To those of us still a shade shy of 55 years old, the 5
Royales are something of a footnote in musical history. They did the original
“Dedicated to the One I Love,” later made more famous by the Shirelles and the
Mamas & the Papas, and they did the original “Think,” long since associated
with James Brown. But the history books don’t celebrate these masters of
harmony led by a songwriter and guitarist named Lowman Pauling who, as it
happens, was one of the most talented musicians of the 1950s.
Steve Cropper, the man who played guitar with Booker T &
the MG’s, the Blues Brothers, and on most of the biggest Stax/Volt hits of the
60s, has long acknowledged Pauling as a primary influence on his style. Now 70
years old, he returns to the music of his teen years with a tribute to the 5
Royales which makes the case not only for the greatness of these songs most of
us have never heard before, but of the continued vitality of Cropper himself as
an American treasure.
Since Cropper is a guitarist, and as the 5 Royales were a
vocal group, the decision was made to bring in a potpourri of singers to cover
these old songs. Ranging in age from 85 (B.B. King) to 21 (Dylan Leblanc), the
guest stars all put their personal stamps on the material. These are not
imitations, but vibrant and exciting interpretations of the originals.
Sharon Jones turns in the most powerful performances, with a
revved up “Messin’ Up” and a duet with Leblanc that sounds sexy and
exhilarating, “Come On & Save Me.” Bettye LaVette, who claims the 5 Royales
were her all-time favorite group, gives impassioned readings to the break-up
ballad “Say It,” and teams with blues singer Willie Jones for a tough “Don’t Be
Ashamed.” Steve Winwood reminds us of his teenage soul powerhouse ability with
“Thirty Second Lover,” and Delbert McClinton does what he always does,
conjuring up a sweaty roadhouse with the doo-wopish “Right Around the Corner.”
Cropper plays brilliantly throughout the record, never aping
Pauling’s original licks but showing the connections between their styles. For
the somewhat nonsensical “The Slummer the Slum,” sung by Buddy Miller,” Cropper
weaves in and out with Miller’s raunchier guitar approach, as guitar fanatics
around the world swoon at the mere thought of the two of them playing together.
Cropper also plays “Think” and “Help Me Somebody” as instrumentals, giving us
even more of his signature skills.
The only wrong turns on the album come courtesy of Lucinda
Williams, who just doesn’t sound comfortable with the material. Her take on
“Dedicated to the One I Love,” with duet help from the great songwriter Dan
Penn, is the only one ever recorded which fails to create goose bumps, though admittedly, it’s interesting to
hear Williams place the emphasis on the line “It’s something that everybody needs”
over any other part of the song. Leave it to Lucinda Williams to find the pain
in a song that’s so loving. She also ends the album with “When I Get Like
This,” and her slurred approach to the melody and lyrics sounds sour,
especially placed after so many amazing performances.
Still, there are 13 terrific cuts out of 15, and the album
does it’s job of demonstrating that the 5 Royales deserve reconsideration. Not
only did they influence major performers like Cropper and LaVette, they clearly
created some of the best songs you’ve never heard.
Up,” “The Slummer the Slum,” “Say It.” STEVE PICK