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MUSICAL GEMS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the late 1950s and early 1960s - a popular music era sizzling with creativity, verve and dreams of fortune, four high school girls from West Baltimore carefully mapped their journey to stardom.

What they needed was a name for their singing group, one to distinguish them from dozens of other "girl groups" that were rising from neighborhoods around New York and Detroit, with voices like angels and new recording contracts.

Names were important. There were the Teen Queens, Shirelles, Bobettes, Chantels, Shangri-Las, Cookies, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, Orlons, Jelly Beans, Reparata and the Delrons, Dixie Cups, Poni-Tails and Kathy Young and the Innocents.

Sheila and Anita Ross, sisters from a musical family on Mount Holly Street, had been singing since they were children. As they entered high school, they teamed up with their cousin Veronica "Roni" Brown and friend Terry Jones and practiced before and after classes at Edmondson and Douglass high schools.

Because of their family's love of music, they were well aware of Baltimore's rich musical tapestry - dating from ragtime legend Eubie Blake and jazz great Chick Webb to the slick doo-wop mastery of Sonny Til and the Orioles. And a new stew was cooking at the Royal then, a blend of rhythm and blues, soul and doo-wop.

Before "the Godfather of Soul" became a CD boxed set, James Brown and the Famous Flames were firing them up in the seats of the Royal.

Thus, early in 1962 were born the Royalettes, named in honor of the entertainment citadel on Pennsylvania Avenue where greats such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Etta James, the Flamingos, Jeanette "Baby" Washington and Jackie Wilson performed.

The Royal would later become a regular stop for the Royalettes as the group sang its hit "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" from Pennsylvania Avenue to other premier black theaters such as the Apollo in New York, the Regal in Chicago, the Howard in Washington and the Uptown in Philadelphia. That hot orbit was known as the "Chitlin' Circuit."

But that pivotal time was cruel both to the historic Royal and to the Royalettes. The Royal, built in 1921 in the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, was razed in 1970. A field stands there today with a monument.

The Royalettes, caught between racism in the white-controlled music world and some sexism sprinkled in, would not last beyond the decade's end.

Though highly respected in the musical genre of the time, the Royalettes wound up like many of the girl groups of the era - overwhelmed in the mid-1960s by the Beatles, Bob Dylan and psychedelic music that better captured the rising sentiment of social and political protest.

Some female groups such as Motown's Supremes and Phil Spector's Ronettes rose to fame, but the romantic doo-wop ballad had faded. Doo-wop, that buttery smooth harmonic sound with soft, melodic lyrics, is experiencing a revival today. But pioneering male groups such as the Marcels, Five Keys, Skyliners and Dreamlovers disappeared with the first wave of doo-wop style, along with independent record labels like Savoy, Chance and Rama.

"The Beatles, the entire British invasion of music, knocked a whole lot of people out of work - the girl groups, the boy groups and me," said Carl Gardner, an original in the singing group the Coasters and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"I didn't know who they were, these Beatles guys, but they were very respectful to us popular music pioneers," said Carl, of Port St. Lucie, Fla. "They smiled at us while they took the music of Chuck Berry, Elvis and Bo Diddley and ran with it to the bank."

To the young Royalettes, the arrival of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones didn't matter. The girls were awash in a swirling dream come true.

"We wanted our name to be everything the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue represented, that class, that's what we wanted to be about," said Sheila Anthony-Burnett, who was the Royalettes lead singer.

Today, Sheila is married and resides in Woodlawn in Baltimore County where she raised two sons and books occasional singing gigs around town. She works in Baltimore as an administrative assistant with a design firm.

Her sister Anita lives in Florida, Roni Brown in Baltimore. Terry Jones fell out from the group and resides in San Francisco. Three of the Royalettes talk frequently and try to meet during holidays. When together, they still enjoy harmonizing.

Sheila - who became a Playboy bunny in 1970 and was with the Playboy organization for six years - performs with a jazz group sometimes at the Haven, a cozy club in Northwood Shopping Center. She still carries with her that certain star quality, concerned about the public knowing her age, her image in television appearances.

"We were teen-agers, we hadn't developed anything like a social conscience," said Sheila's sister, Anita Brooks, who chose the group's name.

"After we recorded our first songs 'No Big Thing' and 'Blue Summer' on the Chancellor record label in 1962, we'd be walking through the hallway at school and everybody would point and say 'There goes one of the Royalettes.' It was just so, so thrilling."

Big break

The singers' first big break came before graduation. They were awarded a recording contract after winning a talent contest on the "Buddy Deane Show," a popular Baltimore television dance show for teens. They beat out 99 other acts.

