Saturday, July 17, 2010

The "5" Royales: Complete King Masters (1954-60)



The breadth and scope of excellent popular music is overwhelming. Amidst all the new discs I've digested this year, young and older people making vital and interesting and fun material, discoveries from the past never cease spewing forth. I've been vaguely aware of the "5" Royales for a long time but categorized them as doo wop, or low-tier early R&B, and the authors of the legendary "Dedicated to the One I Love." I knew there was a cultish passion for them among some record collectors. But I didn't know what I was in for when I put on this two-disc set yesterday morning.

The group doesn't get more than a passing mention in any book I own, but their influence on artists as disparate as James Brown (who supposedly modeled his Famous Flames on the "5" Royales) and Eric Clapton is widely noted. They began in the mid-'40s as a gospel group called the Royal Suns Quintet, switching to R&B and changing their name to the Royals when they began recording. When two other groups called the Royals -- one to remain such and the other the Detroit combo that would become the Midnighters -- became competition, they added an "e" and a "'5,'" the quotation marks around the latter signifying the fact that there often were six men in the group.

The question of what makes the "5" Royales unusual in the context of so many rhythm-gospel hybrids of the early 1950s is pared down simply enough to the prescene of guitarist and songwriter Lowman Pauling. They were not the only group to enchance doo wop with jump blues or to play secular music like it was sacred. But they may have been the only group to accompany those velvet, edgy harmonies with orgasmic bursts of screaming electric guitar, guitar crazed and exciting enough to compete not just with the obvious descendents Steve Cropper and Jimi Hendrix but Dave Davies and Lou Reed. I'm not one for guitar heroes, but I've just found one. Unknowingly laying sounds of disparate eras on an equal plane, the "5" Royales become a self-contained portrait of passionately sung and played popular music. It does them a disservice to label them any aforementioned subgenre: this is rock & roll, in some respects the invention-in-progress of it. In other words, this music is hot... and as hot now as ever.

My first exposure came a few weeks ago with the ghostly, wrenching "Don't Let It Be in Vain":

Opening with stark clicks and bass like Marvin Gaye's later magical voodoo "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the song proceeds with haunting hums and anguished singing from Eugene Tanner, followed swiftly by Pauling not so much playing the guitar as ceding control to it, the track erupting to emotional meltdown in slow motion. There's a multitude of ingenious rhythm and blues from the late '50s, but little of it can be said to sound like nothing else, before or since. "Don't Let It Be in Vain" sounds like a supernatural dance, a spellbindingly alien message from death's door... and an infectious one at that.

Imagine my pride upon acquiring the larger package of hits (51 in all!) to discover that this innovative, restlessly creative pure rock & roll band hail from my home state, Winston-Salem to be precise, where they join John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Doc Watson, George Clinton, Thelonious Monk, Elizabeth Cotten, Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, Earl Scruggs, etc. in the hallowed hall of great North Carolina musicians we should learn about in school and don't (but you bet your ass we learn who Jesse Helms is, and please tell me why he's more important). I decided I'd take a bit of advantage of my profession and its access to myriad local information databases and do a bit of research. I was sobered by the one real nugget I uncovered, but we'll come to that.

The early cuts on this disc (roughly the first ten), though excellent in their own right and a significant part of R&B history, are not really the point. King wasn't even the group's first label. For Apollo, they recorded a series of sides designed to compete with the then-big guns of what could easily be termed secular gospel, such as the Orioles. But these cuts still cook, and in the future I intend to track down a compilation of them (and their gospel recordings as the Royal Sons as well). Hits on the Apollo label included "Baby Don't Do It," "Crazy, Crazy, Crazy," "Help Me Somebody," and "Too Much Lovin'," all of which I'll try to talk more about in the near future.

