Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales, 1951-1967 (Rock Beat, 5 CDs)
Reviewed by Ed Ward
The creation myth of soul music is that a young blues singer, Ray Charles, under the tutelage of his producers at Atlantic Records in the mid 1950s, started bringing more gospel to his blues-based work. Then Sam Cooke left the Soul Stirrers, there were the Impressions with Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler… And there’s a 400-pound gorilla in the room, called the ‘5’ Royales. They were around for almost a decade as a potent force, although they didn’t sell many records. Three of their songs have passed into the canon, but not in their own hands. Inevitably, when people hear their great records, they exclaim “What was that?”
“That” was Lowman Pauling, Obediah Carter, Johnny Tanner, Eugene Tanner, James Moore and, early on, Otto Jeffries. They started out, minus Eugene, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina as the Royal Sons gospel quintet. Jeffries was an outlier: nearly 40, but keeping the others, who were teenagers, in line. They rode the gospel circuit, wrecking houses everywhere they played, and they also had a radio show, which is how its engineer made a tape of them and sent it to Bess Berman, co-owner of Apollo Records in New York. Apollo released a little this, a little that, helped launch Dean Martin, documented some great bebop, had a country line…a typical postwar indie. Mrs. Berman loved the Royal Sons and had them come to New York late in 1951 to record.
Mrs. Berman needed a star for her gospel line because a standard clause in her contracts stated that if asked, her gospel artists would cut secular material, and her last big star, Mahalia Jackson, had objected and walked off. And although the Sons’ records did okay, it was clear they weren’t going to outsell Mahalia, so in late 1952, they cut some gospel-infused group vocal records, renamed themselves the “5” Royales, and suddenly found themselves topping the charts with ‘Baby Don’t Do It.’ A couple of months later, they were on top again with ‘Help Me Somebody,’ a slow, pleading tune that wore its gospel influence on its sleeve, and, surprisingly, the record’s B-side, ‘Crazy, Crazy, Crazy’ also made it into the top ten. Then came ‘Too Much Lovin’,’ with the hilarious risqué ‘Laundromat Blues’ on the B-side.
What happened next is a matter of speculation, but in June, 1954, The “5” Royales were recording for King Records, an R&B and country powerhouse in Cincinnati. Otto Jeffries was now managing them, and 17-year-old Eugene Tanner had joined his brother as a vocalist. Guitarist and bass singer Lowman “Pete” Pauling was knocking out one great song after another, and between the novelties (‘Monkey Hips and Rice,’ ‘School Girl,’ ‘Mohawk Squaw,’ “Right Around the Corner”) and deep gospel rewrites (“When You Walked Through the Door,” “Come On and Save Me,” “Just As I Am”) they were waxing some of the best music of the era. None of which, unfortunately, sold.
In February, 1957, the group recorded in Cincinnati instead of New York, and there they were allowed to unleash their secret weapon. Lowman Pauling was not only a fine songwriter, but his guitar playing was the hit of their live show. He owned one of the first Les Pauls, a cream-colored beauty he wore slung way, way down (supposedly giving Chuck Berry the idea), and the way he played it was completely unlike anything anyone else was doing at the moment. The raw, decisive tone he got out of it, and the bizarre, asymmetrical lines he played set them apart from any other group around. The first record released from this session was an immediate hit. “Think” not only showcased Pauling’s guitar, but its handclapping, joyous sound sent it into the top ten. Four years, almost to the day, from their last Apollo hit, they were back.
It was also their last hit, but not their last great record by far. That summer they recorded a song with a long afterlife that King apparently did nothing to promote. ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ showcased Lowman’s guitar and a passionate lead vocal by Johnny Tanner, but never charted. The next year saw them release a version of their live show-stopper, ‘The Stompety Stomp,’ which, for some reason, King relegated to a B-side and mistitled as ‘The Slummer the Slum.’ They continued to release records, though, and the guitar playing on some of them – my own favorites are ‘Say It,’ which flirts with feedback, and ‘Don’t Be Ashamed,’ with its chugging electric bass – is unparalleled in vocal group music. ‘Tell the Truth’ died in the marketplace, but Ray Charles heard something there. All of this and more is on disc 3 of this set, which seals the case made on the two previous discs that the “5” Royales belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Not that they’ll ever get in).
They tried. King dropped them in 1960, and they moved to the small Home of the Blues label in Memphis. Lowman and Royal Abbit, who’d been their piano player since Royal Sons days, recorded as El Pauling and the Royalton, to no great effect, and the group released some very good records, but had to sit back and watch James Brown (‘Think’), Ray Charles (‘Tell the Truth’) and the Shirelles (‘Dedicated’) have hits with their songs in 1960. Bit by bit, the group fell away: Lowman disappeared in 1963, as did Johnny Tanner, who went back home to open a dry-cleaning business. Lowman returned from time to time, but finally went on the road with Sam and Dave as a guitarist. Somebody was still using the group’s name in 1968, when two of its members (neither originals) were sent to prison in Mississippi for armed robbery. Lowman was reportedly drinking pretty hard and working as a janitor in a Brooklyn synagogue when he died on December 26, 1973.
Soul & Swagger is, admittedly, a lot of “5” Royales for anyone whose eyes haven’t been opened to their greatness. Those poor souls might like to look into It’s Hard But It’s Fair, a collection of King sides on Ace or try to find the double I helped Rhino put together ages ago. Everyone else will want to hear the first four CDs of this set (the fifth is pretty sad), and marvel at the photos of a group that almost slipped away.