They eventually signed with MGM Records and cut releases, a remake of the Chantels' "He's Gone" and later, "Poor Boy," both of which hardly made a ripple on the national charts. Their hit, "It's Gonna Take A Miracle" was issued in July 1965 and reached No. 41 nationally.

In 1982, their song was covered by Deniece Williams and it landed in popular music's Top 10 nationally. None of the Royalettes talks about that.

At the height of their popularity, the Royalettes members went from making their own performing outfits to having them custom made. Instead of long trips in a crowded automobile, they flew to dates outside of Baltimore. When they recorded their hit single 'Miracle' live in New York, they were accompanied by a full orchestra; one of the most stirring parts of the song is an interlude by the string section.

But like other black acts nationwide, both new and established, the Royalettes members soon discovered their records received little, if any, play on white radio stations. To his credit and despite his southern roots, Deane did present opportunities to many black artists, but he was an anomaly.

"It was no mystery to groups like us, around since 1953, why black music suffered during that important time period," said James "Pookie" Hudson, lead singer of the Spaniels who lives in Capital Heights.

"The Beatles got played constantly on the white stations while our music wasn't played at all," James said. "The girl groups, they couldn't hang on the corners and sing like us, but they came along and were a new, refreshing breeze in an original American art form."

Nobody knew that better than a young disc jockey, Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson, who was the host of dances at the New Albert Hall, a second-floor gymnasium up the street from the Royal. He became impressed with the Royalettes' sound and would soon emerge as one of the group's first important local supporters.

When Paul graduated from teen dances to Baltimore radio, this is how he would welcome his listeners each morning at 6: Organ music, a powerful chorus, bells ...

"Hear me now. Up from the very soul of breathing. Up from the orange crates. From the ghetto, through the suburban areas, comes your leader of rhythm and blues, the expected one - Fat Daddy. Take my soul yoke upon your shoulders and my soul bells will ring in your heart forever."

From the depths of that fat man's heart came some of the most original rapid-fire soul jive and free association poetry heard in the land. Paul had grown up in West Baltimore and knew the sting of racism. Later, magazines such as Esquire would hail him as one of America's Top Five disc jockeys.

"Fat Daddy opened doors for us in Baltimore, that's for sure," Sheila said. "He played our music, he worked out deals for us and after we became a little polished, we appeared with him at the Royal. You talk about an extravaganza."

At the Royal, Paul the emcee would reign supreme, complete with crown, gold-lame cape and a scepter. He would introduce the acts, he would bring on the Royalettes.

"He was such a nice person," Sheila said. "He wrote the liner notes on our first album. We were lucky to have him in our lives."

In 1971, Paul left Baltimore and eventually became a vice president with Motown Records. He died in 1978 in Los Angeles.

Group disappears

As for the Royalettes, the group attempted a follow record called "I Want to Meet Him" but it scored lightly and their next five singles for MGM went nowhere. In 1972, the Royalettes moved to Roulette Records where they recorded one single and disappeared from the recording scene.

Sheila tried some recording while she was in the Playboy organization. "I sang as a Bunny and continued to work a bit in New York," she said. "But for all intents and purposes, our group was swallowed up in a vast ocean of groups and singers."

Unlike many groups, the Royalettes members have resisted performing at oldies reunions. "They are so symbolic of black music from that period," said Milton Duger Jr., a Baltimore music executive who attempted to coax the group to appear on "Doo Wop 51," a popular Maryland Public Television special and fund-raiser. "I was 9 when I saw Sugarchild Robinson, a child prodigy, perform at the Royal; I've seen them all. The Royalettes have a special place in the hearts of Baltimore."

Instead, the Royalettes members prefer recalling the days when they were at the top of their game, when they made it out of West Baltimore on their own dedication and talent, and had a record that some call a classic today.

"I will never forget going to the Apollo where they had five or so dressing room levels for the performers," Sheila said. "After our big song came out, we were right on the second level, right there with Smoky Robinson and the Miracles."

Roni, a legal secretary in Baltimore, relishes their musical success, but she's happy the families of the Royalettes members watched over them and encouraged them to finish high school. Many nights at the Royal, the girls did their homework while waiting to be called onstage.

"We were sheltered because we were kids and I am sort of glad we were," she said.

Adds Anita: "We didn't have a normal teen-aged life, it was a fantasy come alive. We traveled all around, met the famous performers, hit the great theaters. Nope, no regrets. I was happy then and I'm happy now. That's what music does to your life."

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