Here’s your starter for ten. Which early 1950s rhythm and blues combo never had what you’d call a real pop hit of their own but saw their songs covered successfully by the likes of Ray Charles, James Brown, The Shirelles, The Mamas and Papas and Mick Jagger?
I’ll give you another clue. They were led by a guitar player who influenced the legendary Steve Cropper so much that Cropper has confessed to stealing some of the guy’s best licks for use on soul sessions with The Mar-Keys.
Full marks to anybody who knows it was The “5” Royales from Winston-Salem in North Carolina. And further bonus points if you identified the guitarist – who also wrote the majority of their material – as Lowman ‘El’ Pauling.
The “5” Royales began life in the 1940s as a gospel group called the Royal Sons Quintet but changed that to The Royals when they went secular and signed to New York’s Apollo label in 1952.
Almost immediately they clashed with another legendary R’n’B figure Hank Ballard whose backing band was also billed as The Royals. So Pauling and his posse tacked an ‘e’ on the end of their name and then, jokingly, put a 5 in speech marks on the front to reflect the fact that there were often six of them on stage!
After that The Royales started taking care of business. Their first clutch of Apollo singles garnered four Top 5 R’n’B hits between 1952 and 1954 with moody midtempo sides like Baby Don’t Do It, Help Me Somebody and a deliciously lascivious Laundromat Blues.
Each featured the sound of Pauling’s heavily distorted – and hugely innovative – lead guitar which, nearly 10 years later, was to prove such an inspiration to the young Steve Cropper and his contemporaries.
But when their next release I Like It Like That ( which is the soundtrack to a James Villas – Holidays The Way You Like It ad currently doing the rounds) failed to make the charts The Royales moved to Syd Nathan’s King Records. There they ought to have enjoyed some genuine crossover success but somehow it never quite happened for them.
Their most successful single came in 1957 with Think (which gave James Brown his debut Billboard Top 40 entry three years later). That scraped up to Number 66 while their original rendition of the classic Dedicated To The One I Love failed to register at all.
The “5” Royales effectively broke up in 1965 and you might expect that Pauling lived quite comfortably on the royalties earned from those smash hit versions of Dedicated… by first The Shirelles and then The Mamas And Papas. Ray Charles’ cover of the Royales Tell The Truth on his In Person album of 1960 must have been worth a penny or two as well. But sadly Pauling drank it all away and was working as a janitor when he died suddenly in 1973 aged 47. So he never got to Mick Jagger’s performance of Think on his 1993 solo album Wandering Spirit. Not that he missed much.
Our next featured artist also ended his life in reduced circumstances, this time as a Los Angeles bus driver and tour guide during the 1980s. His name was Thurston Harris and in 1957 he was looking down on the world from Number 6 in the pop charts with Little Bitty Pretty One. It was a million seller on the same Aladdin label which numbered the likes of Louis Jordan, Shirley &Lee, Lightning Hopkins and Lester Young on its roster of influential blues and jazz artists. But unlike his labelmates Harris proved to be a one hit wonder and soon faded away.
Nevertheless, for our money his take on Little Bitty…is up there alongside the likes of Reet Petite and Boy From New York City as one of old school R’n’B’s finest floorfillers. So it is good to hear it in the British Heart Foundation’s Ramp Up The Red commercial.
The song was written by one Bobby Day who was reputedly the original Bob in Bob & Earl of New York Shuffle fame and also penned Over And Over which was a big hit for the Dave Clark Five in 1965. But Day hit his career high in 1958 when, under the pseudonym of Jimmie Thomas, he had a Number 2 hit with the same Rockin’ Robin which was to be Michael Jackson’s second solo single in 1972.
Spookily perhaps, The Jackson Five also figure in the long list of solid gold stars who have covered Little Bitty Pretty One over the last 50 years. They include Frankies Avalon and Lymon, Clyde McPhatter, Cliff Richard, Lindisfarne, Huey Lewis and the News and The Doobie Brothers. But there are no prizes for guessing which one we reckon is the best.
And finally, while we’re talking about great old songs which have been recorded by a host of big stars, spare a thought for Are You Having Any Fun? Penned in 1939 by Jack Yellen (who was also responsible for standards like Happy Days Are Here Again and Ain’t She Sweet) and film composer Sammy Fain, this was a wartime hit for British song and dance duo Flanagan and Allen while Tony Bennett cut it with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1959. Dig around on You Tube and you’ll find film of Bennett and Elvis Costello joining forces on the number which is well worth a look.
Meanwhile P&O Ferries are currently using a Latin interpretation by veteran Broadway comedienne Elaine Stritch in their latest ad. Readers may remember Stritch co-starring with Donald Sinden in the LWT sitcom Two’s Company in 1975. By the time she made this remarkably feisty and tongue-in-cheek recording of Fun…some 20 years later, Elaine Stritch was in her seventies. Only you’d never know it!