Four decades into an impressively resilient career, Billy Joe Royal’s soul-drenched voice is as pliable as ever. That’s demonstrated on his album Going By Daydreams, in which Royal girds each of the 10 songs with a relaxed confidence.
The assurance was always there in his vocals—even at the start, when he established himself with “Down In The Boondocks,” “I Knew You When” and “Cherry Hill Park.” But that first period of heady fame wasn’t as easy as it appeared—every day was frought with fear that his good fortune would come to an abrupt halt.
Fear is no longer part of the vocation. Royal is a steady presence on the tour circuit, a trusted veteran of several formats, and he’s still got it as a vocalist.
“I heard stories about how Clark Gable would finish a movie and say, ‘I’m never gonna work again,’” Royal chuckles as he handles last-minute details on his last day at home before another tour. “So I guess everybody worries about that kind of stuff. After a while I just stopped worrying about it.”
Certainly from the outside, it’s hard to think of Billy Joe Royal as someone with reason for concern. From the first time his name appeared on a national chart, he’s evinced a sturdy, bedrock style. A Georgia-bred performer with roots in pop, R&B and country, he’s consistently tailored his wet, boy-next-door vocal texture to songs with strong hooks and universal themes.
The world and culture around him may have changed—he’s had impressive runs in both the pop and country charts—but Billy Joe Royal knows who he is as an artist and as a human being.
Even as a kid, he knew music was central to his personality. Like many of his peers, he recognized that it could also be his source of income after he saw Elvis Presley—another guy who mixed, pop, country and R&B—on The Tommy Dorsey Show.
“When he made it so big,” Royal reflects, “all us Southern boys thought maybe we had a shot, too.”
Elvis and Royal became friends when both played Las Vegas during the ‘70s. Going By Daydreams, released on B.J. Thomas’ new Raindrops Records label, further cements the Elvis connection, since the project is produced by Chips Moman, who oversaw the recordings from The King’s comeback period: “In The Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.”
Moman’s resume, of course, extends much deeper than The King—as a producer, songwriter, studio owner and musician, he’s played a role in classics by Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Wilson Pickett, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, among others.
“If you listen to an oldies station,” Royal marvels, “you can’t listen for half-an-hour without something being played where he either wrote the song or produced it or played on it.”
Neither Royal nor Moman have lost their touch, as Going By Daydreams attests. The album is rich in feeling, from the fragile sensitivity of “One Morning, Two People” to the barroom rocker “All He Wants To Do.” Royal’s trademark quiver adapts nicely to the loneliness of the CD-opening “Echoes,” to the carefree nature of the title track and to the reflective closer “Where Did The 60’s Go.” Moman employed such stalwart musicians as guitarist Reggie Young, bass player Mike Leech, keyboard pal Bobby Emmons, Atlanta Rhythm Section alum J.R. Cobb and now-deceased Bread founder Jimmy Griffin in framing each of Royal’s performances in a manner that gives the album variety while working cohesively around the singer.
“Chips has a farm in LaGrange, Georgia, and he built a studio there,” Royal notes. “He got all the guys to come down from Nashville, and we spent about a month or so recording—in fact, we talked more than anything else, reminiscing about the old days.”
Not surprisingly, Going By Daydreams maintains a nostalgic central theme. The songs make lyrical references to Chuck Berry, The Beatles and Elvis; many of the titles are steeped in memories; Royal borrows phrasings from Sam Cooke and Aaron Neville in his remake of the Drifters classic “Under The Boardwalk”; and a small touch of sitar from Reggie Young in the opening track provides a slight echo to pop music’s golden era.
But where nostalgia is often a crutch for many entertainers who uncomfortably fight the clock, it’s simply a matter of mature self-acceptance for Royal, whose dogged sense of realism is shared by B.J. Thomas, with whom he’s toured for the past two years.
“B.J. did something for a guy who was already planning for some plastic surgery in about three years,” Royal laughs. “B.J. said, ‘Why?’ The guy said, ‘So I can look younger.’ And B.J. said, ‘Who wants to look young?’”
