When I first heard the “5” Royales, in a Christmas 2008 gift of the Southern music edition of Oxford American, I felt I had discovered the Rosetta stone of pop music: an obscure, gritty ’50s R&B cut called “The Slummer the Slum” that provided the missing link to contextualize the entire span of pop music from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Jay Z.
The song is unlike anything I’ve heard from that era — or any other, for that matter. It lurches ahead in a stuttering rhythm propelled by a jagged, dirtied electric-guitar lead courtesy of Lowman Pauling that hangs above the beat like a spectral question mark. The vocal by Johnny Tanner is a howling protest of class consciousness that refuses to be categorized or contained.
There’s this: “The only difference between me and you/ You’ve got money in your pocket/ I’ve got a hole in my shoe/ But I can do the slummer the slum.”
And then this: “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.”
Everything that happened in American popular music after World War II is contained in less than two minutes — the hybridization of jump blues and gospel, a dash of hillbilly music and currents of doo-wop, with a foreshadowing of funk and, by extension, hip hop.
If anyone was trying to figure it out, the “5” Royales came from Winston-Salem, an industrial company town built on tobacco in the segregated South. And next year, they will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While success in their own time and widespread recognition in the decades since their breakup have eluded the “5” Royales, their significance has long been acknowledged in critical assessments.
Dave Marsh, the eminent rock critic, wrote in his 1989 volume The Heart of Rock & Soul: “Few careers have been longer or more distinguished than that of the ‘5’ Royales. Fewer still had so much to do with laying the music’s foundation, or sustained that influence over such a long period. From 1945 through 1965, the Royales helped shape vocal-group styles and guitar patterns and created landmark songs and recordings.” (Marsh ranked the Royales’ hit “Dedicated to the One I Love” No. 189 in his “1,001 greatest singles ever made.”)
Lowman Pauling’s guitar style profoundly influenced Steve Cropper, the session guitarist who played on countless recordings by Otis Redding and other artists at Stax Records in Memphis in the 1960s, enough so that Cropper released a whole album of “5” Royales songs in 2011. James Brown, their labelmate at King Records, revered the “5” Royales and covered their song “Think” on his classic 1963 album Live at the Apollo. “Dedicated to the One I Love” was covered first by the Shirelles, regarded as the first successful girl group, and then by the Mamas and Papas.
Greg Humphreys, a 1985 graduate of RJ Reynolds High School who went on to renown as a member of Dillon Fence, Hobex and now as a solo artist, came home to perform “Dedicated” along with one of his own songs at the Winston-Salem Centennial Celebration last year. Humphreys told me he wasn’t exposed to the “5” Royales’ music growing up in Winston-Salem, but discovered them around the time he started his funk and soul-inspired project Hobex.
“Steve Cropper did a tribute album, so he obviously credits them as an influence, and he was an architect of the Memphis soul sound,” said Humphreys, who is now based in Brooklyn. “And you have James Brown covering them on his most famous live album. That puts the ‘5’ Royales at the founding of both soul and funk.”
It’s a cruel mystery that I didn’t stumble upon the “5” Royales earlier. As an Antioch College student in the mid-’90s, I was investigating lost histories of blues and country hybridization in the ’50s that paralleled the Sun Records story in Memphis. Someone suggested that I check out King Records from Cincinnati. On a trip back to Kentucky, I stumbled on a variety store in southwest Ohio where I snapped up 45 single reissues from King by artists like Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Wynonie Harris, Otis Williams & the Charms and even a group called the Royals, but no “5” Royales. It would be another decade before I would be initiated.
The “5” Royales had the whole package. They were originators and innovators. They wrote great songs. They had a guitarist who played his instrument down at his knees and behind his head, and pioneered the use of distortion. They had a singer who pleaded like a latter-day James Brown, and backup vocalists who squealed and howled to wild and comedic effect.
By the time Elvis Presley came along, the Royales had already been on the road for a decade. While Presley, a white stylist who covered other artists’ material, went on to superstardom, the Royales toiled in obscurity and eventually returned to the menial jobs from which music was supposed to offer an escape. The color line could clearly only be breached going in one direction.
Pauling died in the early ’70s while working as a janitor at a church in New York City, Eddie Huffman wrote in a 1993 article for Goldmine magazine. Obediah Carter, a harmony singer for the group, was driving a bus for the Winston-Salem Transit Authority in the early 1990s.
“When you think about a group like the ‘5’ Royales touring in a station wagon on the R&B circuit and Lowman Pauling dying at a relatively early age and never seeing the accolades that came, it’s a poignant story and it’s a music-industry story,” Humphreys told me.
It’s criminal that the “5” Royales weren’t inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the first class of 1986, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. And it’s a little insulting that they’re on the same slate with Green Day, a pop-punk band whose music seems trivial in comparison. But maybe even Green Day has a place in this story.
“In that era and even now pop music is viewed as disposable,” Humphreys said. “Only when it’s rediscovered and leant credence by someone that’s respected do people go back and check it out. It’s like the Rolling Stones discovering Muddy Waters. I feel like music is always a combining and recombining of influences and sounds, and a hybridization to create something new. The ‘5’ Royales did that, with a lot of their R&B compatriots.”