Billy Joe Royal, Sang “Down in the Boondocks”

“Down in the Boondocks”

Billy Joe Royal was a Georgia-born singer, who found success in the pop, R&B and country genres. Like so many young singers, he was inspired to pursue his career once he saw the success of Elvis, whom he eventually got to know while they were both performing in 1970s-era Las Vegas.

“I’ve Got to Be Somebody” on Shindig

Royal (April 3, 1942-October 6, 2015) began his professional career in Atlanta, appearing at a New Year’s Eve concert that also featured Gladys Knight. He was a friend and colleague of singer-songwriter Joe South, who wrote “Down in the Boondocks” and persuaded Royal to record it.

“Funny How Time Slips Away”

The success of that hit (it made it to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart) earned him a spot on Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, a package tour of mid-1960s pop stars like Herman’s Hermits, Peter and Gordon and Tom Jones. “Down in the Boondocks” has been covered by Penny DeHaven (1969), Kenny Loggins (1978), Ry Cooder (1980) and U.S. Girls (2012).

Ben E. King, Sang “Stand By Me”

When it comes to music, movies are kind of like vampires: to gain life, they often suck the blood out of popular songs. Just consider “Stand By Me,” the signature hit of Ben E. King (September 28, 1938-April 30, 2015) and the 1986 Rob Reiner film of the same name. Not only did the film gain an instantly recognizable and memorable title, it benefited from all the emotive association that came with King’s 1961 recording. It rooted the movie in its time period and connected with the over-arching sentiment of the movie, the enduring power and importance of friendship.

We’ve seen the parasitic relationships between movies and music elsewhere in the Revue, with Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and, to a lesser extent with Johnny Kemp’s “Birthday Suit.” (Perhaps I should be more kind and call it a symbiotic relationship, as songs often gain renewed popularity as a result of being in a movie, TV show or even a commercial. The use of “Stand By Me” in the film catapulted it back into the Top 10 a quarter century after its initial release.)

“Stand By Me” has been covered and recorded numerous times–the 4th-most-recorded song of the 20th century, according to BMI. And its popularity has continued well into the internet-dominated 21st century. The Playing for Change rendition of the song, pieced together from videos of street musicians from around the world, has been viewed over 75 million times since it was uploaded in 2008.

“Stand By Me” was written by King and the hit-making duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. King gets 50% credit for the song and Leiber and Stoller 25% each. According to a 2012 interview with Stoller in JazzWax, King is responsible for most of the lyrics and melody; Leiber and Stoller added distinctive elements, such as the bass line.

But King was hardly a one-hit wonder. He had a string of other hits, as both a solo artist and a core member of The Drifters. “Spanish Harlem,” “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” are all part of his recording legacy, which stretched from the 1950s all the way into the 1980s.

Johnny Kemp, Singer of Hit Single “Just Got Paid”

Johnny Kemp (August 2, 1959-April 2015) was a Bahamian-born R&B singer who came to fame with the 1988 hit single and “let’s party” anthem “Just Got Paid.”

Released during the Golden Age of music videos, the song rose to the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. It sold a million copies and was nominated for Best R&B Song in the 1989 Grammy Awards. (It lost to Anita Baker’s “Giving You The Best That I Got.”)

It is an example of “New Jack Swing,” a genre defined as a fusion between the hard beats of hip-hop and the softer, smoother singing style of R&B. The producer Teddy Riley helped to popularize the style with Kemp and other artists, notably Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown.

“Just Got Paid” began as an instrumental track that Keith Sweat brought to Kemp, who helped write the lyrics. In an effort to sell the song to producers, Kemp recorded a demo, but his version was so well liked that it was released under his name on his second album Secrets of Flying.”

The song has been covered or sampled by other artists, including ‘N Sync and Kurupt.

Other Kemp tracks to hit the charts were “Dancin’ With Myself” and “One Thing Led to Another” from “Secrets of Flying” and “Birthday Suit” from the soundtrack of the 1989 movie “Sing,” starring Lorraine Bracco of “The Sopranos” fame.

Kemp began his career in his native Bahamas, where he sang in clubs from the age of 13. It was around the time The Bahamas gained its independence as a nation and was searching to establish its own post-colonial national and cultural identity. In his book Funky Nassau: Roots, Routes, and Representation in Bahamian Popular Music, author Timothy Rommen notes the tendency of Bahamian musicians to look outside the country, to Motown and Soulsville, for sounds and styles they could identify with. It was within this context that Kemp formed and refined his musical style.

In the late 1970s, Kemp moved to New York City with the Bahamian funk/soul band Kinky Foxx. The group was a fixture of the New York Club scene, performing at venues as the Cellar Club. Kemp left the band before the recording of its single hit “So Different.”

Kemp continued to perform until his tragic death. His Twitter account shows appearances in the past few years with various Old School acts, and he was scheduled to perform on a Tom Joyner Foundation cruise.

This video shows Kemp as part of an all-star finale of “Just Got Paid” at Keith Sweat’s “Sweat Hotel Live.”

Percy Sledge, Singer of First Gold Record for Atlantic Records

It’s great to start your career with a spectacular success, but trying to top it, or even match it, has been the undoing of many an artist. That wasn’t the case with Percy Sledge (November 25, 1940-April 14, 2015). One song propelled him through a career that lasted 50 years.

His debut single “When a Man Loves a Woman” skyrocketed to No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B singles charts when it was released in 1966. It was Atlantic Records first gold record and the first No. 1 to come out of Muscle Shoals, where it was recorded. (The small Alabama town would soon become a mecca for other major artists, including Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett and The Rolling Stones.)

The song is credited to several of Sledge’s bandmates from The Esquires, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright. Sledge also laid claim to writing the song, citing that a recent breakup with his girlfriend had provided the inspiration behind it.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” had a second life 20 years after it was recorded when it started showing up on soundtracks for “The Big Chill,” “Platoon,” “The Crying Game” and even in a 1987 Levi’s Commercial. Michael Bolton recorded it for his 1991 album “Time, Love and Tenderness.”

Add another 20 years and Percy Sledge was performing the song at his 2005 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So strong was the success of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge’s other accomplishments are often overlooked. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 1994’s “Blue Night.” That album, which included performances by Steve Cropper, Mick Taylor and Bobby Womack, did win the 1996 W.C. Handy Award for Best Soul/Blues Album.


“Muscle Shoals,” the Movie, featuring Percy Sledge

The Story of “When a Man Loves a Woman” in SongFacts