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Death of a Soul Man: R.I.P. Johnny Tanner

16 December 2005

In DAVE MARSH’s The 1000 Greatest Singles Ever Made, LINK WRAY is represented—of course—by “Rumble” at a respectable #461. THE “5” ROYALES, in contrast, place “This Is Dedicated to the One I Love” (#188), “Think” (#422), “Baby, Don’t Do It” (#943), and “The Slummer the Slum” (#962) on the roster of great singles – just one less than BOB DYLAN. The “5” Royales were no ordinary R&B group; their 1953 hit “Help Me Somebody” (five weeks at #1 on the R&B chart) counts as a pioneering moment in the birth of soul with its transformation of gospel material into pop gold. (For historical perspective, consider that RAY CHARLES – who covered the Royales’ “Tell the Truth” – had his first big hit with “I Got a Woman” in 1954.)

So when The “5” Royales’ great lead vocalist, JOHNNY TANNER, died of cancer on November 8, twenty days short of Tanner’s 79th birthday and three days after Wray’s death, did Tanner’s passing get four times as much coverage as Wray’s? Quite the opposite. I learned of Tanner’s death not from an obituary, but as a passing observation in a column devoted to radio. When I later Googled “Johnny Tanner,” the only obit that came up wasn’t even American, but rather in one of England’s finest newspapers, The Guardian (although Tanner’s hometown paper, the Winston-Salem Journal, published one under his given name of John L. Tanner).

Tanner got his start in THE ROYAL SONS, a long-standing gospel group in Winston-Salem, NC. He joined in 1943, then rejoined in 1950 after serving in the Korean War. The group began recording for the Apollo label in 1951 and tried out secular material as The Royals later that year, then early the next year changed its name to The “5” Royales. By the end of the year, they’d put out their first hit: “Baby Don’t Do It” spent three weeks at #1 on the R&B chart. “Help Me Somebody” followed four months later and made them stars; three more Apollo singles made the R&B Top 10 over the next year or so.

The switch to the bigger King label in mid-1954 didn’t pay off, at least in terms of chart action, until 1957, when not only did “Tears of Joy” and “Think” (covered by JAMES BROWN) both reach #9 on Billboard’s R&B chart, the latter crossed over to the pop chart, reaching #66. And “This Is Dedicated to the One I Love” (with the lead sung by Johnny’s younger brother Eugene) didn’t make much impact at the time, but covers by the SHIRELLES and later THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS made it their most famous song. In 1961, King reissued it to cash in on the Shirelles’ success; The “5” Royales’ original version then reached #81 on the pop chart. By that point, the guys were creatively spent; they broke up in 1966. For many years Johnny Tanner, whose impassioned tenor voice used to ooze sexual seduction and randy exuberance, refused to sing secular music, though in the 1990s he had a change of heart and performed at oldies shows.

The “5” Royales didn’t have a huge number of hits, but many non-hits, including such favorites as “Monkey Hips and Rice,” “Right Around the Corner, “Say It,” and “Do the Cha Cha Cherry,” were just as good. And they influenced some of the greatest artists of their time, as the Charles and Brown covers show. So why so little attention? Rather than seeing The “5” Royales as great masters and an integral part of the story, the rock-oriented music critic lazily keep the agreed-on history of music shorter and simpler by ignoring any R&B artists below the popularity level of, say, FATS DOMINO. But a world in which The “5” Royales are ignored will be a world missing out on some great music.

Oh, and I’ll take LOWMAN PAULING, the Royales’ guitarist (STEVE CROPPER idolized him), over Link Wray any day (no knock on Wray, just my personal taste). Check out Pauling’s coruscating sound on “Say It” and “Think,” and his pungently soulful interjections on “This Is Dedicated to the One I Love,” just to cite three 1957 records, to hear why.

 

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