Billy Joe Royal Dies

“Billy Joe Royal was well known for his blue-eyed soul sound in pop and country.”

NASHVILLE — Singer Billy Joe Royal, who died Oct. 6, lived his life to its full potential, attaining success in both pop and country music circles. Reportedly, the 73-year-old artist died in his sleep at his home in Morehead City, N.C.

A former resident of Nashville, his passing merited only five paragraphs on page 9 in The Tennessean newspaper, which even cited his home-town of Marietta (Ga.) as his N.C. residence.

Born in Valdosta, Royal grew up in Marietta, just north of Atlanta, learning to play piano and drums. By age 11, he was singing on his uncle’s radio show; after learning to play steel guitar, he performed at 14 on The Georgia Jubilee; and in high school performed with his own group, The Corvettes.

It was in Atlanta that he met music publisher Bill Lowery, working with such promising artists as Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed, Freddy Weller and Joe South. According to Royal, friend South wanted to get his “Down In the Boondocks” to Gene Pitney (known for the hits “Town Without Pity” and “Liberty Valance”) and didn’t know how, but boss-man Lowery had other ideas.

“Because my voice was similar, I was chosen to cut it for a demo,” said Billy Joe, who earlier had cut two obscure singles on Fairlane, a regional label in 1961: “Never In a Hundred Years” and “Dark Glasses.”

Lowery got South’s demo to Columbia Records, which gladly welcomed both song and its singer to the label, launching Royal’s first real shot at stardom. Released in 1965, “Down In the Boondocks” peaked at #9, followed by a trio of Billboard Top 40 chartings: “I Knew You When” (#14); “I’ve Got To Be Somebody” (#38); and “Cherry Hill Park” (#15). Incidentally, the latter 1969 single was deemed too controversial by some DJs to play, since Mary its main character “was such a thrill after dark . . . in Cherry Hill Park.” Otherwise, it might’ve ranked right up there with “Down In the Boondocks.”

Nonetheless, Billy Joe lived the life of every young singer’s dream, guesting on all the top radio and TV programs of the era, being featured on Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars tour as a teen idol, and chalked up additional South successes such as “Yo-Yo,” “Hush” and “Don’t You Be Ashamed (To Call My Name).” He had the distinction of cutting the first recording on “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” in 1967, prior to its writer South’s version and that of its ultimate hit-maker, Lynn Anderson, in 1970. But Billy didn’t really like the song.

Royal departed Columbia in 1972. In ’73, he revisited The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” for MGM, but when that didn’t take off, he drifted chartless among various indie labels, though he enjoyed a modest success on “Under the Boardwalk,” in 1978, on the Private Stock label.

During that decade, he said he worked regularly doing engagements in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, as well as making TV appearances: “It’s hell to be 25 years old, and you’re a has-been. Thank goodness I stuck by what I believed in.”

It was in a production-partnership with producer-songwriter Nelson Larkin that Royal found further song successes via Atlantic Records’ country imprint, notably thanks to Gary Burr’s poignant “Burned Like a Rocket” (#10, 1985). That, too, should’ve been a bigger record, but just when peaking, NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.

Though the song had nothing to do with the problem at hand, strangely enough, DJs quit programming Royal’s record just because of its title.

“I almost had a nervous breakdown over that,” recalled Royal. “Especially after my follow-up single – ‘Boardwalk Angel’ – bombed! . . . Thankfully, ‘I Miss You Already’ and ‘Old Bridges Burn Slow’ succeeded, proving it wasn’t a one-hit wonder sort of thing.”

Although both pop and country purists criticized Royal’s seeming switch in genres, Billy Joe maintained he didn’t really change styles at all, and a listen to his 1960s’ hits and subsequent successes of the 1980s, attest to the fact that he was still a champion of blue-eyed soul, not unlike T. Graham Brown (“I Tell It Like It Used To Be”), who also came of age in that time.

Actually, after too long a dry spell in the 1970s, Royal encountered Nelson Larkin in New Orleans. Later, on a trip to Music City, he dropped in on the producer. “I was about as low-down as you can get. I didn’t even have a car. When I came to Nashville, I was looking for some songs and Nelson played a tape for me. The first song was ‘Burned Like a Rocket.’ I knew instinctively it was a hit. I couldn’t understand why nobody else liked it or why they didn’t hear its potential.”

After recording the number in 1984, Larkin “pitched” it all over Nashville. One label wanted Billy Joe, but not the song. As Royal related, “I believed in that song. They were willing to do an album on me; but, after thinking on it, I knew we’d have to shop for another song anyway, and I knew I already had one. So I walked away from that deal.”

Again entered Bill Lowery, who agreed to put it out on his indie Southern Tracks, offering Billy Joe a second chance at the brass ring. The resulting regional airplay’s strength brought Atlantic to the table offering national distribution and the rest as they say is history.

Royal enjoyed working with Larkin, whom he called a no-nonsense producer: “He was so great and we had great musicians. He brought out the best in me. It helped, too, that Atlantic was really behind us, and radio was very receptive. We had a good run.”

Regarding the raised eyebrows over his change to country, the six-footer smiled, replying, “I’m just singing the way I always did. It’s just that the style I once performed as pop is now considered country. If ‘Down In the Boondocks’ was cut today, it would be classified country.”

