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Any time people talk about best case scenarios in life when trying to justify making a somewhat risky move, this is the default example they should always use for how it could pay off.

Think about it for a minute… a young gospel group from North Carolina with no experience in a studio setting go to New York, sign with a company who cuts a few sides in their preferred milieu and then tells them they’d like the group to try rock ‘n’ roll. They agree to the request and then set about trying to figure HOW to do it.

Just a few months later they score a #1 hit with a song that more or less hits all of the right buttons – a good groove, great instrumental support, slightly racy lyrics and impassioned soulful vocals. Surely the best case scenario that neither the group, nor the record label, could’ve possibly envisioned.

If only it was really this easy…


If What You Say Is True
Making a successful switch from a brand of music which prides itself on its propriety to something that revels in its salaciousness is not achieved by merely changing the words and adding a saxophone and drums. It’s more about the mentality of the singers who are performing it.

Talented singers from any genre can reasonably deliver a melody as it’s written within the confines of the arrangement. But where mindset comes into play is HOW they deliver it to meet the demands of that particular genre and the conviction they convey in doing so.

Gospel acts like The Royal Sons Quintet were trying get across a sense of spiritual salvation in their singing by using the accepted methods of the genre… devout sincerity and passion mixed with a light unburdened soul if you will, suggesting their allegiance to whatever figment of their imagination they had chosen to worship was the source of their hope and optimism.

Upon becoming The “5” Royales, the group had to express much different emotional stakes in their material, such as the intense longing for a girl who was slipping away from them in Baby Don’t Do It. Now this could be accomplished in a variety of ways, from begging and pleading to forceful insistence, each of which could work well in the eyes of rock fans who were used to both approaches.

The choice they made however set them slightly apart from their peers at the time and though it was a long ways from their gospel roots, their voices let you know where they’d come from musically… and moreover, where they were now headed, which qualified as uncharted waters in many respects.


Now You’re Trying To Tell Me…
As this was a massive hit, their first chart topper and their longest charted record at a whopping sixteen weeks, it’s still widely known today and many, if not most, of those recalling tend to think of it as a rather sexualized song thanks to the line ”If you leave me pretty baby I’ll have bread without no meat”, the inference being those were obvious euphemisms for sexual organs.

That certainly may be the case, and intended to be as well, but it’s not the main component of the song. The narrative isn’t about the sex that lead singer Johnny Tanner will be missing out on, but on the fact that he’ll be missing it, and everything else, because the girl is leaving him.

As a result the perspective he has to embody is one of desperation… a subservient position in other words. Weakness…

SHE’S leaving HIM after all.

Yet that slightly sexual reference that people remember, even if they overrate its importance to the story itself, is in part what helps to mitigate that image of being a simpering wuss who is dependent on the girl for his happiness… even though that’s precisely what the rest of the story tells us.

It’s a small detail but an important one, shifting our opinion of him (and those males in the listening audience using it as a surrogate for themselves) from one of frailty to one with a little bit of authority. This is helped even more by the way in which Tanner repeatedly cries out in the chorus “Baby Don’t Do Itdon’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it” until it sounds like a command rather than a plea.

That’s because the words say one thing but the attitude suggests something a little different. Those two choices weren’t necessary for the song to work, plenty of great songs have taken the more obvious route, but it unquestionably made this jump out because it was just unexpected enough in the context of the song to be noticed and for it to change your impression of it in the bargain.

What else is noticed here is the rough texture of their gospel harmonies and the call and response nature of that chorus which was another gospel staple giving rock fans something else new to take in, all topped off by the way in which they revealed their emotions while still holding back on exposing them too much, resulting in more dynamic tension.


How Good You Made It Sound
With Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson’s band riding roughshod behind them (you surely remember that he was one of the reasons why Jimmy Liggins’ Drops Of Joy were the best rock band of the late 1940’s), the song manages to have a very loose feel within an otherwise tight arrangement. His sax is bobbing up and down like a cork on the ocean behind the vocals, then swelling like a wave about to come crashing down on them all during the wilder breaks heading into the chorus.

As a result of this 90% of Baby Don’t Do It is coiled energy that keeps building and building, with just ten percent being the payoff.

But even that is drawn out until the climax they’re hinting at is almost completely subverted by how they just keep repeating the same line over and over, a technique that more often than not gets annoying when used, offering repetition with no conceptual point to make, like it had on their last record You Know I Know.

But not here.

Here it works because it provides an emotional payoff without a thematic resolution. The outcome is still up in the air by the time the record ends and whether you choose to believe the despair they show means it will end with her leaving, or if the hope he’s got in his voice as he’s insisting she not go convinces you that she’ll concede and stick around, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is his insistency in delivering those words, as if he felt the more he said them the more powerful his position became, even if it didn’t appear to be swaying her decision. Because of the raised stakes of that open-ended conflict you’ll listen again and again in hopes something new will present itself and provide you with the answer you’re seeking. When artists can do that to you, it’s hard NOT to get a hit record.


I’ve Given You All Of Me
All of the stylistic pieces that went into this, from the gospel training to the divergent theme and the raucous backing, blended together so well that there’s never a sense of it having mismatched parts thrown together by an inexperienced group trying to figure out on the fly what rock was all about.

This record convinced you they knew it already.

Emotional conviction comes first, before the musical components are settled upon or the final details of the lyrics are in place. The “5” Royales themselves had to go into Baby Don’t Do It knowing the impression they were trying to make and then couldn’t hold back on delivering it.

We rarely think of groups like this as being song stylists. That’s reserved for elegant jazz singers who caress lyrics and play with the melody and inject their unique personality into it, or maybe solo rock singers who pour their heart out on slow songs and draw attention to their technique. But here Johnny Tanner singing Lowman Pauling’s carefully crafted lines, give a different example of what that word really means, as they forcibly change the response you have to a song because of how they express themselves in the process.

The song on paper may be straightforward in other words, but the true meaning is found only when you hear them sing it.

That so many heard it and responded so positively to it means rock suddenly has some new stars from an unlikely place singing in a slightly new way. As a result the landscape this music is painting just got a little broader, the colors a little sharper and the vista a little more brilliant.


(Visit the Artist page of The “5” Royales for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)