Musical Gems

The ROyalettes, four teen-age girls from West Baltimore, were headed for success in the doo-wop world of the early 1960s, until pushed out of the way by the British Invasion

January 15, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

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.

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