Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Obadiah Carter and Lowman Pauling, on guitar, perform with the “5” Royales, a pioneering R&B group newly inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. / Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
As a kid, one of my great joys was going to the library and combing through the music section for tantalizing pensées. One such tidbit went something like, “There are four bands that matter in the world, and the Yardbirds are one of them,” a statement that, while not strictly true, wasn’t far off in its way and was put so pleasingly that it has always stayed with me. I liked bands, such as the Yardbirds, that shaped the history of popular sound without necessarily receiving their out-in-the-open due, in contrast to the Beatles and the Stones, who surely counted among that author’s mighty tetralogy.
One of these lesser-knowns was the “5” Royales. They seemed to haunt the footnotes of the rock and roll history books like some elemental M. R. James shade. I’d always wondered what it would sound like when I finally heard them. Sometimes I’d read about an artist and then find my expectations utterly confounded, as when I first listened to Chuck Berry, whom I didn’t think would come off as nearly so white. What I knew, sonically, of the Royales was through the Shirelles’ cover of their “Dedicated to the One I Love,” an oldies station perennial and an obviously well-written number but nothing that readied me for that first time I sat down with the Royales’ music properly. I soon came up with a penséeof my own that would grow into a conviction spanning the decades: these guys might be the best band ever to emerge from this country.
I’m not a big adherent of anything the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stands for—Ringo Starr, for instance, was just went in as a solo artist despite having only one LP that functions as any real artistic statement—save when musicians who have been unjustly overlooked are inducted, encouraging uninitiated listeners to seek them out. So I was pretty well pumped when the Royales were finally deemed fit for inclusion this spring, a cause surely abetted by the release last year of a five-disc box set, Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951–1967.
The dates are misleading: the Royales only made brilliant music during the 1950s, but that music can sit alongside anyone’s. The group hailed from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and began life as a gospel act, led by guitarist and songwriter Lowman Pauling, with Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries, and Jimmy Moore providing backing vocals for Johnny Tanner’s lead lines. Jeffries would later depart to be replaced by Tanner’s younger brother Eugene. Johnny was the band’s Otis Redding, one might say, but with more vocal chops, a powerful singer with astounding breath control and a voice caked, but not freighted down, by a siltyness that seemed to come from biblical times by way of a Southern juke joint.
The Royales had three stylistic iterations. The gospel version, as best heard on “Come Over Here,” from October 1951, had a propulsion more in keeping with rock and roll than with what you’d normally get from church vocal groups. It is as though the band wanted to cut loose and launch themselves at you, and get filthy, but couldn’t quite ditch a restraining notion of the sacred. That is, until they had financial incentive to do so: Apollo Records in New York came across a demo when the band was billed as the Royal Sons, put out a couple singles that didn’t do much, and suggested horning in on the rhythm and blues craze. Pauling and his mates readily agreed. Cue, then, the second Royales’ phase, with a lot of a salacity, crazy jump blues, and rhythms to get you pounding your beer bottle against the nearest table.
There is, for example, the excellent “Baby Don’t Do It,” waxed in 1952, which swings so hard it is all but impossible not to dance to. A rollicking, we-are-up-to-no-good piano figure starts the song, and then Johnny’s voice just slathers the entire thing, his tone gleeful and earthy as it delivers one of popular music’s great couplets, courtesy of Pauling’s mind: “If you leave me pretty baby / I’ll have bread without no meat.” The drums swish and pound at once, slightly behind the beat, like the song is pumping at you from the rear, and each time Johnny says his meat line, he’s more amped up, more on the edge.The call and response on the lines “don’t do it,” is executed molto allegro, as though neither glee nor rhythm can be contained.
The Royales were hilarious, and in a raunchier way than, say, the Coasters, who could also bring the wit, and they were better musicians. “Laundromat Blues,” cut at the same session as “Baby Don’t Do It,” is surely the stompiest song ever written about female ejaculation, drums and tenor sax partnering in an incessant beat. I’ve always heard the line “It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it,” in Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” as “It’s got a black beat, you can’t lose it,” an assertion of rhythmic racial pride (John Lennon certainly sings it this way on the Beatles’ cover of the song), and Berry might as well been referencing this Royales number. This is flag-bearing R&B, but Johnny sings in more of a supper club voice, ironically, like he’s trying to get whites in on the fun. It is also jump jazz—something Fats Waller would readily clock on to—unabashed rock and roll before there really was rock and roll, and proto-soul. We’re talking more than discharge here—we’re talking the amalgamation of normally unblended styles and black and white musical cultures.
