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.
Height’s experience had taught him how racism could hinder a dream. He couldn’t let that happen to a man who dreamed even bigger.
On an August day, selling T-shirts near Silver Hills Road in Prince George’s, he recalls thinking: “We need to support this man.”
And then, he thought: That could be a song.
He wrote the lyrics in 45 minutes. He got approval to use the Whispers’ melody.
“And I emptied out my bank account to produce it,” he said proudly.
He drove to local clubs, such as Chateau, Channel Inn and the Eclipse, and asked them to play the tune. They did. Height sold the song along with his typical items while vending. Customers bought.
He stalked famous DJs.
Donnie Simpson, the longtime morning show host who retired in 2010, recalled walking to work one morning when he was approached by two gentlemen in a parking lot. It was Height and his producer, asking him to listen to the CD.
“It’s the type of thing that rarely happens nowadays, so I listened to the song. And I loved it. It was so creative and timely. And best of all, it was from a local guy.”
Height called the radio show for comic Mo’Nique and sang the song to her. He says Steve Harvey also gave the track a spin.
“He’s been working so hard for that song,” his sister said.
For Height, it was a hit. He estimated that he sold 3,000 copies by the first inauguration.
Four years later, he is trying to make the song even bigger. He registered the Web domain theobamathemesong.com. He added a rap explaining some of Obama’s accomplishments:
“Better senior care, welfare and health care, too. . . . Education, less foreclosure, no need to stop till he is through.”
After Obama dipped in the polls after the first debate, Height thought the song would cheer up supporters. So he made a music video.
Behold the video: Height in navy blue paints, a blue satin shirt and a white sweater vest. He dances from side to side, as images of the Oval Office and the Rose Garden flash behind him. He snaps along deliberately. When the rap bit comes, he dons a pair of sunglasses and one of the hats he sells on the street.
Before the video plays on YouTube, a caption announces its goal of being seen by 1 million people. Since September, when the footage was posted, a little more than 2,000 have watched. It’s no will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” but it’s not bad for a man who had only $10,000 to spend on the effort.
“I’m feeling positive about this song,” he said. “I just hope to use it as a springboard to other songs that are even better.”
The song didn’t prove to be the ticket to inaugural balls, as he’d hoped. But he’s solidified one performance so far. It’s in Clinton, at a nursing home.
He walked inside Memory Lane, a parthenon of faded records and cassette tapes. Paintings of stars from Jackie Wilson to Aretha Franklin to Chuck Brown lined the walls. Height handed the CD to Michael Earle, the store’s co-owner.
“You think you can play it this weekend?” he asked.
It was hardly a question. The store was playing a CD composed of old R&B songs from local artists. The two struggle to figure out whether the current crooner has diabetes or had died.
“So many good singers come from here,” Earle said. “Sometimes, they only have one good song, but it means something to people. It’s nice to carry on their legacy.”
So yes, Earle said, he will play “Barack Steady” this weekend. Height used to sing other people’s hits to carry on the musical legacy of the bands he loved. Now, a bald, 63-year-old vendor on Minnesota Avenue looked to a president to solidify a legacy of his own.