Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
James Brown was widely known as Soul Brother Number 1, but longtime D.C.-area singer Little Royal was referred to by some as Soul Brother Number 2. That’s because, as Royal told me in 2013, “James Brown looked at me and said we have to be brothers we look so alike.” Royal, who had still been performing up until recently while battling a series of health issues, died on September 29 at the age of 82.
Born Royal Torrence in North Carolina in 1933, Little Royal had a musical repertoire that mixed originals with soul covers—including plenty of James Brown. Sometimes called the Godfather of Soul’s half-brother, Royal’s biggest success was his passionate soul stirrer “Jealous” that climbed up to the 15th slot on the 1972 Billboard R&B songs chart. Royal and his band The Swingmasters had an instrumental number on the B-side of the single, “Razor Blade,” that also had a modicum of success and created a mini-dance craze. Royal says he created the dance for the song on the spot, when he was on the Cincinnati TV show Soul Street. The number has since been sampled by the likes of Ice-T and J Dilla.
Royal first moved to D.C. at age 20 with his uncle, Bill Weaver, and sang in his gospel group. Weaver soon decided the group should instead sing R&B, and while Royal was initially hesitant about that, he made the change. Soon Royal started his own band and they played the likes of the Howard Theatre, Carr’s Beach near Annapolis, and Wilmer’s Park in Prince George’s County. They also impressed Smokey Robinson, who had them open a tour for him.
Doug Mckinzie, who played saxophone in Little Royal’s band and has emceed his shows on and off since 1964, says Royal “put out 100 percent at every show he ever did,” and expected his band to do the same. Mckinzie adds that “he was strict and wanted the band to be on time. He was never late. He wanted his music played right. He would fine you if you missed a note. He was identical to James Brown in that way.” Acclaimed guitarist Bobby Parker was once in Royal’s band and Royal kicked him out for always being late. Teddy Pendergrass, who later became a star singer, was briefly Royal’s drummer until he was fired for not being up to Royal’s standards. Royal’s daughter, Ronesha Torrence, says her “dad was outgoing. He had a lot of leadership abilities and mentored acts. He was also stern and determined to make a mark with his music.”
Royal recorded one album in 1972, also called Jealous along with a number of additional tracks from 1972 through 1974 that were never released until Japanese label P-Vine reissued Jealous a few years ago. Royal recorded some new singles in the 1980s that found some success on the Carolina beach music circuit. He also wrote a spiritual track for the group Gospel Trails; Royal was a 7th Day Adventist who fasted every Friday. His daughter says “he always had the gospel in him.“
Royal was happy to be linked to James Brown, even if some—despite Royal’s self-penned songs—simply referred to him as a James Brown impersonator. Mckinzie notes that “whenever Royal would see James Brown he would go in his dressing room and James would show him a dance step and he’d show James a step. Whenever James released a new record, he always sent it to Royal before it was released. We always had a copy of it first and we’d be playing it before it hit the street.”
Over the decades, Royal performed at numerous club and theatre gigs in the U.S. and Canada. At the time of Jealous, he played the Apollo Theatre, while in recent decades he was a regular in the Carolinas. Locally, he played at a number of long-since-gone establishments, like the Mark lV on 13th Street NW, the Colt Lounge at 14th and V Streets NW, the Coco Club at 8th and H Street NE, the Penthouse on Georgia Avenue NW, Simon’s on 19th and Benning Road NE, and the Masonic Temple on U. Street NW.
This decade he cut back to doing a few performances a year, mostly at the “Blue Monday Blues” nights at Westminster Church in Southwest. Even after suffering a stroke, Royal energetically sang and strutted at these events. His daughter says “entertaining was his passion. He was content with what he had done. He had an amazing life.”
Little Royal’s Homegoing Service for friends, fans, and family will take place this evening at Gee’s Lounge from 6 p.m.-11 p.m., 3415 52nd Ave. in Hyattsville. Little Royal’s band The Swingmasters will perform along with Ernie Fields, Kimmy & Klasse, Winfield Parker, Gospel Trails, and others.