Billy Joe Royal Biography
Best-known for his pop/rock hit “Down in the Boondocks,” Billy Joe Royal had a long career that saw him shifting his attentions toward country music in the ’80s. Although he never had another hit as large as “Down in the Boondocks,” he racked up a number of successful country singles over the course of the 1980s.
Royal was born into a family of musical entertainers in Valdosta, Georgia, and debuted on his uncle’s radio show at the age of 11. The following year, he learned to play steel guitar and joined the Atlanta Jubilee at age 14, performing with Joe South, Jerry Reed, and Ray Stevens, among several other artists. Royal had his own rock band during high school and was regularly singing around Atlanta by the age of 16. In 1962, he recorded an independent single which went unnoticed. Three years later South contacted him with a song he wanted Royal to sing as a demo, in the hope that Gene Pitney would record it. Royal flew to Atlanta and recorded “Down in the Boondocks” inside the studio’s septic tank, which had been converted into an echo chamber.
The demo ended up at Columbia, and they signed Royal to a six-year deal. The song became his breakthrough single, reaching number nine on the pop charts and making the vocalist into a teen idol. Following its success, Royal had a string of lesser hits, including the Top 40 pop singles “I Knew You When,” “I’ve Got to Be Somebody” and “Cherry Hill Park.” By the end of the decade, Royal’s star waned, and he became a regular performer in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. He also did a bit of acting on television, in feature films, and commercials. In 1978, he recorded a cover of “Under the Boardwalk” and scored a minor hit.
During the early 1980s, Royal worked on establishing himself as a country artist, but had trouble finding a label. In 1984, he finally got a break when he recorded Gary Burr’s “Burned Like a Rocket; ” it was picked up by Atlantic Records, who signed Royal to the label. The single became a hit and reached the country Top Ten in early 1986. For the next two years, he had a string of Top 40 hits, breaking into the Top 10 in late 1987 with “I’ll Pin a Note on Your Pillow.” In 1989, he released the album Tell It Like Is; the title cut became his biggest hit, peaking at number two, while the album itself stayed in the Top 15 for over a year. By 1990, Royal’s style of pop-inflected country had been replaced by neo-traditional honky-tonk at the top of the charts, and his popularity declined. He continued to have minor hits into 1992, and toured throughout the decade. ~ Sandra Brennan, All Music Guide