Billy Joe Royal Dies

Published: October 8, 2015

Billy Joe Royal Dies, Billy Joe Royal, a pop and country singer best known for the 1965 hit “Down in the Boondocks,” died on Tuesday at his home in Morehead City, N.C. He was 73.

The cause has not been determined, his publicist, Brent Taylor, said, adding that Mr. Royal had performed at a concert as recently as Sept. 24 and had a full touring schedule lined up for the fall.

Mr. Royal, who sang with a tremulous tenor and an intense delivery, had his biggest hits with several songs written and produced by Joe South. The top seller was “Down in the Boondocks,” the bitter lament of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks in love with a rich girl, which reached No. 9 on the pop charts.

“I guess people related to poor people,” Mr. Royal told The Chicago Tribune in 1990. “Once in a while I hear it on the radio, and it still stands up. The song meant everything to my career. I was making about $125 a week before that.”

He hit the charts with two other songs by Mr. South, “Hush” and “I Knew You When,” and ended the decade in the Top 20 with “Cherry Hill Park” (1969).

In the 1980s, after signing with Atlantic Records in Nashville, Mr. Royal turned out a steady stream of country hits, beginning with “Burned Like a Rocket,” which reached the country Top 10 in 1985 and was climbing when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. As a gesture of respect, D.J.s stopped playing the song. He followed up with “I’ll Pin a Note to Your Pillow,” a cover version of the Aaron Neville hit “Tell It Like It Is” and others.

Billy Joe Royal was born on April 3, 1942, in Valdosta, Ga., and grew up in Marietta, near Atlanta. He began singing in grade school, learned to play steel guitar and was soon performing with his uncle’s country-and-western band on local radio.

The success of Elvis Presley galvanized him. “When he made it so big, all us Southern boys thought maybe we had a shot, too,” he said in an interview posted on his website.

At 14, he became a regular on the radio program “Georgia Jubilee,” where other performers included Jerry Reed, Ray Stevens and Mr. South, who died in 2012.

Mr. Royal formed a rock band, the Corvettes, in high school and was later hired to perform at the Bamboo Ranch in Savannah, Ga., an enormous dance hall that booked top country and soul acts.

He was singing at a Cincinnati nightclub, Guys and Dolls, when Mr. South asked him to make a demonstration record of “Down in the Boondocks,” which he hoped to sell to Gene Pitney. Bill Lowery, a well-connected music producer and publisher in Atlanta, heard the record and brought it to Columbia, which signed Mr. Royal to a contract.

After the success of “Down in the Boondocks,” Mr. Royal was invited to join the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, a package tour that included the Turtles, the Shirelles, Peter and Gordon, and Tom Jones. In the 1970s he performed regularly at resorts in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Mr. Royal’s three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter, Savannah Royal; two stepsons, Trey and Joe Rivenbark; his mother, Mary Royal; and a brother, Jack.

Mr. Royal toured regularly in recent years, often with B. J. Thomas.

“I say this with all humility,” he said on his website. “The old voice has stood up, you know.” He added: “The other thing is, this is all I’ve ever done. I had to stick to it because I’ve never done anything else.”

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