Royal Height’s chance at stardom is fading. Earlier this week, he pulled his white van into the parking lot of a District Heights record store. He stuffed his black nylon jacket with copies of CDs, carrying with them the hope of resuscitating a song he thinks is classic — but not timeless.
“We need to vote Ba-ROCK . . . Ob-ahh-ma!” he sings on the track. “Barack, until the troops come home!”
Before 2008, Royal Height spent his days selling hats and gloves on the street. In the night, he’d perform classic songs by the famed R&B group the Orioles. Then Obama changed America — and Height’s song about the president, “Barack Steady,” changed the street vendor’s life.
“I knew I had a hit,” the 63-year-old in his smooth, measured tenor. “And I didn’t have the money to promote it in the way it should be, but I thought it could sell.”
He began blasting the song outside his van, near the table set up to sell T-shirts, posters, buttons and gloves with the $10 CD. Those items, too, are tributes to No. 44.
For those who sell wares on the street corners of urban America, the ascendancy of the first black president brought unbridled economic opportunity. No longer did vendors just sell random stuff. If those things were lacquered with the image of the first family, vendors could hawk slices of Americana.
Ask Height what Obama has done for small business.
“I’m now selling collector’s items,” Height said. “ . . . and I feel like I’m now experiencing the best part of my life.”
But here’s the rub: The song’s decreasingly relevant. The people supported Ba-ROCK, twice. After this inauguration, the song has no hook. And the song will no longer take Height to places he’d only dreamed of going, from banquet halls to embassy parties where he met African kings. Radio DJs have praised his name. The possibility of creating a viral hit spurred the kind of work ethic that Height’s family members say they haven’t seen in him since his days in med school.
“Barack Steady” riffs off the synthetic pump of the 1987 Whispers’ song “Rock Steady.” Now, if you pass by stores along Minnesota Avenue NE or get a haircut in a barbershop in District Heights, it’s not uncommon to hear the catchy chorus:
“We support Ba-ROCK . . . Ob-ahhh-ma! For hope. We know a change will come.”
The lyrics already feel a little dated.
“The time is now, the world has changed, and people really so frustrated.”
So Height is spending his last few days of hope rallying for his best chance to get a full-fledged music career.
He parked the car in the lot. He checked his pockets to make sure the CDs were unscathed. He walked into an oldies store called Memory Lane CDs & Records, hoping the owner would loop his song into the store’s rotation.
There was just one weekend left.
“Procrastination has always been my worst enemy,” Height said. “I started my career late in life, so I don’t have much time.”
From medicine to music
Royal Height’s music career didn’t take off until he was in his 30s. He was a second tenor specializing in a genre in the music of a fading generation: the doo-wop sound of the ’50s and ’60s, when boy bands were more five-part harmonies and slick suits than hair gel and Auto-Tune.
Despite a love for music that he’s had since boyhood, young Height first fancied a career in medicine. He got a bachelor’s degree in zoology at Howard in 1972. Then, he said, he did a year at medical school at UCLA.
On the other coast, he recalls meeting an unfriendly world. As an early beneficiary of affirmative action, he said, he encountered a type of racism he had never faced before. He said the school provided no emotional support, so he dropped out. UCLA says it has no record of his attendance, which doesn’t surprise him.
“Everyone was so disappointed when he left,” said his younger sister, Ernestine Hatton, a retired local singer who was known as Tina Ray. “He would have been an incredible doctor, but I guess the racial situation at the time wasn’t right. He is such a generous man, and he loves people.”
The experience in California changed his perspective. He worked in insurance for a while. By the time he returned to the District in the early ’80s, he made a vow:
“I will never work for someone else again.”
In 1981, he set up shop at the corner of Minnesota and Benning Road NE and started vending. He did graphic design and small gigs on the side.
He sang on the amateur circuit, then professionally with groups such as the Winstons. He left the Winstons to work with the Orioles, regarded as the world’s first R&B group. He made crowds swoon while he led performances of the group’s hit “Crying in the Chapel.” He was satisfied.
Until he saw Obama on television. Never could he imagine a black man coming so close to becoming the president. Height admired Obama’s academic credentials and his can-do attitude. Obama inspired the vendor.