But with the move to King in 1955, a gradual transformation began to take hold into an assured, muscular, distinct group, undercutting the easy trends. The two and a half hours of music here fly by as if in a stock car, most of the songs barely two minutes, all of them tossing and running through hooks, inventions, and quirks in seconds like they're nothing, backgrounding the typically flawless harmonies. It isn't even easy to explain what all this leads to; it isn't proto-soul because it's an end in itself, and there is too much going on here that transcends every genre except, as mentioned, the very idea of rock & roll. The "5" Royales, and Lowman Pauling in particular, use sophisticated methods that seem far more familiar today than they must have in the late 1950s to achieve a primal catharsis. These often stunning 45's seem less locked in time than perfectly preserved as eccentric, prophetic masterstrokes.

The narrative of rock & roll supposedly boils down to an entrance of more literate and considered, less earthy and arguably less naturally elegant language ("I'm like a one eyed cat peepin' in a seafood store" becomes "Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble" in hardly a decade), followed by the increasingly labored hard edge that leads us down the unpalatable path to "Classic Rock." But the "5" Royales skip steps in this "evolution" the way punkers and college-rock bands someday would, marrying the simple beauty of pure rock & roll form with a delightful urge to make more noise than the neighbors, to bang the drums harder, to pluck and slam and fuck the guitar strings in ever stranger and more otherworldly ways. It's astonishingly brave for a group that began as holy congregation-thrillers to break the mannered mold into making the stodgiest reach up and cover their ears, as many of these sinful platters assuredly did, reaching their ambitions above their peers, parallel to the uncharted territory of Holly, Berry, Penniman, etc.

The Big Names of early rock & roll may all have had more innovation between them, but I doubt any aside from Buddy Holly sound as contemporary and knowing today as the "5" Royales; that's not to say they did it on purpose, at least not in the best-is-never-enough sense Holly did, but it just so happens they predicted the angular sounds that would make kids and adults squirm twenty years in the future (rendering the "crazy guitar" scene in Back to the Future all the more ironic; much of what Michael J. Fox does there is far less extreme and untraditional than Pauling's style). Put simply, the experience of hearing harmonies like this colliding with the hard edge and passionate musicianship is really powerful. What's fascinating to me is that the "5" Royales' unprejudiced, all-encompassing barrier-free sensibility comes off now like an older brother of the material Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones release today: classisist soul approached from the restless, rebellious angle of alternative rock.

The market has never been any more equipped for dogged invention in soul than it is in rock; of course certain stalwarts rise to the top (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) and some just make art of every lame thing they're given (Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin), but the mastering of the oblique, the vague, the snake-for-the-jugular for which rock bands usually have a certain economic freedom was the stock in trade of practically no one in R&B until George Clinton and Prince came along. Smokey Robinson might well have been an exception, but more as a writer than a performer. I have no way of knowing how much control the "5" Royales had over their output -- presumably more than most groups, with a composer in tow, but still at the mercy of Apollo then King for what ended up on their releases. But listening to these songs now, they sound like artistic vanguards. And that's really all that matters.

It's time for me to confess that this compilation is a bootleg. Most "5" Royales material is out of print now, but if you can find it, Rhino's Monkey Hips and Rice anthology contains much of what's here, although it's deleted and trading at Amazon for a hefty $54. Thus I recommend Googling the name of this package to find out how to get it, and then I equally recommend buying MP3s as soon as they're legally available, because this legacy matters. But you need to hear it, so do what you gotta. If you must listen to just a portion of this, make it the second half. Treasures aplenty on the first, but the highlights here are too numerous to even keep in your head.

Take "Think," to start with, soon to be regurgitated by James Brown and thus written into soul music history. Rhythmically, it's grinding R&B of its era, but the arrangement (and recording) is subtle, winding, slinking and charming along propulsively. And it's the vocal (I believe it's by Eugene Tanner) that sticks with you: frayed, aching, struggling, spontaneous. This is the beautiful sound of working men, ordinary people paid to create, as conscious of the space between the noises they make as of the noises themselves.

Superficially, "Monkey Hips and Rice" suggests the semi-comic Leiber/Stoller hits popularized by the Coasters, but the smoky, adventurous, jazzy production sinks us into more sinister and unfamiliar territory, tossing us into a vaguely dangerous swamp. The lyrics thematically call to mind the grossout antics of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, but the music is sheer black magic, heart-filling sexy evil transcending novelty -- music for kinks.

