The first soul group in rock ‘n’ roll history had a brief flurry of meteoric success in the early to mid-1950’s and when their commercial fortunes faded after switching labels their musical advances actually became more profound leading them to exert a good deal of influence over the next generation of acts before their roles in that evolution seemed to be lost to history and they went decades as a fairly obscure cult name and little more.

The group began in 1938 when the members were all kids in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, singing gospel and forming The Royal Sons Quintet comprised of brothers Lowman and Clarence Pauling, plus two cousins and a friend, Bill Samuels. Johnny Tanner joined in 1943 when one of the members was drafted and a year later Otto Jefferies and Jimmy Moore joined up, ironically when the now 18 year old Tanner went into the military towards the end of World War Two.

The act was well known locally during this time, performing three radio shows a week and touring around the region, even venturing into nearby states. Clarence Pauling would drop out in 1948, later emerging with Motown in the 1960’s as the producer for Stevie Wonder under the name Clarence Paul. The group’s early lineup was now more or less set with Tanner on lead, Moore and Samuels as tenors, Pauling as baritone, songwriter and guitarist and Jefferies singing bass, when they signed with Apollo Records in 1951 on the strength of a gospel demo they’d sent.

After cutting two sides in the auditorium of a local teacher’s college that summer which later saw release as The Royal Sons Quintet, they reconvened a few months later and were asked to switch to rock ‘n’ roll, despite having no experience in singing anything more racy than White Christmas. They proved to be fast learners as Pauling took a gospel melody and wrote new lyrics for their first single released in the fall of 1951 but their next two releases came as a gospel act on the label, even though their second such record was clearly rocking in a musical sense.

By this point Samuels had been drafted for yet another war being fought and so Obediah Carter took his place (Samuels would later show up with The Casanovas and some bad blood existed between the groups as a result). It’d be awhile before the group were back in the studios, now having honed their sound and backed by former Jimmy Liggins sideman, saxophonist Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson and his band, the group’s records began breaking through with back to back chart topping hits released at the end of 1952 and early 1953.

Having scored five top Ten hits in two years the group were big enough to force another act calling themselves The Royals to change their name to The Midnighters to avoid confusion and ironically it’d be that act who’d take their place as not only the biggest vocal group in rock over the next year or two, but also would overshadow them when The “5” Royales accepted a bigger offer to move from Apollo to King Records in 1954, around the time when Jefferies stepped aside to become their road manager, still joining them occasionally in the studio as needed, but replaced by Johnny’s brother Eugene Tanner.

It was there the hits dried up, whether because they were lost in the shuffle of one of the deepest record companies of the era who didn’t push them as strongly as Apollo had, or if it was because their music was too earthy sounding compared to the ever younger-sounding teen vocal group acts hitting big at the time. In spite of this The “5” Royales stint on King produced some of the best records of the day, now featuring Pauling’s blistering electric guitar leads and more diverse compositions as he moved away from the gospel frameworks he’d favored at Apollo, yet their singles were commercially still born until finally, after three years, they began to score again, albeit in much more limited fashion.

Yet it’s those songs, including “Think” and “Dedicated To The One I Love”, along with “Say It”, “Tell The Truth” and “The Slummer The Slum” which other acts took to the top (James Brown, The Shirelles, Ray Charles among them) in the coming years, and it’s largely this era on which The “5” Royales’ lofty reputation now rides.

With soul music on the verge of becoming the primary style of black rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960’s, The “5” Royales should’ve at least been elder statesmen for that transition since it was they who fully merged the gospel vocal techniques with rock, but frustration over the lack of hits, group infighting and a switch to smaller labels like House Of Blues meant that, despite a few excellent later efforts, the group was reliant on touring to make a living. Though they still had a following down south, they splintered by the mid-1960’s, all taking regular jobs, though Pauling still played guitar on tour behind various artists as well.

When he died in 1973, the group was all but forgotten, but over the next twenty years a few faithful followers began trying to revive interest in the group and unlike most campaigns this one was largely successful, helped in large part to the CD era in which older recordings saw the light of day again with much of their music being available for the first time in decades.

The surviving group were officially recognized by the state of North Carolina, having a street named after them in their hometown and slowly a handful of their songs began to receive serious critical re-evaluation and today are considered among the most important in rock history. The group’s massive influence finally became widely acknowledged, capped off by their posthumous induction into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame by one of their most devoted fans, Booker T. & The MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper.

The “5” Royales – five in quotations because there were sometimes six of them, and pronounced Roy-AHLS – only briefly ruled the charts but their legacy lasted far beyond most even if in their case it took nearly a half century to be properly credited for all they accomplished.
THE “5” ROYALES DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Apollo 434; November, 1951)
A ragged but brilliantly written and arranged record in which they reworked a gospel tune and made it a rock ‘n’ roll stage play complete with dueling characters and a Greek chorus, not even the thin musical backing and some vocals pitched too high can obscure its creativity. (6)

(Apollo 434; November, 1951)
Jumping in the deep end of rock ‘n’ roll after their gospel start, the group finds the pool filled with booze and splash around with joyful contentment thanks to a rolling piano boogie behind them and slyly enthusiastic vocals by the group. (7)

(Apollo 441; August, 1952)
Taking a gospel melody and crafting new lyrics works tremendously well for the group as Johnny Tanner delivers a delicate lead in his highest range while the arrangement layers different instruments to give it a fuller sound in a style they’d rarely try again. (8)

(Apollo 441; August, 1952)
A racy uptempo song contrasts well with the tender flip side and actually became a decent sized hit but while most of the parts – from the vibrant singing to the great sax work and drumming – are first rate, the vocal hook itself is repetitive and by the end almost monotonous. (6)

(Apollo 443; December, 1952)
By presenting their begging romantic plea with a hint of sexual frustration and Johnny Tanner’s increasingly insistent delivery, they alter the perception of the song while their rough gospel harmonies and rousing instrumental backing add to the vibrant colors. (9)

(Apollo 443; December, 1952)
Though the other side has a racy reputation, this side is far raunchier, as Johnny Tanner’s girl is an insatiable sex addict who won’t let him take a breather between hook-ups while the others on the record eagerly wait for their turn should he collapse from exhaustion. (9)