So, where DOES soul begin? Well, according to popular consensus (and also to the BBC, if their entertaining "Soul Deep" series is anything to go by) it begins with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Now, I wouldn't want to disagree with that idea in principle they're fine artists both, and if you want to start digging near the Roots Of Soul, the works of these two giants of popular music are as good a place as any to do that.
But if you've already gone beyond brothers Sam and Ray, and you feel it's time to dig a little deeper, it's probably time for you to dig the grand-daddy of all the soul groups that proliferated in the mid 60s, Winston-Salem's magnificent "5" Royales. Led by the sublime dual leads of Johnny and Eugene Tanner, and anchored by the often unbelievable guitar acrobatics of Lowman Pauling, the Royales were arguably the first group to bring the church directly to R&B and, in doing so, create a whole new strand that foresaw its future rather than relying on its past for inspiration. They were a direct influence on James Brown (who re-recorded several of their songs, including Think and Come Over Here), Ray Charles (who re-did their Tell The Truth) and the Temptations (who were coached, in their early days, by Pauling's brother and former Royale Clarence Paul who would play the Temptations his "5" Royales records, ceaselessly, in an attempt to get their vocal harmonies on point).
Lowman Pauling also influenced a generation of guitar pickers, most notably the young Steve Cropper who cheerfully admits to copping a lot of his early licks off the man (and who was only too happy to point this out in his lovingly-written foreword to this package). Pauling was also a songwriter of considerable talent, penning the majority of the "5" Royales recordings including their original version of the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame classic, Dedicated To The One I Love. The group sang like angels, and Pauling generally played like he was possessed by the devil. The "5" Royales had it all, and then some.
The group had started off on Apollo Records, where they had created such timeless group R&B as Baby Don't Do It and Laundromat Blues. When they came to King in 1954 they were primed and ready to take group R&B to its next stage and they proceeded to do just that over the next six years and across more than 50 great recordings. "IT'S HARD BUT IT'S FAIR" is by no means the first "5" Royales CD anthology, but it's the first to anthologise the biggest hits and the classiest rarities in one package. (Indeed, around half of these tracks have never been on CD before, which makes purchase mandatory.) Even if you have the hits on other packages, you will never have heard them this good before, as this CD's master is compiled exclusively from the fresh digital transfers that Ace's Alec Palao and I made, from the original production masters, during our 2004 trip to the King tape vaults.
The "5" Royales had surprisingly few hits on King, but each and every one of their recordings offers something to cherish. The intense soul balladry of the Eugene Tanner-led My Wants For Love is more than complemented by the cool in Johnny T's delivery of ace jivers I Could Love You and Women About To Make Me Go Crazy. How many budding soul harmony groups learned their trade off classics like our title track, or the original versions of Think and Dedicated To The One I Love is probably beyond calculation. And there are probably not enough fingers and toes in Memphis to count how many times Steve Cropper not to mention a myriad other young guitar slingers would have played along with The Slummer The Slum, I'm With You and the truly stellar Get It in the course of honing his own magnificent craft. If you have any interest at all in the deep roots of soul music, you simply cannot afford not to own this fabulous compact disc.
A group as important as the "5" Royales will always deserve a definitive anthology. Without a shred of bias I can say that certainly as far as their King recordings go this is all that and more. It's hard, it's fair and it's a must for your selection.