YOU HAVEN'T HEARD OF LOWMAN?
YOU HAVEN'T HEARD OF LOWMAN?
(This essay was written twenty years ago. I updated it for language and style, and added addenda for publication on this blog, earlier this week, when the 5 Royales were finally inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.)
It was fourteen or fifteen years ago and the telephone conversation went something like this:
JIM PERLMAN: Hello Mr. Bass. My name is Jim Perlman and I read about the record album Dedicated to You which you produced in 1958 for the 5 Royales in this book called Stranded [Edited by Greil Marcus where a bunch of rock critics review the one and only record they would want if stranded on a desert island.]. The reason I am calling is that I have been unable to find a copy of this record and I was hoping you might have an extra copy laying around for a nice Jewish boy who will give the album a real good home.
RALPH BASS: Gee, I’m sorry, I don't even have a copy of the album myself.
Well, I guess if the man who was the producer of the 5 Royales let this glorious music slip through his hands, it's understandable that most of the rest of us really don't know all that much about the 5 Royales, and their extraordinary rock paradigm trailblazer Lowman Pauling, other than by either the Shirelles, or the Momas and Popas, covers of Pauling's gem "Dedicated to the One I Love" or the Godfather of Soul's cover of "Think". However, with the help of Rhino Records, who just released a two disc anthology entitled Monkey Hips and Rice which contains, not only all of Dedicated To You, but about 30 other songs, and yours truly, this is about to change. At least as far as the Cook County Public Defender's neck of the woods is concerned.
The 5 Royales started their recording career in 1952 and, like many black vocal groups of this era, their music was firmly rooted in gospel, and later, doo-wop music. But, very rapidly after recording their first sides, they broke out into the more secular theme of romantic love. While their most obvious strong suit was the lovely, pleading, tenor vocals of lead singer Johnny Tanner, or his brother Eugene, and the intricate harmonies which the other Royales supplied, there was a crucial difference in this group. At this time in popular music, most of the groups were cover artists who recorded songs written by professional songwriters. The 5 Royales were rather unique in that they had an in-house songwriter by the name of Lowman Pauling. This accorded the group the opportunity to dabble in different styles with ease. And, indeed, this was the hallmark of the 5 Royales' career. When one listens to this music one experiences a group which initially relied upon the common shuffling drum rhythms popular in gospel music, a tenor sax as the solo instrument, and a piano in the background. Yet, less than a year later, in songs like “Too Much Lovin’,”the drums had taken on the New Orleans backbeat. This is the beat which came to dominate rock music for the next forty years.
Yet, this was only one of the changes Pauling brought to the 5 Royales' music. At a very early stage, after only one year, Pauling had begun experimenting with different tempos within the songs, extending the sax solos, important aspects of jazz, while still maintaining the closely crafted vocal harmonies and the rock backbeat. Similar, interesting things were happening with the lyrics as well. Listen closely to the 5 Royales' 1952 single "Laundromat Blues" and you will find numerous wonderful double-entendres about the protagonist's girlfriend who has the best “washing machine” in town. Closer attention to the lyrics will reveal a very erudite, playful and creative lyricist at work. When you add all these musical components together, the picture is of a creative force who was very close to putting together all the important aspects of rock 'n roll, and it wasn't the end of 1955. If the story were to end here, this would still be a terrific musical legacy.
But then something very startling happened. Out of the clear blue, in 1955, Lowman Pauling, in a song with an American Indian hook entitled "Mohawk Squaw,” not only introduced a guitar to the musical mixture, it was an electric guitar to boot. Kids, this was as revolutionary as Dylan going electric, because it was the final component to the standard rock 'n roll configuration of vocal harmonies, backbeat, guitar, piano, sax, bass, in-house songwriter and songs about romantic love. From here on, Lowman Pauling was on fire. At this point, not only did he have the vocal harmonies to play with, as well as the saxophone and piano as solo instruments, he now possessed the ability to add a third lead instrument, the electric guitar, to the trading-off between the sax and the piano. In a sense, now he could do with instruments, what he had previously been doing with the vocals: Weave them together, contrast them, use them as calls and responses. In 1955, Lowman Pauling had brought together, in one place, what was to be the foundation of the next forty years of popular music. And he wasn't finished pushing the musical envelope, because besides being a first rate songwriter, Lowman Pauling was an electric guitar god; he was Zorro with six steel strings.
