The "5" Royales
- Lowman Pauling
- Eugene Tanner
- John L. Tanner
- James E. Moore
- Obadiah H. Carter
The vocal group became a cornerstone of the soul music to come.
Although they sometimes fell short of commercial success, many of their greatest songs were made popular by such stars as James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
"When it comes to a sound that cannot be copied by any other group, the ‘5’ Royales have it."
This bit of King Records hyperbole, a blurb accompanying the complimentary DJ 45-RPM release of “Women About to Make Me Go Crazy,” was absolutely true when the record was issued in 1955, and for the group the “5” Royales, even bigger things were just around the bend. Yet the “5” Royales would remain voices in the shadows, a quintet whose fifteen-plus-year career was prodigious in scope and influence, but mostly out of sight to the general public. Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sheds an overdue light onto the shadowland occupied by the glorious “5” Royales.
They formed as a gospel group in 1951, calling themselves the Royal Sons Quintet in their hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, soon becoming a regional favorite comprising Lowman Pauling, Johnny Tanner, Obadiah Carter, James Moore and Otto Jeffries, who would be replaced by Eugene Tanner. (Pauling’s brother Clarence was also a founding member but left the group early on to join rival gospelaires Wings Over Jordan.) A demo made its way to New York City’s Apollo Records, an independent with tentacles in black gospel music. Two Royal Sons singles were released in 1951, but Apollo was looking for rhythm & blues: The Sons, seemingly without protest, made the switch.
Thus the “5” Royales—changed from the mere Royals—were born. Within a year, the group had a smash: guitarist Pauling’s catchy stop/start jump blues “Baby Don’t Do It.” And off they went. Beginning with the next recording session, a sound evolved and singles followed. Another Pauling original from 1953, “Help Me Somebody,” featured the Royales’ formidable tenor Johnny Tanner, a treasure of a vocalist who burrowed heart and soul into the gospel-drenched, world-weary plea, with the group draped around him in support. It’s a seminal soul moment; in it, you can hear the voice to come of Atlantic-era Ray Charles. Of course, there was not necessarily a birth-of-soul sunburst moment—it came in bits and pieces from all over. But the “5” Royales were a cornerstone, their minor-key, intense laments a big jumping-off point for James Brown (“Please, Please, Please,” “Try Me”) and a cast of countless other artists.
In 1954, with their career cruising along at a steady hum, the “5” Royales switched labels to R&B powerhouse King Records. It was a move that should have catapulted the band to ever-loftier heights. But here the story stumbles. The hits didn’t come. New York sessions with studio ace Mickey Baker replacing Pauling on guitar didn’t click, and a steady output of singles yielded little magic. That changed in February of 1957, when Pauling reemerged, his guitar thrust forward emphatically. Pauling’s thick, rich bursts of obbligatos and penetrating solo blasts became the core of the new “5” Royales sound. “Think” was recorded that day, as well as doo-wop delight “Tears of Joy.”
In the months to follow, “Dedicated (To the One I Love),” “Say It,” “Tell the Truth,” “Slummer the Slum” and many more tumbled out. Yet with all this creative flowering and signature music being created, it was rarely played on the radio, aside from the explosive “Think.” By 1960, even with such transformative songs as “I’m With You” and “Wonder When You’re Coming Home,” the “5” Royales were slipping off the charts.
Ironically, some of the group’s greatest songs (composed by their all-everything, linchpin guitarist Pauling) are best known through the interpretations of others: “Dedicated (To the One I Love)” (a massive hit for both the Shirelles and the Mamas and the Papas), “Think” (twice a hit, in two different versions, for Royales acolyte James Brown), and “Tell the Truth,” plucked by Ray Charles as an Atlantic side.
The 1960's saw the “5” Royales slide from record company to record company: Home of the Blues, Vee-Jay, Smash, Todd and Hi, among others. Even the inspired production efforts of Willie Mitchell and James Brown came up bare. With soul music exploding, and young Stax guitarist Steve Cropper using Pauling’s licks to shape an entire new tributary of Memphis R&B, the group inexplicably could find no beachhead. But their influence on Cropper (and others to come) was profound. “I know when I saw Lowman Pauling onstage,” Cropper recalled, “it changed my style and my life. He was a one-man show who played rhythm and stinging riffs when necessary...I owe a lot to Lowman.”
On December 26, 1973, Lowman Pauling—then working as a janitor at a Brooklyn synagogue—passed away. Before he died, he no doubt heard James Brown’s resurrection of “Think” on the radio. One wonders if, after all the years on the road, all the songs and all the shows, the words to one of Pauling’s songs might have passed through the “5” Royales guitarist’s thoughts:
Think about the sacrifices that I made for you / Think of all the times that I spent with you / Think of all the good things that I done for you.
The music, spirit and soul of the “5” Royales live on decades after Pauling’s death. With their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this foundational quintet joins James Brown, Ray Charles, Steve Cropper, the Shirelles, the Mamas and the Papas and others who have followed the group’s musical path.
Inductees: Obadiah H. Carter (born December 12, 1925, died June 30, 1994), James E. Moore (born March 7, 1926, died August 16, 2008), Lowman Pauling (born July 14, 1926, died December 16, 1973), Eugene Tanner (born February 1, 1936, died December 29, 1994), John L. Tanner (born November 28, 1926, died November 8, 2005)