Listen/Download -The Royalettes – River of Tears
Here’s hoping that everyone had themselves a nice weekend.
I’m trying to get enthusiastic about the multi-holiday season (we celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas here at the Funky16Corners ranch), but I’m having a hard time. I think that the older I get, the more I become like Charlie Brown, feeling assaulted by the rampant commercialism associated with the holidays and wishing that things could be dialed back a few notches.
Fortunately I have two small children who really do get excited when this time of year rolls around, so I can still appreciate it vicariously.
The tune I bring you today was the big score from my DC digs this past summer. Though it’s not a terribly rare record, the fact that it’s an ass kicker of superior quality placed it miles ahead of everything else I grabbed that weekend.
As posted here last year, Barbara Banks’ ‘River of Tears’ is one of my all time favorite soul 45s, and a record that I chased for a long time, finally bringing it down by throwing a large wad of cash at it. It was a classic because in addition to the fact that it’s a killer performance, it’s an even better song (co-written by Banks herself).
Back in the day when I was first looking for that 45, I discovered in my research that the tune had been covered by the Royalettes. My interest was piqued, but for some reason I never went in search of their version.
The Royalettes, who hailed from Baltimore recorded several singles for Chancellor and MGM between 1963 and 1966, eventually waxing two full LPs for the latter label.
Fast forward a few years to this past summer, when DJ Birdman was kind enough to take to around to his DC/Maryland digging spots, and while flipping through a box of soul 45s, what do I find but a copy of the Royalettes’ version of ‘River of Tears’. I was surprised to learn that like Barbara Banks original, the Royalettes’ cover was produced and arranged by Herb Bernstein. I put the record in my keeper stack and continued to dig, pulling out a handful of nice funk and soul stuff.
When I was done digging, I walked over to the store’s turntable, put on the headphones, dropped the needle on the record and just about blew my mind.
As you’ll hear when you pull down the ones and zeros, the Royalettes version opens with a huge, monstrous drum break that sounds like it was recorded inside Carlsbad Caverns! The Royalettes drop in with some tight harmonies, and the rest of the arrangement mirrors the Banks OG fairly closely (bass, vibes etc) but the pounding drums remain fairly high in the mix for the entire record.
It’s interesting to hear the song (what a fantastic melody!) delivered by a group as opposed to a solo voice, but the production on the Royalettes version of the song is a drastic departure from the original. Where the OG is a masterpiece of subtlety, with all the disparate layers sharing the sonic space evenly, the Royalettes cover is explosive. Taken at a slightly more deliberate pace, Bernstein tooks the opportunity to open the record up, adding all kinds of space between the instruments and voices and layering on just a touch of funk.
Recorded in 1967, ‘River of Tears’ was the Royalettes sole 45 for Roulette, and their last 45 overall.
It’s a really incredible record, and I hope you like it as much as I do.
I’ll be back on Wednesday with something cool.
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