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Billy Joe Royal dies at 73; sang 'Down in the Boondocks'

Billy Joe Royal dies at 73; sang 'Down in the Boondocks'
Billy Joe Royal is best-known for the 1965 pop hit "Down in the Boondocks." "The sound of it was different," the singer said. (Tom Hill / WireImage)

Singer Billy Joe Royal, who scored a memorable Top 10 pop hit in 1965 with "Down in the Boondocks" and later became a country star, died Oct. 6 at his home in Morehead City, N.C. He was 73.

He died in his sleep, his stepson Trey Rivenbark said.

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Born in Valdosta, Ga., on April 3, 1942, Royal was exposed to country music at a young age, singing with his uncle's band.

"They had a radio show in Valdosta, and they let me sing," he said in a 2010 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "And for some reason, I knew that's what I wanted to do. I just wanted to be in music."

By the time he was in high school in Marietta, he was singing with a rock band called the Corvettes. Influenced by Elvis Presley, Royal swiveled his hips so much during a school show that officials banned the Corvettes from playing at assemblies.

"It was obvious to all of us that Billy Joe was the one with the talent," Mickey Carlile, a member of the band, told the Journal-Constitution in 2006. "Billy Joe used to say, 'One of these days, you will see my name in lights.' "

In the late 1950s, he developed his tenor voice and singing style at Atlanta clubs, sometimes doing five sets a night. He got to meet and sometimes perform with stars, including B.B. King, Roy Orbison, the Drifters and most memorably, Sam Cooke.

"He was my idol," Royal said in the 2010 Journal-Constitution interview. "The second time he was there, he put his arm around me and said, 'You just keep getting better and better.'

"For a kid, I can't tell you how that felt."

Most importantly to his career, he worked with songwriter and producer Joe South, who wrote "Down in the Boondocks" — a song about a pair of young lovers from opposite sides of the tracks.

I love her, she loves me,

But I don't fit in her society.

Lord have mercy on the boy

from down in the boondocks.

"I guess people related to poor people," Royal told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. "Plus the sound of it was different. We cut it on a three-track machine — the most primitive thing in the world."

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With its repetitive, "down in the boondocks" reframe that got stuck in listeners' minds, the song reached No. 9 on the Billboard chart. It was the highest he ever reached on the pop charts, but Royal also found success with other songs in that era, including "Cherry Hill Park" and "Hush."

He graduated to bigger live shows, including tours produced by Dick Clark, and in 1970, Royal played Las Vegas, where he met and even hung out with Presley.

Royal moved to Los Angeles, but his brand of pop music was falling out of favor. He also had personal problems. "I was going through hell. I was getting a divorce," he told the Journal-Constitution. But he noticed that other singers who had pop hits had successfully switched genres.

"Kenny Rogers lived down the street from me," Royal recalled, "and Kenny was tearing the world up singing country music. So was B.J. Thomas."

Royal moved back to Georgia and eventually landed in Nashville, where he worked to revive his career. It looked like he might have a big hit in 1986 with "Burned Like a Rocket." But just as the song was gaining in popularity, the Challenger space shuttle tragedy occurred. The song had nothing to do with space travel, but given its title, radio stations stopped playing it.

Royal went on to do well with country songs such as "I'll Pin a Note on Your Pillow," "Tell It Like It Is" and "'Till I Can't Take It Anymore."

In 2010, he announced he would end his last official tour with a concert in Marietta, not far from the school that once banned him. He remembered his time there, before national fame, with fondness.

"Everybody knew everybody, and everybody liked everybody," he said in the 2010 Journal-Constitution interview. "It was the greatest place to grow up in the world. All we ever did was laugh."

Royal is survived by his daughter, Savannah Royal; mother Mary Royal; brother Jack Royal; stepsons Trey and Joey Rivenbark; and two grandchildren.

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