The “5” Royales (the quotation marks were part of their name, which is pronounced roy-ALS) were one of the seminal rhythm and blues groups of the fifties, and their guitarist Lowman Pauling, in an era with so many brilliant and original sounding guitar players (Mickey Baker, Guitar Slim, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Ike Turner, Clarence Holiman, Rene Hall, Cal Green, Chuck Berry, Pat Hare, Gatemouth Brown, Pee Wee Crayton, Bo Diddley, Jody Williams, insert name of your favorite here) stands out as one of the wildest and most unique string benders in the history of rock’n’roll.
The group came together in the countryside outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, tobacco growing country and all it’s members grew up working the land. In High School guitarist/bass singer Lowman Pauling met lead singer Johnny Tanner (they may have been cousins) and put together a gospel group called the Royal Sons Quintet. Other original members included Paulings’ brother Clarence (the first to leave the group, he’d later show up at Motown Records as Berry Gordy’s assistant), Otto Jeffries, William Samuels, Johnny Holmes and Obidah Carter. Johnny Tanner was drafted in 1945 and replaced briefly by Jimmy Moore. Like all R&B vocal groups they would go through a bewildering number of personal changes with Johnny Tanner and Lowman Pauling being the constants. At some point Johnny Tanner’s brother Eugene joined the group and often sang lead, especially when Johnny lost his voice from the rigours of touring. Otto Jeffries would leave the group and become their road manager. Johnny Holmes was gone before they cut their first sides.
Their first break came when original road manager Robert Woodward sent a letter to Bess Berman’s Apollo Records in New York City along with a demo tape. Bessman signed the group in 1952 and brought them to New York where they recorded their first single– a version of Thomas A. Dorsey’s Bedside Of A Neighbor b/w Journey’s End. The a-side had already been recorded by the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Royal Sons version went nowhere. A second gospel single– Let Nothing Separate Us sold even less. Two months later they were back in the studio and Apollo executive Carl Le Bow, who would eventually become their manager suggested the group change it’s name and start recording rhythm and blues, either that or they’d soon be back in the tobacco field. They were redubbed the “5” Royales and their first R&B single, two Lowman Pauling originals — You Know I Know b/w Courage To Love were recorded in August of ’52 and with sales strong sales in the south, they were encouraged to follow the R&B path to stardom. They were back in New York at Beltone Studio in the Brill Building in October of that same year where they recorded their first hit– Baby Don’t Do It, which would rise to #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart in January of 1953. So began their gravy years (1953-4) on Apollo Records. Unlike the “bird” groups like the Ravens and the Orioles who were topping the R&B charts at that time, the “5” Royales were not a smooth harmony group, their sound was rough, with gravel voiced Johnny Tanner wailing out the blues in the style of shouters like Wynonie Harris and H-Bomb Ferguson. The instrumental backing was dominated by guttural sax and whomping drums (Lowman Paulings guitar wouldn’t come to the forefront of their sound until later in their career), and the lyrics were often lascivious double entedres. Their next record would leave the church for the alley, more specifically the laundromat on the corner of the alley– Laundromat Blues, although it didn’t chart in Billboard (I don’t have access to Cash Box magazine’s R&B charts, which for R&B were far more accurate since they counted juke box sales and plays), it was a big seller, and one of their finest records, using the idea of an automatic washing machine as a sexual metaphor. They would chart four more times between May ’53 and February of ’54 with Help Me Somebody (#1 R&B), Crazy, Crazy, Crazy (#5 R&B), Too Much Lovin’ (#4 R&B) and I Do (#6 R&B) their final hit for Apollo. Apollo even issued an LP– The Rockin’ “5” Royales, a copy of which I found at the Astor Place thieves market for $1 in 1980. They hit the road and toured constantly, but payment from the hard boiled Ms. Bessman was practically non-existent and soon they filed a lawsuit to recover lost royalties, and in April of ’54 they left Apollo and signed with Sid Nathan’s King label out of Cincinnati, Ohio (a move that would cause the Royals then rapidly rising up the R&B charts on King’s Federal subsidiary with a bump and grind fuck song– Work With Me Annie to change their name to the Midnighters, see the November, 2008 posting Hank Ballard for their story). The “5” Royales entire Apollo output can be found here.
