Breaking Ground for Groundbreakers

Legendary guitarist Steve Cropper honors influence of King Records’ 5 Royales

The list of Cincinnati’s King Records acts whose influence on future musicians — often some of the greats of Rock & Roll — has proved greater than their own enduring fame is still growing longer.

The latest addition is Lowman “Pete” Pauling and The “5” Royales.

The Rhythm & Blues vocal group recorded for King from 1954-1959 and was unusual in that Pauling, besides singing bass, played a stinging, bluesy lead electric guitar. He also wrote many of their songs.

The group’s legacy is getting a big boost thanks to the new album Dedicated: A Salute To The 5 Royales by Steve Cropper. Cropper’s guitar work — tight, funky, bluesy but sparklingly danceable and never showboat-y — was a key, defining ingredient of the famous Stax/Volt Memphis Soul sound of the 1960s.

“The purpose of this record is to bring back history and show where a lot of good-feel music and music to dance to comes from,” Cropper says via phone. “It’s a group that basically nobody has heard of. They never really got their chance.”

The “5” Royales came from North Carolina and had roots in Gospel. While they were attuned to Doo-Wop, the members were not teenagers (Pauling was born in 1926 and died of a seizure in 1973) and had an older, more mature lyrical sensibility. The “5” in the group’s name traditionally had quotation marks because they sometimes had six members. (Cropper’s album title drops that punctuation idiosyncrasy.)

The “5” Royales (pronounced “Roy-Als”) had their share of R&B hits, including several on New York’s Apollo Records, before signing with King. Brian Powers, Cincinnati-based King historian and archivist, sees the group as crucial to the label, a key link between its early Jump Blues releases and the later, harder soul of James Brown. But their key contribution, until now, is that while on King they recorded original versions of songs that became classics for others — “Think” (James Brown), “Tell the Truth” (Ray Charles) and “Dedicated to the One I Love” (Shirelles, Mamas and the Papas).

Those songs were written by Pauling, the latter with King producer/A&R executive Ralph Bass. The group’s primary lead was tenor singer was Johnny Tanner, although sometimes his brother Eugene assumed the role.

Cropper was a key member of Memphis’ integrated Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band Booker T. and the MG’s (“Green Onions,” “Hang ‘Em High”). The guitarist, who is white, also played with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas and more Soul giants of the 1960s. In the 1970s, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd tapped him (and bass-playing MG’s partner Donald “Duck” Dunn) as bandleaders for their Blues Brothers act.

On Dedicated, produced by Jon Tiven, Cropper records new, updated versions of “5” Royales songs with such guest vocalists as Lucinda Williams, Sharon King, B.B. King, Buddy Miller, Bettye LaVette and Delbert McClinton, and leaves two songs, including “Think,” for himself to solo. At 70, Cropper feels it’s important to tell his own and younger generations how influential and important a guitarist Pauling was. And, also, how key the “5” Royales recordings for King were in influencing his shaping of Memphis soul.

“You have to incorporate the licks you play within the melody of the song,” Cropper explains. “You have to save room. That’s what I got out of it when I heard (Pauling’s) music, and then when I got to see him play live, he wasn’t all over the place stepping on everything, which would require whoever is doing sound to turn him down and back him away from the singers. Good guitar players who are session guitar players find the holes to play in, and they extend the melody or complement it or play something that leads into the next part of the song.”

The “5” Royales’ live act was considered wildly exciting in their heyday and made them a popular, reliable draw at black clubs, according to Ed Ward in liner notes for 1994’s Monkey Hips and Rice: The “5” Royales Anthology. Cropper can vouch for the impact that the “5” Royales and Pauling made live. As teenagers in the 1950s, he and Dunn went to a crowded club to see the group. Dunn’s brother Bob was the King Records’ representative in Memphis, an important job for the label because the city, home of Sun Records and Elvis, had many radio and jukebox outlets for Roots music. In the ’50s, he kept his brother and Cropper informed of new releases by the Royales and other King acts.

The group played before about 200 people at the show Cropper attended. Pauling was the leader, anchoring the sound and directing the combo that supported the vocalists. But he didn’t try to compete with the singers when he played guitar. He used his talent to complement them. Still, he was a striking visual presence, wearing a long strap to look like a guitar-slinger.

“I went home, somewhere between 12 and 1 in the morning, and I guess I woke my mom up,” Cropper recalls. “I said, ‘Mom, I need some belts.’ I knew what I was going to do; I was going to make my guitar strap longer. I couldn’t wait to do it; I would have done it that night if she’d let me. Lowman seemed to have this thing just standing there. He’d wiggle and play this great show, and I said, ‘Man that is for me. That is really cool.’ ”

Steve Cropper’s DEDICATED: A SALUTE TO THE 5 ROYALES on 429 Records is in stores now.

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