guitarist Lowman Pauling turned out to be a prolific songwriter. The group had a two-sided Top 10 hit with "Help Me Somebody" and "Crazy, Crazy, Crazy" next. And the older founding member Otto Jeffries left the group to take over management replaced by Johnny Tanner's 17-year-old brother, Eugene. With originals Obadiah Carter and Jimmy Moore the groups, the group's personnel had solidified. In 1954, the Royales made a bad mistake and walked out on Apollo to sign with King Records in Cincinnati. They, apparently, hoped the King's more modern lineup would be better company, but none of the couple dozen sides they cut did anything - not novelties like "Monkey Hips and Rice", brags like "Women About to Make Me Go Crazy" or gospely tracks like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
5 ROYALES: (Singing) Oh, baby, you and me forever. No one can understand us - no, no, no, never - no. That's if you be - be what you are. Takes what's yours - take what's yours through love and faith - through love and faith. Get something out of it.
WARD: These were all superb records, but there was something anyone who's seen the group live would know is missing. When they added it, though, people started paying attention.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK")
5 ROYALES: (Singing) Think - think - think -think. Think about the sacrifices that are made for you. Think of all the times that I spent with you. Think of all the good things that I've done for you. Think of all the bad things I tried not to do. So come on, baby, and think - think - think - about the good things - think - think - think - think - about the right thing.
WARD: Lowman Pauling was a phenomenal guitar player. And once his snaky asymmetrical lines became part of the records, they started to sell. "Think" was a Top 10 hit in 1957, four years after the group had first charted. Then Lowman wrote the song that made him immortal.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE")
5 ROYALES: (Singing) This is dedicated to the one I love. While I'm away from you, my baby, I know it's hard for you, my baby, because it's hard for me, my baby. But the darkest hour is just before day - each night before you go.
WARD: "Dedicated to the One I love," despite getting a lot of attention, never made it to the charts until the Shirelles version in 1959. Besides being a great song, it has two other notable factors - Lowman Pauling was playing one of the first Gibson Les Paul guitars, and the recording prominently features an electric bass - hardly a common instrument in 1957. The '5' Royale's output from 1957 through 1959 is their artistic peak. They fuse what can only be called proto-rock instrumentation with gospel fire and passionate songwriting. They toured constantly, especially in the South, and Pauling's on-stage antics with his low-slung guitar, along with the rest of the group's choreography, left a huge impression on some of the audience - like a young guitarist named Steve Cropper. Everyone who saw them remembered one song, in particular, going on for almost 20 minutes while Lowman soloed in the group cut up.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLUMMER THE SLUM")
5 ROYALES: (Singing) Don't try to figure out where I come from. Now don't try to figure out where I come from. I could be a smart guy from Wall Street. I could be the Purple People Eater's son. But I can do the slummer the slum.
WARD: Why this record and was released with the title "the Slummer the Slum" when they're clearly singing stompety stomp is anyone's guess. But with a title like that nobody would play it on the radio. King had no idea what to do with them and, when their contract was up in 1960, let them go. From here, the story gets complicated and sad. The Royales showed up on the Home of the Blues label run out of a Beale Street record store in Memphis. But eventually, members started to leave. Johnny Tanner went back to Winston-Salem and started a dry cleaning business. Lowman went on the road with Salmon Davis, a guitarist, then moved to New York. By 1968, there was a '5' Royales with no original members. And when two of the group went to prison for armed robbery, it ceased to exist. Lowman Pauling who was drinking heavily had a janitorial job in a Brooklyn synagogue when he died the day after Christmas, 1973. In 199, Winston-Salem named a street after them, and there was a reunion with Lowman's son on guitar.
GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed the new box set "Soul and Swagger: the Complete '5' Royales. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.