Everyone, I imagine, would like to think they live in a cool place, that is, if the word cool is even used anymore.
But I didn’t know just how cool Winston-Salem is until a few years back, upon learning that the hero of my hero grew up here.
My hero, for the record, is Steve Cropper. He’s one of many to hold that distinction, but he’s pretty high on the list – and has been since my best childhood buddy, Bruce Young, and I discovered those righteous riffs coming out of Stax Records in Memphis.
My kids’ generation were introduced to Cropper as the bearded guitarist playing with Elwood and Joliet Jake in the Blues Brothers. But Bruce and I, just as we were really coming of age musically, couldn’t get enough of that Stax sound of Booker T. and the M. G.’s, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd and the Big O himself, the Man from Macon, the King of Soul, Otis Redding.
We came to learn that laying down those spare, bright, clean and ever so tasteful guitar licks was a lanky, white dude named Steve Cropper. And then we came to learn that Cropper also wrote or co-wrote so many of our favorite songs like Knock on Wood, 634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.) and (Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay and, the one that really brought the house down at our dances up at the old Slagle Memorial, In the Midnight Hour.
The Lorraine Motel achieved infamy for what one of the worst among us, James Earl Ray, did in assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. But I like to remember it as the place where, in 1965, Cropper, a white man originally from backwater Dora, Missouri and Wilson Pickett, a black man from Detroit sat down and wrote In the Midnight Hour.
See what can come of it when we all work together?
Bruce, along the way, overdosed on life and died and I grew up, but I never lost my fascination for Cropper and the Stax Sound. So imagine my amazement when, one night in surfing the internet for all I could find about Cropper, I learn that one of his first, and perhaps greatest, influence was a cat from Winston-Salem named Lowman Pauling.
Lowman, as Cropper recalled, played with his guitar slung way down at his knees. So when he got home, Cropper linked his strap with a belt so he could drop his guitar way down low as well – just like Lowman Pauling.
The more I learned about Lowman Pauling, the more I learned there was to learn. I was fascinated to find that he and his brother Clarence Pauling (who would shorten his name to Paul and go on to mentor and produce Stevie Wonder) co-founded the Rhythm and Blues’ pioneer-band, The “5” Royales.
There really was no R&B scene, at least not as we came to know it in the 50s, until the Paulings, along with Jimmy Moore, Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries, John Tanner and Eugene Tanner, began shaking their tail feathers with such tunes as Think and Tears of Joy and Dedicated to the One I Love.
Would there have been a James Brown if not for The “5” Royales? Probably, but it was this band from Winston-Salem who showed The Hardest Working Man in Show Business how it was done.
It has often been said that life isn’t fair, and if you don’t believe it just ask those black artists of early rock and roll and soul who were exploited artistically and financially before eventually being cast aside. But I’m happy to say that the story of Lowman Pauling didn’t end when, working as a janitor in a Brooklyn synagogue, he passed away in 1973.
Cropper, to his credit, was among those who kept the memory of Pauling and The “5” Royales alive. The efforts were rewarded in 2015 when, along with Lou Reed and Ringo Starr and Bill Withers and Joan Jett, The “5” Royales were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
My compadre and good friend Lisa O’Donnell did herself proud, as usual, in memorializing the occasion in a series of articles for the Winston-Salem Journal. But what brought me back to Lowman Pauling and Steve Cropper and this riff you’re reading now was Scott Sexton’s column in the Journal how the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission had declined a proposal by Darryl Pauling, Lowman’s son, to approve a historical marker honoring The “5” Royales.
Sexton, being the professional he is, did make mention that the city has named a street after the band. But it’s a side street, running only two blocks, and to be honest, I’ve never, to my knowledge, been on it.
Come on Winston-Salem. Step up and recognize – no celebrate – the rich musical heritage of our fair burg, a heritage that would not be the same without the contributions of Lowman Pauling and the “5” Royales.
Prove that you’re as cool as the place you live, you members of the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission.
That is, if the word cool is even used anymore.