“We get some kids at the shows,” Royal continues, “but most of the audience is from our own age group, and it takes them back to their youth, and everybody seems to be happy at the end of the show.”
Royal has a deep history from which to draw in those concerts. Born and raised in Valdosta, Georgia, he made his public debut at age five in a first-grade performance for the PTA and got his first paycheck—a five-dollar bill—for playing a New Year’s Eve show in Atlanta that also featured Gladys Knight.
He soon became a regular on a local radio show, The Georgia Jubilee, which also featured Ray Stevens, Freddy Weller, Jerry Reed and Joe South.Royal moved on to work in the house band at the Bamboo Ranch in Savannah, a Gilley’s-like venue with room for 2,500 people. The club brought in such national acts as Fats Domino, George Jones, The Isley Brothers and Faron Young. In that environment, Royal formed a longtime friendship with Roy Orbison and earned praise from his idol, Sam Cooke.
“We got a chance to meet all these people,” Royal recalls, “and then they’d leave town and we’d steal their acts.”
When Joe South got Royal to cut “Down In The Boondocks,” it touched off the singer’s career with a landmark recording, one that still finds occasional outlets in such new-century movies as Glory Road and Riding In Cars With Boys.
The song helped Royal earn a spot on the Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars, a grueling package tour that bonded him to such fellow performers as Herman’s Hermits, Jackie DeShannon and Peter & Gordon, with a backing band that featured several future members of Chicago. Clark’s end-of-the-tour wrap party required that all the guests dress like another artist on the bill, and the results bonded a number of the performers.
“Tom Jones, Mel Carter, Peter Asher and myself dressed up as The Shirelles,” Royal smiles. “We showed up in chiffon dresses and threw some wigs on. It was really crazy. Somebody took a picture and I’ve still got it.”
Jones would end up landing several hits on the country charts in the 1970s and ‘80s, as did B.J. Thomas. Royal took the same road, launching a string of hits for Atlantic beginning with “Burned Like A Rocket” in 1985, and continuing with remakes of “I Miss You Already,” “Tell It Like Is” and “It Keeps Right On Hurtin’” as well as the Royal-penned “Love Has No Right.”
Royal was pretty much doing the same thing he’d always done musically—songs with distinctive melodies, real-people themes and his singular stylistic flair, marked by a subtle vocal drama. The transition in format enhanced Royal’s reputation with his fans, many of whom had gravitated from pop to country. But it also helped him establish a new home in the heart of Tennessee.
“When I moved here from Georgia, I didn’t set my watch back to Central Time,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m gonna be here a minute and I’m outta here.’ I didn’t even buy furniture—I rented it!
“But I love Nashville. If you’re on the road, this is the best place in the world to work out of. If you work north, you’re on the way there; if you’re headed west, you’re on the way. You’re on the way to wherever you’re going.”
These days, Royal is going in style with the Raindrops & Boondocks Tour, matching him with B.J. Thomas. A live concert DVD from the tour—likely to include duet versions of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Get Ready” and “Cry Like A Baby”—is set for release in late-2007. And Royal offers Going By Daydreams, an album that extends his reputation as a communicative vocalist of well-chosen songs.
Royal looks back at the four-decade road that brought him to this point and says he’s “lucky.” But part of the reason for his luck is that he faced down the original fears that his career would have a short run. He remained loyal to his talents and to his motivations, and now faces every day with a quiet confidence that he’s in the right place.
“I say this with all humility,” he reflects. “The old voice has stood up, you know. I think if I’d ever stopped for four or five years or didn’t sing all the time, it might’ve gone away. It’s like working out with weights.
“The other thing is this is all I’ve ever done. I had to stick to it, ‘cause I’ve never done anything else.”
Despite the title of the new album, Billy Joe Royal doesn’t have to transport himself through Daydreams to another place. He’s doing what he always wanted to do because he continues to do it well.
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