Billy Joe’s youthful idols were Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke, and he was also a fan of 1950s’ “doo wop”  sounds of groups like The Spaniels, The Drifters and The Platters.

“There was something in that music that just got to me, deep inside,” and with his distinctive, almost falsetto tenor, it was as though Billy was born to sing in that style.

Another Royal friend was Steve Popovich, a producer and Mercury’s chief, who convinced Billy Joe to team up with Donna Fargo for a soulful rendering of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Members Only.”

“I think a lot of those old R&B songs can be revived now and would be hits all over again to a lot of people,” noted Royal, though traditionalists Johnnie & Jack had done so way back in the mid-1950s, with hit versions of “I Get So Lonely (Oh Baby Mine)” and “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight.”

While Larkin was producing Lynn Anderson’s track on “Under the Boardwalk,” which Royal had also sung earlier, label boss Popovich saw him quietly singing along, and urged Billy to join in: “Steve said, ‘Go in there and do that . . .’ Lynn was all for it, so I added a little harmony onto it.”

Had there been more harmony in Billy Joe’s personal life, surely his 10-year marriage to Georgia Moseley would not have hit the skids.

“I don’t ever expect to marry again. Something died in me when the divorce came through,” he lamented at the time. “I doubt I could make another commitment like that again, to let someone else get close enough to hurt me that bad.”

Nonetheless, Billy was divorced three times. He remained on good terms with ex-wife Michelle (Rivenbark), and had a daughter Savannah, today a student at North Carolina State University.

A former classmate of Billy Joe’s in high school was Priscilla Mitchell, who later became Mrs. Jerry Reed. As struggling artists, they had co-starred together on WTJH’s Georgia Jubilee broadcast out of East Point, Ga. (Her only #1 hit was a duet “Yes, Mr. Peters” with Roy Drusky.)

Royal remembered receiving $5 as opening act for Gladys Knight & The Pips in his early days.

“There was also a club I worked at where I had a chance to work with all the big stars of the day when I was just a kid,” noted Royal, two of whom were Johnny Tillotson (“It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’”) and Faron Young (“I Miss You Already”), never dreaming he would later enjoy hits in reviving their songs. Accepting that extended engagement at the Bamboo Ranch in Savannah, where he played to a 2,500 capacity crowd, gave him a boost, for it was there he met future friend Roy Orbison, who offered encouragement, giving Royal needed confidence.

On Billboard, Royal scored four #1 songs on its Sales Charts: “Old Bridges Burn Slow” (1987); “I’ll Pin A Note On Your Pillow” (1987); “Out Of Sight and On My Mind” (1988); and “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” (1988).

Another major tool in promoting discs then new to Billy Joe was the music video, and he relished making “I’ll Pin a Note On Your Pillow,” and see it top the CMT playlists months on end. Two of his singles hit the #2 spot: “Tell It Like It Is” (1989) and “Till I Can’t Take It Anymore” (1989). That was a milestone year, for sandwiched between those near chart-toppers was a Top Five single “Love Has No Right,” which Royal co-wrote with Larkin and Randy Scruggs.

His final chartings were less impressive: “If the Jukebox Took Tears” (#29, 1991) and “I’m Okay (And Getting’ Better)” (#51, 1992). Still, he could point with pride to his Gold Album “The Royal Treatment,” a Top Five that charted 101 weeks a few years earlier.

In 1988, Royal had been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, in which his mentor Bill Lowery was the very first inductee. Despite lack of chart success, he kept recording albums for fans, notably “Stay Close To Home” (1998), “Now And Then, Then And Now” (2001) and “Going By Daydreams” (2007). In 2009, he released his final collection, titled “His First Gospel Album.”

In 2013, Royal appeared in “Billy The Kid” playing Robert Ally, a movie that also co-starred Cody McCarvey, a fellow vocalist. Billy’s film credits include narrating Frank Willard’s 1968 documentary “Mondo Daytona” and appearing in actor-director Patrick McGoohan’s 1974 failed flick of the Shakespearean rock opera “Catch My Soul,” based on “Othello.” He was flattered, too, that his iconic “Down In the Boondocks” was featured in the films “Riding In Cars With Boys” (2001) starring Drew Barrymore, and “Glory Road” (2006) with Josh Lucas.

More recently he kept busy doing Golden Oldie shows, sharing the bill with legends like B. J. Thomas and Ronnie McDowell. Just weeks prior to his passing, Billy Joe joined Ronnie as headliners for Elvis Week in Memphis, at the Clarion-King’s Signature Hotel with Mary Beck’s Rockin’ Oldies Show. Reportedly, Billy Joe was still being booked by a Nashville promoter, Charlie Wayne Felts, and his last gig was back in his home state  Georgia for the Gwinnett County Fair, Sept. 24.

“There was never a nicer guy on the planet than Billy,” said childhood friend McDowell. “Now he belongs to the ages.” That other pal, B. J. Thomas (Raindrops & Boondocks Tour), upon learning of Royal’s passing, posted this Tweet: “My best friend, Billy Joe Royal, died this morning. He was a sweet and talented man. Never a bad word. One of a kind.”

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