Perhaps the most purely innovative "5" Royales tune is "The Slummer The Slum," which is reputed (by Dave Marsh, at least) to contain the first-ever deliberate use of guitar feedback, predating "I Feel Fine" by six years. The song opens as an invasion, Tanner confronting you backed by his cronies at a relentless pace, like one of the gangs in West Side Story, but they haven't even begun their side of the battle until Pauling's guitar explodes forty seconds in with the kind of axe poetry you'd expect on a garage rock record... it's that insane, that left-field but strangely logical, that pure and perfect. Like some rockabilly tyrant, Tanner sounds breathless after a minute and the band seemingly deliberately loses shape around him, everything centering around the buildup to a second direct-line-to-"Sister Ray" guitar solo. And remember, this song was released in 1958.

If you need one song to most vividly appreciate Pauling's guitar theatrics, take a gander at "Say It," another stuttering groove, this one with particularly grand lyrics (almost Smokeyesque), centered around the concise soloing that leaps out of the speakers, particularly at the almost avant garde closing runout. Equipped with an extra-long strap, Pauling used to hold his guitar close to the ground for comic effect, but this is serious business -- more emotional and certainly more fitting in context than the work of a hundred later "guitar Gods." The final seconds are sheer shimmering transcendence.

The single that ensured Pauling's place in history as a composer deserves its legend. "Dedicated to the One I Love" is top-drawer, confident romantic pop, famous unfortunately in large part because of a dire cover version by the Mamas and the Papas (itself derived from a competently soulful Shirelles rendition), who squeeze every ounce of life and sex and mystery out of it (as they did just as offensively with the Beatles' "I Call Your Name"). The original is bright and thumping, with wonderfully tricky playing by Pauling behind all the most sweeping lines. It's fitting, though, that the song was resurrected in the late '60s, because it is as complex in melody, lyricism, rhythm as anything the California bands were then crafting. The song builds and recedes in a variety of unconventional ways, almost a two-minute series of tiny movements. More commercial than most of the best cuts on this collection, it is a pleasure to listen to.

But it's truly criminal to describe at length just a tenth of the songs here. They are all worthy of further investigation, bumping, discussion, dancing.

After the "5" Royales disbanded, facing an indifferent marketplace, in 1965, Lowman Pauling was unable to properly enjoy the breadth of his influence. Sadly, he died relatively unknown, working as a night watchman. We've heard the story a million times about brilliant black musicians of his day and many days earlier. But somehow, this recently-penned discovery I made in a small Winston-Salem newspaper today brings it achingly home for me:

R&B music pioneer Lowman Pauling has son, mother here
by Scott Sexton, Winston-Salem Journal

Aug. 2--Hardly anybody knows it, but a small treasure trove of music history sits in a modest house across the street from the Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy.

A man named Lowman Pauling once lived there. His namesake son lives in the house now, helping take care of his ailing mother. Sweating life's details -- seeing that she makes it to her dialysis appointments is primary among them -- is a priority now, but the realities of everyday living don't stop Pauling from breaking into a wide grin when he gets the chance to talk about his father's often-overlooked place in music history.

Lowman Pauling was a pioneer in 1950s rhythm and blues. He played guitar, performed in a group that started in Winston-Salem called the "5" Royales, and wrote a long list of songs. Notable among them is "Dedicated to the One I Love," a song that climbed the pop charts when covered by the Shirelles in 1961, and again in 1967 for the Mamas and Papas.

"James Brown, Chuck Berry ... Daddy was just as good or better," Pauling said. "Daddy could really play. He really was something."

Lowman Pauling, the father, grew up in Winston-Salem in the area around Trade Street. He started playing guitar when he was young, his son said, and began his musical journey performing gospel with his brothers.

Only the most dedicated music fans might remember the name Lowman Pauling these days. Even at the peak of his skills, Pauling perhaps didn't get the acclaim due a man of his talents.

