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FEDERAL 12088; JULY 1952



In music a record label is defined largely by their assets.

Hit records are the prime measuring stick, the hot artists at the moment represent the heavily traded stocks, those who have the highest current market value, the one who at a glance tell you how strong the company is sitting at a given time. But they’re not the only way to tabulate a company’s worth.

There are long term holdings, like bonds… past hitmakers in other words, those who may not still be cranking out hits but who remain recognizable names that attract attention for the label and give them some credence in the industry.

But then there are untested acts… the futures market so to speak, which relies on instinct and gut feeling and the ability to predict what is to come… riskier ventures but with potentially higher returns.

That’s where The Royals fit in when it came to the King/Federal/DeLuxe roster… no sure thing, but definitely worth investing in to see if they’d pay off down the road.


Somewhere ‘Neath The Stars Above
Maybe this was not intentional but you gotta admit it worked out pretty damn well all things considered.

As we just covered with this week’s lackluster single by King Records’ longtime headliner, Wynonie Harris, that label’s cache was running on fumes by now. Other than The Swallows, a group with just one hit, all of their rock acts were those who had ruled the late 1940’s. In addition to Harris there was Sonny Thompson, Todd Rhodes, Dave Bartholomew, Earl Bostic… still talented musicians with important roles to fill, but no so much as headlining acts any more.

DeLuxe Records still hadn’t filled out their roster beyond Roy Brown, which left it to Federal Records, owned by Syd Nathan yet run by Ralph Bass, to pick up the slack. When their big signee Little Esther didn’t continue her past run of success, and they failed to secure the services of her mentor Johnny Otis, who went back on their verbal agreement so he could sign with Mercury instead, things may have looked bleak for Federal if not for new artists with no prior track record who kept the money rolling in.

The Dominoes were the immediate stars, reeling off a string of massive hits and influencing the entire genre in the process, but they were hardly alone in ensuring that Federal Records would be taken seriously, as they were putting together a bunch of talented, if unheralded, acts spanning a wide array of rock styles that would forge the company’s artistic direction and allow them to soon to overtake parent company King Records (at least temporarily) as the cornerstone of Nathan’s empire.

The Royals wouldn’t be the beneficiaries of that, at least not by that name or in this specific style, as their last single under that name would quickly be re-issued as by The Midnighters, the name which they’d become stars.

But as shown on the haunting ballads that comprised their first two releases, and which is re-affirmed on what might be their best in that style, Moonrise, they were equally proficient with this approach featuring Charles Sutton as the lead vocalist as they would be in their later raunchy uptempo style with Hank Ballard out in front.

Granted it didn’t get them or Federal any hits, (well, a regional one in Philly for whatever that’s worth to you) but if you were looking to invest in one of the departments of their company, their presence on this imprint would surely help convince you to buy up shares of Federal rather than pay bigger bucks for the fading stars on King because this is yet another song that is indicates a bull market is imminent.


When You Shine Your Light
Give credit to the company, despite getting little returns from these guys they weren’t skimping on giving them the full treatment in the studio.

The Royals’ guitarist and musical director Alonzo Tucker wrote this and shows that, once again, it’s original material made to accentuate the group’s strengths that are the most impactful as this is just beautiful from start to finish.

Before we even get to the singing let’s take a second to focus on the musical bed it’s built on. Maybe “bed” is a misnomer… a hammock might be more appropriate, because at a glance it hardly seems to be a firm mattress for their vocals to rest on. Instead this is intentionally sparse, loosely held together by a few key attributes yet still using just as much empty space as solid material for the webbed pattern it spins. But like a hammock it is remarkably supportive for what they need.

You’d think with Tucker having written it that the primary instrumental support would be his guitar, but instead it’s the chimes-like celesta they put on it and the crisp dry drumming, the combination of which makes it seem as if the record is floating in the sky and yet rooted firmly to the ground at the same time.

The rest is all voices, maybe the best The Royals ever sounded as a unit, as Moonrise plays up that late-night dreamy ambiance wherein Sutton is lost in his thoughts over a girl while the wordless harmonies by the others give the impression of what clouds would feel like to touch.

Even when the song starts to take a left turn – possibly a wrong turn if it goes too far down the path – during the bridge, where the singing becomes slightly more pedestrian after the instrumental touches are ramped up as the lead-in and Henry Booth echoes the last words of each line, it somehow manages to hold the curve enough so as not to leave the road. The idea itself can’t be questioned as it serves to break up the song’s pattern nicely, but what we crave is that lullaby melody pouring back into our ears again.

When it returns, though it’s still as softly sung and delicately phrased as ever, it somehow delivers a jolt to your senses, showing just how magical that combination of notes sung in that tone are. The performance and production are both so well-judged, so discreet in their ability to mesmerize you, that the song washes over you rather than sinks in, leaving you to think of it almost like a dream from which you awake just before dawn, never sure what was real and what was fantasy, yet clinging stubbornly to your memory throughout the day.


Now The Day Is Through
In 1952 the changing landscape of the rock vocal group meant that delicate ballads like this were potentially becoming anachronistic. How could something this fragile… almost transparent by nature… possibly compete with the more radical songs being put out by The Dominoes or Clovers?

After all we’ve recently seen the diminishing returns by other groups taking this approach, be it The Five Keys, The Four Buddies, The Larks or the aforementioned Swallows and we know from experience that most of the time when the audience moves away from something, the labels may keep trying to score with it but the public never regains interest once that initial crush has dissipated.

Yet anyone banking on the recent downturn in interest for songs like Moonrise to hold firm would be disappointed, as it would prove to be
a premature obituary for a sound that would soon make a welcome return on the charts.

Ironically though The Royals, who thus far have perfected that atmospheric type of song, wouldn’t be positioned to take advantage of its subsequent rise between 1953-1955 even though that would be their own prime years of commercial impact.

As a result records like this which pre-date that revival, as well as pre-date their own stylistic reinvention under a different name with a different lead, kind of get robbed of some credit along the way, as the group itself is more famous for what followed while the hitmakers who capitalized on this sort of record get the kudos for realizing its potential while The Royals are mentioned merely in passing.

But you have to believe that those who made their names singing in this fashion just around the corner were doing so in large part to see if they could dare hope to match something this exquisitely beautiful themselves.

No matter how well some of them did though even they’d have to admit it’d be hard for anyone to ever beat this.


(Visit the Artist page of The Royals for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)