Royal, Billy Joe
Billy Joe Royal
Rising from the unpretentious background of a Georgia schoolboy, Billy Joe Royal was rubbing elbows with the most popular country and rhythm-and-blues performers of the 1950s by the time he had graduated from high school. He earned stardom in his own right in the 1960s after the release of a top ten hit single, "Down in the Boondocks." Despite periods of low visibility, Royal's popularity endured through the next three decades and into the new millennium. Clear and direct in his vocal delivery, Royal performed on guitar, piano, and drums, and also made his mark as a published composer.
Royal was born on April 3, 1942 (or 1945, according to some sources) in Valdosta, Georgia. He was the son of a self-employed truck driver. The family moved to Marietta when Royal was seven years of age, and to Atlanta three years later. He delivered newspapers as a schoolboy, but by age 11 he was in pursuit of a show-business career, beginning with regular singing appearances on his uncle's radio show. He then learned to play the steel guitar. At age 14 Royal joined a musical revue called Georgia Jubilee. The program featured prominent guest artists and brought Royal into professional contact with classic country music artists such as Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed, and various members of the Grand Ole Opry radio barn dance cast. Royal also formed his own band, Billy Joe and the Corvettes, during high school, and by age 16 he was performing locally on a regular basis.
After graduation Royal moved to Savannah, where for two years he made regular appearances at the city's popular soul and rhythm-and-blues clubs. During this period Royal shared living quarters for a time with songwriter Joe South, and the two developed a personal friendship. Working five-hour stints on stage and maintaining six-day workweeks, Royal likewise established professional associations with leading R&B artists—the Isley Brothers and Sam Cooke among others.
Beginning in 1962 Royal taped an assortment of low-budget demos and singles, and sent them to Motown and other major labels. When these early demos failed to attract attention, he moved to Cincinnati in an ongoing quest for a recording contract. There he made a number of cover recordings and made contact again with South. It was South, in fact, who wrote "Down in the Boondocks," the recording that made Royal a star. South, as it happened, had hoped to pitch the song to Gene Pitney (who was already a popular star) and requested that Royal record a demo of the tune. The original track by Royal was recorded in Atlanta in 1962, but in a twist of fate the demo attracted the attention not of Pitney, but rather of Bill Lowery, a well-connected music producer and publisher. Lowery then assisted Royal in securing a six-year contract with Columbia Records. Once again, it was South who originally had introduced Royal to Lowery.
In 1965 Royal recorded "Boondocks" once again at the Columbia recording studio, where a converted septic tank was used to create the song's echo-chamber sound effects. "Down in the Boondocks" entered the American top 40 chart on July 3, 1965, and thereafter made headway into the top ten, peaking at number nine. A follow-up single in September, called "I Knew You When," broke into the top 20. Royal returned with "I've Got to Be Somebody" in December. In May of the next year he released "Heart's Desire," followed by "Campfire Girls" in September. Thanks to his newfound prominence, Royal joined Dick Clark's Cavalcade of Stars, a three-month tour of one-night stands that featured headliners such as the Shirelles, Neil Diamond, and Tom Jones.
Other hits followed for Royal, including "Hush" in September 1967 and "Cherry Hill Park" in 1969. Royal diversified into acting in films, television, and commercials, and he narrated the Frank Willard film Mondo Daytona in 1968. Royal made stage appearances in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and elsewhere with a personal backup band, called the Blue Royals. A final Columbia release, "Tulsa," appeared in February of 1971 and made the Hot 100 chart, marking the end of Royal's initial high-profile recording career.
In 1973 Royal wrote the score for A Name for Evil, a film starring Robert Culp and Samantha Eggar, and in 1974 he appeared with Richie Havens in Patrick McGoohan's Catch My Soul, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello. During the late 1970s Royal recorded for Private Stock and scored some minor hits, including a Top 100 cover of the Drifters' hit "Under the Boardwalk" in 1978. He released more than a dozen miscellaneous recordings in the early 1980s.
In 1985 Royal was seen on television's Country Radio Seminar, on a program called Old Faces. Likewise, clips of his early performances from the 1960s and 1970s were edited into a video documentary, called Rock and Roll Call. Unwilling to rest on his laurels, however, Royal during the early 1980s had scoured Nashville for a new hit song to record. After hearing a tune by songwriter Gary Burr called "Burned Like a Rocket," Royal recorded it for Lowery's Southern Track label in 1984. Alert producers at Atlantic Records recognized this track as a likely chart hit and signed Royal to a contract, reissuing the song on the Atlantic America label. As anticipated, the major-label release of "Rocket" became a top ten country hit for Royal in 1986—and that year he made an appearance on another Country Radio Seminar program, New Faces. A subsequent top ten hit, "I'll Pin a Note on Your Pillow," appeared in 1987.
