Under a high-limbed magnolia at the tip of the corner lot where East 12th Street and Rich Avenue meet in East Winston, condensation drips from small water bottles and folks fan themselves with programs between gentle breezes.
In brown folding chairs and along the perimeter, an audience has gathered for the public unveiling of a city historical marker at the white-brick home of Lowman Pauling, songwriter, guitarist and founder of the “5” Royales, an all-male R&B quintet also including Obadiah Carter, James Moore, Eugene Tanner and John Tanner, all of whom passed away years ago.
The group, which originally formed as a gospel group Royal Sons Quintet in 1951, never achieved mainstream success despite releasing chart-toppers in the 1950s that laid the foundation for the evolution of rhythm and blues in the US, like “Help Me Somebody” and “Dedicated to the One I Love,” which became a huge hit for both the Shirelles and the Mamas and the Papas years later.
They moved R&B away from a more polished sound with raw, emotive vocals they took on the road touring the Chitlin’ Circuit with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Etta James and James Brown. Their harmonies and Lowman’s groundbreaking guitar techniques inspired the likes of Sam Cook, Erica Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and the Temptations.
They accomplished all this from their rehearsal studio in the basement of the 1135 Rich Ave., just across the street from Atkins High School —now Winston-Salem Prep High School — the de facto black high school in the city’s segregated east-side neighborhoods of Reynoldstown and Slater Park.
“It’s almost like whoever lived in that house was destined to become somebody in the spotlight,” local music historian Jonathan Kirby says after the unveiling. “This neighborhood was the nucleus of black Winston. They were hometown celebrities. You can still imagine kids lining up against the windows of Atkins High seeing that beat-up station wagon pulling into town after playing in New York or down South.”
East Ward council representative Annette Scippio grew up just blocks away on Temple Street.
“Sometimes you could hear songs being rehearsed,” she reminisces, “and sometimes the [older] boys would get together outside, four or five of them, and they too would be crooning. We didn’t always know we were in the midst of people doing special things for all of us. This is a special day, but it’s a sad day because it’s long overdue.”
Visitors can listen to the “5” Royales the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the groundbreaking quintet in 2015. The groups’ hometown took a little longer to catch up, though former state Rep. Larry Womble, best known as a tireless advocate for citizens forcibly sterilized by the state Eugenics Board, did lead a successful campaign to have a street named after the “5” Royales more than a decade ago while serving on the city’s board of alderman.
“This is a very auspicious day for the city of Winston-Salem,” he says. “We’re famous for tobacco but we’re also famous for the Pauling family. It was rough, yes; nobody was rich with money, but we were rich in culture and rich in caring.”
Darryl Pauling, Lowman’s son and the current resident of 1135 Rich Ave., remembers those days, the casual drop ins by Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Sam Cook, the time James Brown called the house and his 8-year-old self had no idea what the man said.
“My dad started putting reverb on the guitar before the guy from the Beatles got credit for doing it,” Pauling says during the ceremony. “Eugene Tanner had a habit of sliding across the stage on his knees before Jackie Wilson did it. They were innovators. They brought gospel to R&B.”
Lowman passed away before Darryl graduated high school, but Darryl’s daughter Tiffany Jones remembers the bright smile on her grandmother Ellise’s face whenever Royales’ music filled the home. A soul and jazz singer herself, she recalls honing her craft in the very basement her grandfather’s group honed theirs, without fully realizing the space had been “seasoned” with history.
“The way in which they ignored the rules is the Winston-Salem spirit,” Kirby says. “It was really hard to have a mom and dad who grew up in the church and start an R&B group. I think today we underappreciate the rebellion in that. What the Royales did was embolden local acts and gave people in the community a prototype and a relatable success story to see a path to being recognized as artists. To be a black musician here in the ’50s must’ve been a very discouraging sort of exercise, to not be allowed to perform certain places. The ‘5’ Royales were trailblazers that certainly empowered the next generation to do what they did.”
Kirby draws a direct line from the Royales to the subsequent generation of black Winston-Salem outfits like Corgi & the Monarchs, the Eliminators and Odyssey Five, all of which still go relatively unsung despite releasing records on major labels.
Speakers transmit “Dedicated (To the One I Love)” as family members tug at the plaque’s transitory sheath, revealing a newly-honored legacy, and for an hour or so, the “5” Royales fill the streets with the Winston-Salem sound again, while the adults exchange hugs and stories, and great-grandchildren dash freely under the cover of the magnolia’s shelter.
As Jones put it: “1135 Rich Avenue is in the history books now — no one can take that from us.”
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