Heritage Search

Obadiah Carter
Folk/Traditional Music Winston-Salem
1992 N.C. Heritage Award Recipient

Forty years ago, five young men from Winston-Salem, North Carolina traveled to New York City to record for the Apollo Records label. It was a heady experience for a talented homegrown gospel quintet named the Royal Sons. Comprised of brothers Johnny and Eugene Tanner, Lowman Pauling, Obadiah Carter and Jimmy Moore, the Royal Sons had a gospel sound to match the most popular groups of the day.

After cutting several gospel songs, the Apollo management wanted the group to try a rhythm and blues number. As it happened, Lowman Pauling had penned a couple of secular songs "You Know I Know" and "Courage to Love," which the group recorded with the backing of the label's studio musicians. The songs were released on disk in the fall of 1952. "You Know I Know" became a hit, and the follow-up "Baby, Don't Do It" topped the R & B Charts.

The success of these records persuaded the Royal Sons to devote their full energies to rhythm and blues and to change their name to "The Five Royales." With the support of Apollo's publicity department, the group took to the road. They appeared at the top black clubs and theaters throughout the country, including New York's Apollo Theatre, Atlanta's Royal Peacock Club, and San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium. The Royales' management estimated that the group performed before a million people a year in the early to mid-1950s.

The story of The Five Royales is a study in the evolution of traditional African-American vocal music. Their style is solidly rooted in the gospel and spiritual harmonies they perfected as youngsters in the 1940s, singing in churches and on street corners. Their transition to R & B was, in the words of writer Danny Adler, marked by a refusal "to dilute their style to sound like most other groups who cultivated the smooth appeal of 'The Ink Spots,' 'The Ravens,' and 'The Orioles'...[choosing instead] to develop a hard-edged urgency which kept their sound fresh."

The Five Royales were a powerful influence on other R & B artists, who were at the formative stage of their careers. James Brown and his Famous Flames borrowed heavily from the group's performing style, and Brown made a huge hit from the Lowman Pauling song "Think." Ray Charles was another admirer, who recorded, along with Ike and Tina Turner, the Royales' song "To Tell the Truth."

As Johnny Tanner says, "The Five Royales were before their time." They enjoyed a long ride on the black charts but were unable to penetrate the white pop music market. The group went through a number of personnel changes as it progressed through the 1950s and finally gave up the road in the early '60s. One of their last dates was in Dallas on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. Most of the members returned to quiet lives in Winston-Salem. Lowman Pauling, the celebrated songwriter and guitar player for the group, died in 1974.

Beach music fans and popular music historians have begun to confer legendary status on The Five Royales in recent years. And their contributions have become better known at home. In 1991, the City of Winston-Salem named a street for the group. The music of The Five Royales lives on through a number of special reissue recordings, and through enduring hits such as the Lowman Pauling composition "This is Dedicated to the One I Love," so successfully covered by the Shirelles and the Mamas and the Papas.

photo: Mary Anne MacDonald