In the discography, which follows the essays in Stranded, Greil Marcus writes this about Lowman Pauling: "Once upon a time, Eric Clapton would have paid to hold his coat." Disc two of Monkey Hips and Rice amply demonstrates why there isn't a hint of hyperbole in Marcus's remark. Hear it for yourself. It's in the way Pauling's guitar jumps all over not only songs like "Think," "Messing Up," and his most widely known song, "Dedicated To The One I Love.” It's in the fact that his solos, all at once, exhibit swing, the blues and rock. And most of all it is in the startling, kinetic, savage pain his guitar brings to songs like "Say It,” "The Slummer the Slum," and one, bad-assed, song titled “Don’t Let It Be In Vein”. Hearing these songs makes clear that by 1958 Pauling had done what Clapton has been trying to do for all these years -- and Pauling was a better, smarter, more complex songwriter! There is perfection in this world, and it's in the guise of an effortless, tasteful, Lowman Pauling guitar part and the songs of which they are a seamless part.
One of the highlights of a mid-to-late 1970's Bruce Springsteen concert was always the story during "Growing Up" where Bruce tells about going up to the top of the mountain to speak directly with God about his vocation after being admonished by family, teachers, and clergy: "Tell Him you want to be a doctor. Tell Him you want to be an author. But don't tell Him nothing about that goddamn guitar!" So when Bruce finally gets to the top of the mountain, only after a quick stop at Earl Schieb to make his car suitable for the Man, Bruce kneels-down, and addresses God. He explains that he needs guidance about his career. Everybody thinks he should be a doctor or an author, but Bruce sheepishly confides to God: "But you see, I've got this guitar." The next thing Bruce knows, he sees the lightning, he hears the thunder and then three simple words: "LET IT ROCK!!" Before Bruce, before Eric, before Jimi, before Carlos, before just about anybody else, Lowman Pauling heard this advice and he followed it to a very lofty peak. Now, you can climb to this lofty peak and hear it for yourself. In the process, you might just find your own desert island disc.
James Perlman – 1994
Addenda (December 20, 2014):
1. I wrote this essay in 1994, although I had started trying to find 5 Royales albums back in 1979 when I first read Stranded. All I could find in 1979 was a single, 17 song, compilation on vinyl. By 1988, there were CDs of two of their albums, but still no Dedicated To You. I have no recollection of when I developed the main thesis of this essay, but I do know it was developed independent from what I just discovered Dave Marsh wrote about the 5 Royales, in 1989, in his book The Heart Of Rock And Soul (The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made). In the first sentence of Marsh’s summary of “The Slummer The Slum” Marsh writes: “More evidence toward the theory of the Royales as the first genuinely modern rock band.” In fact, of the 1001 singles Marsh summarizes, three 5 Royales recordings are in the book, four if you count the Shirelles’ cover of “Dedicated To The One I Love.”
This past week, when the 5 Royales were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, under the category of “Early Influence”, the summary of the 5 Royales on the Hall’s web site skirts around the same conclusion.
2. In 1979, when Stranded was published, so little was commonly known about the 5 Royales that, near the end of the chapter about Dedicated To You, the chapter’s author, Ed Ward, confesses to making most of it up: “I made all of that up. Not all of it, actually, but most of it. The part about me at R. J. Reynolds is true, but the rest of it only touches down here and there.” But, inside the music business, particularly guitarist, musicians like Steve Cropper and John Fogerty, Lowman Pauling is, with justification, revered.
3. Monkey Hips And Rice is long out of print. But it can be purchased used on Amazon.
© Copyright James N. Perlman. 2014 All rights reserved.