Billy Joe Royal, Veteran Country and Pop Performer, Dies at 73

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Billy Joe Royal

His hits included "Down in the Boondocks" and "Burn Like a Rocket."

Veteran country and pop performer Billy Joe Royal died in his sleep unexpectedly on Tuesday at his home in North Carolina. He was 73.

Royal was born April 3, 1942, in Valdosta, Ga., and grew up just north of Atlanta. However, it was a move to Savannah, Ga., that helped him to become known as a performer, gaining a huge following at the Bamboo Ranch. Nearly 2,500 people each night would flock to the club to see Royal and others perform. It was there that Royal would become friends with Roy Orbison, who gave him encouragement to pursue his dream as an artist.

Royal’s career path took him to Columbia Records, where he released “Down in the Boondocks” in 1965. The song peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the Joe South composition helped him become a star. In a 2010 interview, Royal recalled the first time he heard the song on the radio. “I was living in Cincinnati at the time, and a radio friend of mine named Dusty Rhodes played the record. There was no feeling like it. It was an amazing feeling and led to a great career.”

The singer’s subsequent hits included “I Knew You When” and “Cherry Hill Park,” which became his final Top 40 on the pop charts in 1969. Royal would leave Columbia for stints on smaller labels in the 1970s, eventually landing on Mercury Records, for which he released a self-titled album in 1980.

However, it was another five years until Royal tasted career success again, signing with Atlantic Records in Nashville. His first release for the label, “Burned Like a Rocket,” was sent to radio in the latter part of 1985. The track was rapidly climbing the country singles chart and had just entered the top 10 in January 1986. Then the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and due to the title of the song, the release began to fall quickly back down the chart.

“We thought we had a No. 1 record. It was selling so well,” Royal recalled. “I remember that I was in (producer) Nelson Larkin’s office watching TV, and we saw the shuttle go down. For some reason, it didn’t dawn on me that it would affect my record, but radio dropped it like a hot potato.”

But, it wasn’t the end of his country career. “By that time, it was in the top 10, so the song really led to a great period for me,” he said.

His next 14 single releases hit the country charts, with the biggest being his cover of “Tell It Like It Is,” which hit No. 2 in 1989. Royal’s 1987 album The Royal Treatment earned him a Gold certification as well. The singer credited great songs and his producer for his career renaissance.

“Nelson was such a great producer, and we had great musicians,” he said. “I was on Atlantic Records, and they were really behind me, as was everyone at radio. We had a really great run.”

Some stated that Royal had “gone Country,” but the singer said he really didn’t feel as if his music had changed at all. “Burned Like a Rocket’ was something like I would have cut back in the 1960s,” he said. “All of the songs were like that. I actually didn’t change what I did stylistically at all.”

Another key element to Royal’s comeback was his use of music videos, especially “I’ll Pin a Note on Your Pillow,” which topped the CMT playlist for months in 1987-88. “Back then, videos were everything. You could put a face with a song. People hadn’t seen me in years, and they probably thought I was on a walker. It was important to show people that I was still around,” he joked.

Royal’s final charted single was 1992’s “I’m Okay (and Gettin’ Better),” which peaked at No. 51 on the Country Airplay chart. Royal’s most recent project, His First Gospel Album, was released in 2009. Over the past few years, the singer had toured extensively with other popular performers from his era, such as B.J. Thomas.

Royal was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1988.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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