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Classic of the Week

The "5" Royales: "Monkey Hips and Rice", (Anthology), Rhino

March 31, 1994|JIM WASHBURN

Quite apart from the hit parade, musicians have always had their own standards of who the top acts of any given time are. For a wide chunk of the 1950s, The "5" Royales were one of the standards to aspire to in R & B.

The North Carolina-formed sextet (hence the quotes around the "5") had a few hits, but it was others who found the most success with their songs "Dedicated to the One I Love" and "Think." James Brown didn't only cop the latter song from the Royales, but much of his flashy stage act as well. In their heyday, the Royales were legends for their wildly acrobatic shows, which, coupled with formidable musical abilities, made them a group no performer wanted to follow onstage. One can only imagine the dance steps, but, fortunately, the potency of their music came across on record, and their studio achievements are well represented in this duo-disc Rhino collection. In an era when most acts filled the space between their hits with lightweight filler, Royales leader Lowman Pauling was consistently writing inventive, intelligent and emotive songs.

His most familiar songs exemplify the poles of his writing. Think of the tender bridge in "Dedicated": "Life can never be, exactly what you want it to be, But I can be satisfied, just knowing you are near." Then think of the ripping, insistent groove of "Think." The Royales' version is maybe half the speed of Brown's manic cover, but it's no less compelling, driven by hand-claps, rhythmic backing vocals, Johnny Tanner's soulful lead vocal and Pauling's nasty, bluesy guitar.

Unlike most vocal-group R & B of the time, the Royales often pushed the guitar up front in their sound, and with good reason. Pauling's electric solos mix the furious, unpredictable bluster of Guitar Slim with the sort of concise, song-serving lines Steve Cropper later brought to the Stax Studios' recordings (Cropper, not incidentally, was a huge fan of the Royales).

There is some less-than immortal novelty fare among the album's 41 songs--such as the forced double-entendre "Laundromat Blues"--but most are real gems, including the bad rockin' "Messin' Up" and "Don't Be Ashamed," raucous "Women About to Make Me Go Crazy," and gospel-inflected doo-wop "Tears of Joy."

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