Take Five

Steve Cropper pays tribute to The 5 Royales, and Stax cohort Packy Axton finally gets his due.

The 5 Royales: Johnny Tanner (top); Obediah Carter, Clarence Pauling, Lowman Pauling, and Johnny Moore (l-r across bottom). Steve Cropper (right).

Earlier this year, Booker T. Jones released his best music in the 35 years since the dissolution of Stax with the solo album The Road From Memphis. And now, Jones’ Booker T. & the MGs bandmate Steve Cropper has done the same, albeit in a more unlikely manner. 

Cropper acts as bandleader and co-producer on Dedicated, a tribute to the early ’50s North Carolina R&B band The 5 Royales. Lead by guitarist/songwriter/resident genius Lowman Pauling, the 5 Royales never gained the crossover glory of the first-generation rock-and-rollers they immediately presaged, but in blending jump blues, jazz, doo-wop, gospel, and R&B into music that set the stage for both rock and soul, they equaled titans like Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and the Sun Records crew in both significance and artistry.

Dedicated seems to exist solely as an act of love, and has the sound and feel of a private party to which we’ve been granted entry.

At this stage, the band’s best-known songs are in cover versions — the Shirelles’ “Dedicated to the One I Love,” James Brown’s “Think,” Otis Redding’s “Tell the Truth” — but The 5 Royales’ catalogue is deep, providing plenty of material to draw from. And Cropper — who reveals in the liner notes that he was first turned onto the band in high school by then-and-future bandmate Duck Dunn — proves to be the perfect person to oversee this project. “As a one-man guitar, [Lowman Pauling] was able to play rhythm and then, when it was acceptable, play fills or a solo,” Cropper writes, describing a versatility and tastefulness that would mark Cropper’s own career.

Cropper mentions wanting to “educate these young ears” and get younger listeners or, perhaps more pointedly, musicians, interested in the 5 Royales, but Dedicated doesn’t sound like proselytizing. Nor does it — unlike most tribute albums — feel designed to tap into a ready market of nostalgic consumers. After all, how many people at this point even know who The 5 Royales are?

Rather, Dedicated seems to exist solely as an act of love, and has the sound and feel of a private party to which we’ve been granted entry.

Unlike most tribute albums, this one has a uniformity of sound, with as much focus on the band as the singers. Rather than a hodge-podge of separately recorded tracks, Dedicated is built on the work of a single house band, led by Cropper and assembled along with co-producer Jon Tiven. The basic tracks were all recorded at Dan Penn’s “Better Songs and Gardens” studio in Nashville, with Cropper leading a mix of soul-era compatriots (David Hood, Spooner Oldham), session aces (drummers Steve Jordan and Steve Ferrone), and younger inheritors (soul revivalist sax man Neal Sugarman).

The result is a warm, loose sound that adds a Memphis-and-Muscle Shoals overlay to The 5 Royales’ style, a record that knows when to swagger and when to sway and that has the good sense to underscore its musical appeal by giving Cropper and the band a couple of instrumental showcases, including the smart decision to strip vocals from “Think,” thus highlighting Pauling’s strictly musical command.

Vocally, this is a homey mix of soul-schooled singers that sidesteps celebrity or gimmicks. On the male side, Steve Winwood loosens up on the opening “Thirty Second Lover,” Delbert McClinton swings on “Right Around the Corner,” and even Blues Traveler’s John Popper sounds great, taking lead on the high-stepping “My Sugar Sugar.”

Better are the women, with blues veteran Bettye LaVette and soul survivor Sharon Jones taking multiple leads and suggesting that if this show ever went on the road, they’d be the perfect front people.

But the real standouts here, after Cropper himself, are Lucinda Williams and Dan Penn, who duet on the deathless “Dedicated to the One I Love,” Williams wrapping her marble-mouthed voice around the verses and Penn crooning the bridge. Separately, Penn’s worn voice deepens the swooning “Someone Made You For Me,” while Williams returns to close out the album with “When I Get Like This.”

In a genre often more concept than substance, this surprise triumph bests the merely decent-by-comparison but higher-profile Buddy Holly tribute from earlier this year and might rival 1997’s Bob Dylan-helmed Jimmie Rodgers tribute among the best of the format.

While Cropper is shining a light on some forgotten rock titans, the Seattle-based indie label Light in the Attic is illuminating the work of one of Cropper’s more obscure Stax colleagues — Packy Axton, the son and nephew, respectively, of Stax co-founders Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, and a generational compatriot of label stalwarts like Cropper and Dunn

Late Late Party 1965-67 is a handsome compilation — cultivated by Memphians Scott Bomar (who co-produced) and Andria Lisle (who penned the liner notes) — that seeks to rescue Axton from the cultural dustbin some 37 years after his death.

A saxophone player and all-around musical hustler, the younger Axton figured in both the — very different — studio and touring incarnations of the Mar-Keys, the pre-Booker T. & the MGs group that notched Stax’s first major national hit with the 1961 single “Last Night.” (The label was called Satellite at the time.)

“Last Night” is not represented on Late Late Party, which instead focuses on Axton’s non-Stax musical portfolio, with smaller indie singles and previously unreleased recordings from instrumental outfits such as the Martinis, the Packers, and the Pac-Keys and vocal performers Stacy Lane and L.H. & The Memphis Sounds.

Axton’s presence — and purely functional saxophone — unite these mostly obscure tracks, which, collectively, serve as a window into a mid-Sixties Memphis studio scene that went far deeper than Stax heavyweights like Booker T. & the MGs and Porter & Hayes.

The Stax crew is represented on one track, “Hole in the Wall,” a Los Angeles-recorded one-off hit single credited to “The Packers” that features Cropper, Booker T. Jones, and MGs drummer Al Jackson, Jr. But, mostly, the music on Late Late Party was recorded at studios like Royal and Ardent and showcases musicians such as future Moloch guitarist Lee Baker and Hi Rhythm regulars such as Teenie and Leroy Hodges and Archie Turner.

The Martinis’ “Hung Over,” with the Hodges brothers playing off Archie Turner’s warm organ tone, points the way toward the tracks Hi Rhythm would lay down for Al Green a few years later.

Much of the material credited to the Martinis, the Pac-Keys, and L.H. & the Memphis Sounds — which makes up a bulk of the collection — represents Axton’s musical partnership with African-American songwriter Johnny Keyes, which made them a subterranean — and, as Lisle’s liner essay suggests — and more daring example of the kind of interracial partnerships happening concurrently at Stax.

Musically, the hodgepodge of singles on Late Late Party certainly isn’t as essential as Booker T. & the MGs or even the better obscurities you can cull from the Stax catalogue at the same time, but it’s also something more than just a sharply assembled historical document. For hardcore Memphis music fans, especially, this would be a worthy addition to your collection. 

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