Wednesday, September 1, 2010

INTERVIEW: Billy Joe Royal

Billy Joe Royal
by Chad Cooper - April, 2009

Though his music career was not inundated with No. 1 hits, Billy Joe Royal's story is as colorful as the lyrics of his 1965 hit song "Down in the Boondocks."

His best friend is B.J. Thomas; he was a neighbor to Kenny Rogers; and aside from hanging out with Elvis, Royal found time to record songs such as "Cherry Hill Park," "I'll Pin a Note on Your Pillow," "Tell It Like It Is" and "Till I Can't Take It Anymore."

Royal's career spans from the 1950s and it is no fluke he continues to perform 60 to 70 sold out shows per year.

He took time out of his schedule to reflect on his career and promote his upcoming sold out concert April 17, 2010 at Honky Tonk Texas in Silsbee.

How did you find music?

I was a complete music junkie. I was born in Valdosta, Ga., and my uncles were in a band and had a little radio show but then I moved to Marietta when I was 9 and began performing on the weekly Georgia Jubilee Show. It was on Friday nights and they would tape it and play it the next day on the radio. The show would bring in a Grand Ole Opry star each week like Little Jimmy Dickens but they had their regulars like Jerry Reed, Ray Stevens and Joe South. I went to school with Priscilla Mitchell, who then was dating Jerry Reed and later married him, and she asked me to audition for the show and I did and got a spot on it. After the Jubilee broke up, I moved to Savannah and got a job at this big club called the Bamboo Ranch. Man, that place drew 3,000 people a night. I hooked up with Joe South and we got our boss to book big names like Sam Cooke and Fats Domino, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Roy Orbison. At an early age I learned from the best.

Man, am I talking too much?

No way, this is great. You first song, "Down in the Boondocks,' was your biggest. How'd that come about?

I did the craziest thing. For some reason I wanted to leave Savannah and left for Cincinnati. I was working at a club and met a disc jockey named Dusty Roads who came out to one of my shows. President Kennedy was assassinated and he wanted to do a tribute show at Cincinnati Gardens but I had never worked in front of kids before.

All of sudden, all the kids are following me around town. And then Joe (South) called me and said he had a song for me called "Down in the Boondocks' so I flew back to Atlanta to cut it. The record went No. 1 in Cincinnati overnight and then it just blew up across the country. I got a call from Dick Clark and it changed my life.

You and B.J. Thomas are the best of friends.

Oh yeah. We've been friends for 100 years. We met in your neck of the woods, in Houston. I played a show in Houston in 1965 with Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins and B.J. and we have been friends ever since. About two years ago, we had the same agent so we started touring together and called the show the Raindrops and Boondocks Tour. We are the same age, knew all the same people and basically had the same background.

How did you meet the King of Rock-n-Roll?

I was so damn in awe. I remember the date like it was yesterday (Jan. 31, 1970). I went to see one of his shows with Bill Lowry, who produced Joe South's "Walk a Mile in My Shoes,' and we got invited to his dressing room. He could not have been any nicer. I just thought he was being nice by inviting us back. In those days you played a month at a time at those casinos and about a year or so later, we both played at the Lake Tahoe and he was playing the main room and I was playing the lounge and our names were on the sign together in red and I would kill for a picture of that sign.

A friend of mine that played on 'Down in the Boondocks', Henry Gordon Jr., left Neil Diamond's band and began playing bass for Elvis, and I was backstage every single night. And you know what? I never took a photo with him. He was the man that inspired us all. A southern boy who made it big and became the king so we thought we had a shot at being something.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

The longevity of my career. I've done plenty of good things. Back in 1970 when "Cherry Hill Park' came out, nothing really charted after that. I could never really get arrested.

Seriously though, I moved to California and lived in the same neighborhood as Kenny Rogers. He was doing a TV show at the time, back in 1977. Kenny came over one day and said he had this production deal from United Artists and asked if I wanted to do some songs he had and if I didn't like them, then he would just throw them out. I called a friend of mine and he discouraged me not to do it. Well, about two months later "Lucille' came out and he took over the world and I was too embarrassed to go over and say anything else to him after that. Then in the early 80s B.J. (Thomas) started having No. 1 hits in the country world, so I thought, you know I am going to give it one more shot. I moved back to Georgia and began driving up to Nashville and found this song called 'Burn Like a Rocket' and I loved it but I couldn't give it away. I went back down to see Bill Lowry and he put it on an indie label and we worked that thing like no other from doing rodeos to singing the National Anthem - anything to get anyone to play it. Then, when markets started playing it, it became No. 1 in that market so we went back to Nashville but still couldn't get a deal. Finally a pop station in Tampa (Florida) played it and Atlantic Records called and I got a deal. If I did anything, I hung in there. Of course I nearly had a nervous breakdown in the meantime but B.J. and I think we are the luckiest guys in the world to be able to continue to do this.

What's left on your musical agenda?

My favorite singer is Sam Cooke. He was the greatest I ever heard. I read an article a few months ago in Rolling Stone about the top 100 singers and Sam was No. 4 on that list. Sam owned the Gospel music world and I wanted to do a Gospel album so I did and it will be out in June. I thought I better take the opportunity now while I still have a voice.

Official Billy Joe Royal Website
Official Billy Joe Royal Myspace
Click here to purchase Billy Joe Royal music

1 comment:

  1. "Am I talking too much?" My answer? NO! I will NEVER have enough of this late beautiful precious! Never.

    God bless you and his family always!!!

    Holly in East Tennessee

    P.S. If only I had found him sooner. (trying not to cry again)