His credits include "Think," an R&B hit recorded in 1961 by Brown -- not Aretha Franklin's smash hit -- "Baby Don't Do It" and "Help Me Somebody," both of which were R&B hits in 1953.

"Unfortunately, that happened to a lot of black artists back in those days," Pauling said. "Sometimes they didn't get the credit due them, and sometimes the labels cheated them out of royalties."

But that's history. These days, Pauling enjoys those rare times, which are growing fewer and fewer as the years zip by, when somebody recognizes the achievements of the man whose name he shares. He keeps mementoes around, and the entry foyer to the house is lined with frames holding some of the more precious ones.

A print depicting the famous Apollo Theater, the members of the "5" Royales and their signatures holds a prominent spot. Just below that is a proclamation signed by former Mayor Martha Wood and members of the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen presented when a street was named in honor of the "5" Royales.

A stack of identical dark-blue cardboard envelopes contains matching certificates commemorating broadcast milestones -- starting with 1 million broadcast performances of "Dedicated to the One I Love."

"How many are we up to now, Darryl, 4 million?" asked Ellise Pauling, using the middle name her son is mostly known by.

"Yes, Mom, I think that's right," he replied, tearing himself away from his trip through the past to tend to the present.

It must be pretty cool to flip on a radio and hear a song that your dad wrote, huh?

"Winston-Salem State used to have a DJ on Sundays who used to play some of his music pretty consistently," Pauling said. "But other than that, you don't hear it much. But, yes, it does make you feel good."

Rather than dwell on physical tributes that can be seen and read, Pauling prefers the intangible, hard-to-define portion of his father's legacy. Books, magazines and quickie online biographies and histories note that legendary artists such as Brown, described as the "hardest-working man in show business," and rock legend Eric Clapton have cited Lowman Pauling as an influence.

"James Brown and the Famous Flames, they patterned their act after my father," Pauling said. "The "5" Royales were doing those kinds of (dance) moves before they were."

He laughed at the suggestion that maybe one day his father would get more attention if by some chance a wave of renewed interest in classic R&B came along. Only 52, he smiled and started to offer a variation of the familiar "these kids today" lament before steering the conversation back to his father.

"Daddy died in 1973," he said. "He's been gone a long time."

Still, he says with considerable pride that his father is scheduled in September to get a spot in the new N.C. Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis, alongside the likes of jazz greats John Coltrane (High Point) and Thelonius Monk (Rocky Mount), country star Randy Travis (Marshville) and bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs (Flint Hill).

Of even greater personal importance, though, is a small change Pauling has noticed in his 16-year-old son, who has taken up the guitar.

"Everybody used to call him "D.D." but now he goes by Lowman," Pauling said. "He insists that people call him that instead."

A living legacy is the very best kind.

In The Trouble with Harry, a film made not long before the "5" Royales began to make their best records for King, Alfred Hitchcock and his screenwriter John Michael Hayes make the argument that the artist is the savior of the common people, perhaps even that s/he is the only uncommon person and is faced with the unenviable task of helping the restof us straighten ourselves out. It's sometimes alarming how rarely we are given the chance to return the favor. Of course Little Richard and Chuck Berry can afford to eat more than jelly bread sandwiches, and they deserve that, but what about the hundreds of others equally gifted looking out the window as the most skilled, savvy talents rise to the top? I can't tell Lowman Pauling how special his music still sounds in 2010. It's a fact of life, but when something is so vital it feels like it sprang from the earth so much more recently than four generations ago, it's painfully hard to believe. Go listen to this music and revel in it.


  1. To take a swipe at the Mamas and the Papas, who took the original version of "Dedicated to the One I Love" and gave it a truly unique spin, is such a negative and pointless thing to do. They didn't trash the original song; they celebrated it -- and in the process created a little symphonic masterpiece. There can be more than one interpretation of a classic. And there can be a love of good music that transcends categorization. Thanks for listening. John

  2. John Phillips! I thought you were dead! Thanks for reading my blog.