Saturday, October 8, 2011

Say It, 5 Royales (1957)

Yeah I know, I was 5 when Say It came out. And I wasn't aware of it when I was 15, 25 or any other age I've been that ends in 5, either. The truth is, I've only just in the last month discovered the song and the 5 Royales, thanks to Steve Cropper and his recently-released salute to the group, Dedicated.

Cropper has assembled some impressive music business luminaries to interpret the 5 Royales' canon. He wanted to pay homage to Lowman Pauling, the axe man who first ignited Cropper's lifelong passion for the guitar and all that could be done with it, and who wrote most of their records, including Say It. 

If Pauling can be deemed responsible for giving us Cropper, I'm all for him and want to know more. That's because Steve Cropper, in one way or another, was involved in virtually every record that came out of Stax in Memphis during its 60s heyday - as guitarist, A&R man, Otis Redding's and Eddie Floyd's songwriting partner, founding member of the Stax house band the Mar-Keys and then Booker T & the MGs. He is the Steve of the "Play it, Steve" interjection by Sam Moore on Sam & Dave's Soul Man.

As an underage youth, Cropper heard the 5 Royales in a Memphis club and was enthralled with the sound Pauling created as well as his style. Pauling was a showman of the highest order, but what he could wring out of the guitar - in both a lead and a rhythm capacity, depending on the need - blew Cropper's mind.

"He was one guitar player doing it all, rhythm to back up the singer and fills as a soloist, back and forth," Cropper said in an interview. "He'd play a lot of what we call shuffles. Then when he felt like putting in a lick, it would take him a second to reach down and then get back to it. That separation between rhythm and lead, and never stepping on the vocal, really got my attention. I kind of designed my own playing to stay out of the way of the vocal, too."

The opportunity to shine a light on Pauling, who Cropper never met despite having seen him live, was appealing but also humbling. And what a job he did with the project. Not being familiar with anything other than the classic Dedicated to the One I Love, which was covered by the Shirelles in 1961 and by the Mamas and Papas in 1967, I found this well-crafted compendium to be a priceless education on a group that influenced not only Cropper but also James Brown and many others. (Brown's hit Think was originally a 5 Royales hit.)

The North Carolina natives came together in the 1940s as a gospel group, the Royal Sons, but as R&B gained a foothold in the 50s, they started to secularize their music, often quite provocatively, and were among the first to do so.

I'm sure Cropper went ape over Pauling's licks on Say It, but what I have fixated on in most of the cuts on Dedicated is the songwriting itself. The Five Royales could be heart-rending, swinging, and downright goofy as far as their lyrics went. In the gut-busting interpretation of Bettye LaVette, Say It (her version thus far is not on YouTube) pretty much falls into the heart-rending category.

Most of the rest of Dedicated is just as enthralling, whichever end of the emotional spectrum it puts you on. Whether it's Buddy Miller's nuttily addicting rendition of The Slummer the Slum or my man Dan Penn's inspiring Someone Made You For Me, this is not to be missed by those who thirst for knowledge about our music's history. 

In 1992 the then-surviving Royales - the two lead singing brothers Johnny and Eugene Tanner and Jimmy Moore - were bestowed the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. It was to be their last performance together. Here's a priceless video of that stirring occasion. 



Holly A Hughes said...

You've done it again -- opened up an entire cache of music history that I suddenly find I NEED to know. There goes another couple hours of my life as I start to tunnel down into this catalog. Brilliant stuff!

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