With his career recharged and ignited by "Rocket," Royal enjoyed a succession of popular singles such as "Miss You Already," "Old Bridges Burn Slow," "Out of Sight and Out of Mind," and "Love Has No Right." Among these hits of his resurrected career, Royal's "On My Mind" was one of the most requested country songs of the times. His 1987 album Looking Ahead peaked at number 21 and lingered on the country album charts for a year. A subsequent album, The Royal Treatment, featured a duet with Donna Fargo called "Members Only" and hit the top 40 as well. The album Tell It Like It Is entered the top 15 in 1989, and remained there for more than one year. The album's staying power was attributed in part to the title song, which rose to the number two position on the singles charts.
For the Record . . .
Born on April 3, 1942, in Valdosta, GA.
Began singing on Atlanta radio, age 11; joined Georgia Jubilee (musical revue), age 14; performed locally with his band, Billy Joe and the Corvettes, age 16; regular appearances at Savannah clubs, age 18-20; began taping demos and singles, including "Down in the Boon-docks," 1962; signed with Columbia Records, 1962; re-recorded "Down in the Boondocks" for Columbia, hit the top 40 and joined Dick Clark's Cavalcade of Stars, 1965; diversified into acting, 1968; final Columbia release, "Tulsa," 1971; wrote the score for A Name for Evil, 1973; appeared in Catch My Soul, 1974; recorded for Private Stock, late 1970s; miscellaneous recordings, early 1980s; appearances on Country Radio Seminar, 1985-86; career revival with "Burned Like a Rocket," on Southern Track, 1984; signed with Atlantic Records, 1984; recorded hit albums and singles, 1990s; debut video, Billy Joe Royal, 1992; signed with Park South Records, and toured, early 2000s; independent album, Now and Then, Then and Now, 2001.
Addresses: Booking— The Bobby Roberts Company, Inc., P.O. Box 1547, Goodlettsville, TN 37070-1547, phone: (615) 859-8899, fax: (615) 859-2200.
Royal's second self-titled album, released in 1992, featured assorted covers, including those of Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away." Royal released a video, Billy Joe Royal, that year, and he remained active; the year 1998 saw the release of a new album, Stay Close to Home, on the Intersound label. In the early 2000s Royal went on tour and subsequently joined another startup label, Park South Records. In 2001 he released an independent album, Now and Then, Then and Now. Additionally, a total of 12 compilation albums surveying Billy Joe Royal's long and varied career were released between 1989 and 2002.
"Down in the Boondocks," Columbia, 1965; reissued, 1997.
"I Knew You When," Columbia, 1965.
"I've Got to Be Somebody," Columbia, 1965.
"Heart's Desire," Columbia, 1966.
"Campfire Girls," Columbia, 1966.
"Hush," Columbia, 1967.
"Cherry Hill Park," Columbia, 1969; reissued, 1997.
"Tulsa," Columbia, 1971.
"Burned Like a Rocket"/"My Toot Toot," Southern Track, 1984; reissued, Atlantic America, 1986.
"I'll Pin a Note on Your Pillow," Atlantic, 1987.
"Ring Where a Ring," Atlantic, 1990.
"Tell It Like It Is," Atlantic, 1991.
Billy Joe Royal, CBS, 1965; reissued Atlantic, 1980.
Down in the Boondocks, Prime Cuts, 1965.
Cherry Hill Park, CBS, 1969.
The Royal Treatment, Atlantic, 1987.
Looking Ahead, Atlantic, 1987.
Tell It Like It Is, Atlantic, 1989.
Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1989.
Out of the Shadows, Atlantic, 1990.
Greatest Hits, Hollywood, 1991.
Greatest Hits, Atlantic, 1991.
20 Greatest Hits, Sound, 1992.
Greatest Hits, Special Music, 1992.
Billy Joe Royal, Atlantic, 1992.
Greatest Hits, Prime Cuts, 1995.
The Best of Billy Joe Royal, Sony Special, 1995.
Golden Hits, Intercontinent, 1996.
Down in the Boondocks/Cherry Hill Park, Collectables, 1997.
Stay Close to Home, Intersound, 1998.
Super Hits, Atlantic, 2000.
Now and Then, Then and Now, Chipsmoman.com, 2001.
Drift Away, Town Sound, 2001.
The Very Best of: The Columbia Years, Taragon, 2002.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
Erlewine, Michael, editor, All Music Guide to Country: The Experts' Guide to the Best Recordings in Country Music, Miller Freeman, 1997.
Nite, Norm N., Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock 'n' Roll: The Modern Years, 1964-Present, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1978.
People, September 21, 1992.
"Billy Joe Royal," Bobby Roberts Company, http://www.bobbyroberts.com/heritage.html (December 30, 2003).
"Billy Joe Royal," Oldies.com, http://www.oldies.com/artist/view.cfm/id/49.html (December 30, 2003).