The Royales grew better still in the final phase of their development, thanks in large part to Pauling’s improved guitar playing. By February 1957, when the band went into the studio with King Records, Pauling had proved himself an R&B hit maker, but his guitar work had never stood out. He played a few punchy backing lines but mostly chorded along, providing blocky chunks of rhythm to coalesce with the horns, those loping drums, and Johnny’s lead vocals. But on the 1957 recordings, the songwriter emerged an ax master at the level of Jimi Hendrix and the Yardbirds’ Jeff Beck, a player so adept and articulate on his instrument that even Jimmy Page sounds like a stammering, inchoate teenager by comparison.
Hendrix soloed far more than Pauling ever would—although a list of the twenty-five best rock and roll solos would have a couple Pauling blasts on it—but within the context of a song’s sung portions, no one before or since could touch Pauling. His guitar stings, plays off of vocal phrases as though it were half a dialogue between two voices, one of which, in Pauling’s guitar, happens to be electric.
“Think,” which would later be a hit for James Brown, was cut at that February date, and Pauling sizzles on it. He’s loud, but not too loud, and I wonder what Johnny must have thought when he sang a line, only to have Pauling’s guitar give it back to him recast, wiser. There is so much rhythmic energy in the song that you expect it to detonate at any moment. Pauling’s guitar is the maestro here, and it controls all: tempo, pulse, where Johnny will end a phrase, where he will start another. Hell, even with one of his best lead vocals, Johnny, in a sense, isn’t even the lead vocalist; Pauling’s guitar is. This was just not done.
And then we come to “Dedicated to the One I Love” and brother Eugene. Johnny had that silt; Eugene had the lamplight to illuminate the darkest worlds, and even as this song makes its descent into a world of pain, Pauling’s guitar turns up, Beatrice-style, to offer a six-stringed hand. Eugene sings the title line, the backing vocalists offer up some “wha wha whas,” the bass and drums advance, the spartan first line of the first verse—“While I’m away from you, my baby”—is sung and left to hang in the air, and then Pauling enters with those stinging notes twisting and turning, singing with a mix of distortion and clarity so that Eugene only has to emote. The guitar will vet the pain. So just close your eyes, trust me, and sing, son, it seems to say. A musical trust fall.
There is a lot at work in this final high-water phase: if the Yardbirds pioneered heavy metal, then the “5” Royales pioneered what Beck and crew would later expand upon. Lennon liked to brag that the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” from fall 1964, featured the first example of feedback on record, but Pauling had him beat with “The Slummer the Slum” from September 1958, with his guitar playing off of the staccato sibilance of the title. Pauling carefully controls the duration of each note, like some sorcerer with dominion over technology, and uncorks two solos that are compositions unto themselves. Johnny, back on lead vocals, gets pretty fired up, and provides what I think of as the Royales’ credo, Pauling’s guitar egging him on:
There’s only one difference between me and you,
There’s only one difference between me and you
You got money in your pocket, and I got a hole in my shoe,
All from doing the slummer the slum
Here, the hole is a virtue, evidence of a life truly well lived because this cat is shuffling, up to stuff with a purpose, juking hard through existence. Never has a group sounded more like a force of utter legitimacy, a unit fully aware of what they did and the level they did it at. As for that one difference: yeah, one world of difference. Quite the musical/life throwdown.
In the succeeding decade, the Royales were always entertaining, but they felt like retreads because even the most talented artists can’t always sustain incandescence, and, besides, the Royales had already done enough. Pauling ended up, depending on which source you believe, a night watchman or a janitor, and his alcoholism felled him on Boxing Day 1973. I have sometimes wondered if it bothered him that the Royales received so little of their just due. But I also think there is something about being the best that pulls rank on slights, on recognition that doesn’t come as immediately as it should—a question of answering to the god of reality, say, rather than the chameleons of perception. And each time I listen to them, I have no doubt that the Royales are dead tight with the former.
Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in the VQR, Black Clock, Boulevard, and elsewhere. He also writes for Sports Illustrated, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, and Rolling Stone and is a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss is forthcoming in August 2015.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.