The “5” Royales would record for King from 1954-1962, and although they only appeared on Billboard R&B chart twice in those eight years first with Tears Of Joy (#9, June, 1957) and then again with Think (#9, September, 1957) their records must have sold because King kept releasing them, issuing dozens of singles and at least four LP’s. They were one of the most influential groups of the era, most especially for James Brown and his Famous Flames who would base their original sound very closely on the “5” Royales hard shouting style. Brown would cover their tune “Think” in ’62 taking it to the top of the charts, and it was this rivalry that led the group to eventually leave King Records. Other “5” Royales tunes from the pen of Lowman Pauling would find their way to the charts via cover versions like Tell The Truth, which Ray Charles would cover in a thrilling live rendition, and Dedicated To The One I Love which would top the charts twice, first for the Shirelles in ’61 and then again for the Mamas and the Papas in ’67 (Michelle Phillips only lead vocal that was released as a single).
As the saxophone based style of R&B was eventually replaced by guitar dominated rock’n’roll thanks to hit making string busters like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Guitar Slim, and John Lee Hooker, the “5” Royales style too evolved into a guitar dominated sound, with Lowman Pauling’s Les Paul Custom taking center stage. His ultra distorted sound recalls that of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, who as Young John Watson had recorded a crazed instrumental called Space Guitar for Federal in 1954, all bizarre stops and shrieking feedback and echo noises. Pauling, who would indulge in all manner of guitar acrobatics onstage, would record some truly monstrous guitar noise, the best of the bunch being the 1955 single Say It b/w Messin’ Up, a record that is still ahead of it’s time. Their best single came in 1956– a rocker called Slummer The Slum a sort of protest song with a whacked out guitar solo that never charted but would work its way into the repertoire of almost every white group on the southern frat party circuit (Sun Records last great group– The Jesters would record a fine version that remained un-issued until 2008). Another of their finest moments was the bluesy ballad– Don’t Let It Be In Vain on which Paulman’s guitar cuts like a broken off Thunderbird bottle. The best of the “5” Royales King recordings can be found here.
While at King, Lowman Pauling also began a solo career on the Federal subsidiary, recording some of his greatest tunes including the bluesy I’m A Cool Teenager issued under the name El Pauling & Royalton, and the rockin’ gospel sound of Solid Rock which are particularly good. Lowman Pauling would become a major inspiration on an entire generation of younger guitar players. Steve Cropper for one has never been shy about citing Lowman Pauling as his greatest influence. Another highlight of Paulman’s solo career is Mr. Moon Man pts. 1 & 2, I’m a sucker for outer space records with weird guitar solos.
In 1962, after the aforementioned falling out with James Brown, the “5” Royales moved to Memphis where they signed with the Home Of The Blues label which was connected to the Beale Street record shop where Elvis bought his 45’s. Their first single was a cover of James Brown’s Please Please Please. Their output for Home Of The Blues was varied, including Coasters’ style rock’n’roll (Goofball) and proto-soul (Catch That Teardrop), and Pauling’s guitar was prominent on all these discs, but the small label couldn’t give the Royales a hit and soon they recorded a session for Vee Jay, and then another for Todd (an excellent remake of Baby Don’t Do It), but the times they were a changin’ and by 1963 the “5” Royales had gone their seperate ways. Their Home Of The Blues sides along with Lowman Pauling’s Federal recordings can be found here.
Lowman Pauling died in 1974. The Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame (whose publicist called Danny Fields a couple of weeks ago and asked if Joey Ramone would be available for interviews after the re-dedication ceremony for his award) never heard of him, or the “5” Royales. That’s okay, that’s what I’m here for.