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Royal Crescent Mob – Midnight Rose's

Updated: Feb 15

The passing of Carlton Smith on September 23, 2023, dealt a heavy blow to the Columbus community. His significance extended beyond his prowess as a drummer, although that was undeniable. While I can't claim to have known him closely, it was widely acknowledged that Carlton possessed an innate ability to connect with anyone he encountered. This was evident in my interactions with him; Carlton exuded openness, humility, thoughtfulness, and genuine sincerity. Of all the music he created, it's clear that his time with Royal Crescent Mob was near and dear to Carlton’s heart. The band's Midnight Rose's album, released in 1991, stands as a testament to Carlton's remarkable drumming skills.


SireWarner Bros. Records – 9 26497-2

1991

Midnight Rose's cover

Royal Crescent Mob was a well-established force by the fall of 1990, having toured extensively before retreating to Dreamland Studios in New York's Hudson Valley. "It works for us," lead singer David Ellison told the Baton Rouge Advocate at the time. "We're going to get into (touring) a lot more. It helps build a core following and good word-of-mouth. The best promotional thing we can do for ourselves is to play." Live performances helped foster a loyal fanbase and positive word-of-mouth promotion. However, the demanding tour schedule left little time for songwriting, presenting a challenge for the band.

Royal Crescent Mob promo pic, 1991

Carlton shed light on the band's creative process in an enlightening interview with Richard Sanford for Pencil Storm before Mob's reunion shows in December 2022, highlighting the band's collaborative approach to songwriting. “When I joined the band, we just started writing. A lot of times, [it went] ‘Carlton, play a drum beat.’ Then Happy would get in there. B would come up with a guitar part, and David would just hit the record button and start singing.”


By the time of Midnight Rose’s, the focus was on keeping things fresh. Carlton explains: “The challenge that we came [up against] was just writing the songs between the four of us and coming up with ways [to change it up]. We would go in pairs and say, ‘Okay, David and Carlton, you guys go write a song. Okay. B and Happy, you're going to write a song.’” Songwriting was all credited to the band, Doors-style.


Midnight Rose's, named after a notorious Brooklyn mafia hang-out, encapsulates Royal Crescent Mob's eclectic fusion of rock, funk, and soul. The album kicks off energetically with "Ramblin'," featuring a hypnotic bass riff and Ellison departing from his usual spoken word style. Tracks like "Big Mistake" delve into darker themes, showcasing the band's versatility.


''On 'Big Mistake,' the bridge on the record is not the one we had when we were writing the song,” Ellison told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The original one was more Kinks-oriented. Eric Calvi, our producer, said 'I just can't buy it; it just gets too funny. Let's come with something a little bit harder, because the lyrics are hard.' It's a fine line to inject comic relief without getting too cute or too humorous. You want to do it without looking too dorky.''

The Gavin Report review of Midnight Rose's Feb 15, 1991

Carlton Smith marries a grooving James Brown beat to more singing from Ellison on “Apples.” Sire released “Konk” to radio as the first single. Although a great showcase for Carlton’s percussive drumming style - even including some tom (timbale?) overdubs - its jazzy piano lines and spacey Cool Hand Luke samples, while a cool demonstration of Mob’s unique style, make it a head-scratching single choice. It garnered some airplay and made an appearance on Gavin’s alternative chart.


Despite positive reviews, the album's reception was not without challenges. Sire, the band's label, and parent company Warner Brothers maintained a hands-off approach, leaving them to navigate tours and promotion independently to a large degree.

Part 2 of the Gavin Report review

"I don't think we're just this 'alternative band'," Ellison noted in the ‘91 Advocate article. "I think we definitely have some songs that could cross over to wider appeal and mainstream radio… (the record company) didn't gear the record to AOR. They wanted to do it alternative first. I think songs like ‘Big Mistake' or ‘Ramblin'' could be big AOR songs."

Back cover of Midnight Rose's

"They haven't bothered us yet," Ellison said. "Both records we've done for Warner Brothers, they never showed up in the studio. I don't know if that's good or bad."


"What you have there are the rough mixes," Ellison told the Dayton Daily News. Apparently, after listening to the tapes, Sire told the band not to touch the unfinished mixes. The band canceled its final mixing sessions for Midnight Rose's.


"I think it's probably the rawest thing we've done since Omerta, and it's got a lot of energy to it, and gets as close to live as we can possibly get," Ellison indicated.


The mixes sound great to me - maybe the best-sounding album in the band’s catalog. The sound was evolving and you can hear stylistic shades of what was to come in Happy’s solo career on tracks like “Pretty Good Life.” ''We were all influenced by the Beatles,'' Ellison revealed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. ''Especially Harold Chichester, our bassist. You can't play rock 'n' roll and say you weren't. Harold brought in that 'La La La' bridge in 'Pretty Good Life,' which is kind of a cross between the Beatles and the Kinks. We decided to flange the thing and make it sound psychedelic and very poppish.”


In May, Sire released the “Timebomb” single along with a video. "Hopefully with this record, and the touring, and a video that was accepted by MTV (for “Timebomb”), and this type of music having a name all of a sudden, and people aware of it,” Ellison told the Dayton Daily News. “Hopefully we are in the right place at the right time, and it will carry over to the band, but we still got a whole lot of work to do."


Heavy touring resumed including a southern tour with Too Much Joy. But when “Timebomb” didn’t take off, the band’s relationship with Sire seemed to become tenuous. Grievances about the perceived lack of support from the label started filtering through the press. "We were told by Warner's that there were so many bands out there at the time and blah, blah, blah," Ellison told The Dispatch in July.

"Timebomb" CD single cover

When the September 1991 deadline for Warner Brothers to pick up the option for a third Mob album passed, the band was suddenly without a label. The band wasn’t alone in feeling like they deserved better label support. “When the Mob's Midnight Rose's was released on Sire/Warner Bros. in February, the company flew representatives into Columbus for an album release party,” Dispatch music editor Bill Eichenberger wrote in a year-end retrospective. “A month later, I called a Warner promotions rep, who immediately launched into a diatribe about Midnight Rose's flaws. Anyone familiar with the album knows there was nothing wrong with Rose's. What the rep meant was, ‘We're too busy here with a hundred other bands to bother with the Mob.’”

Insert photo of Ellison with Monkey's Retreat and Stache's in the background; Photo: Michael Wilson
Insert photo of Ellison with Monkey's Retreat and Stache's in the background; Photo: Michael Wilson

"You know those bugs that roll up when you touch them?" Ellison told the Chicago Sun-Times in December. "Well that's what (Sire) was. We never got any support from them. I think the writing was on the wall for us (last January) when our album (Midnight Rose's) came out. They told us, `Oh, it's great.' Then they threw it against the wall and when it didn't stick right away, we were pretty much goners."


To the band’s credit, they kept plugging along. For a while, anyway. A live album and one more studio album were still on the horizon. But being dropped from a major label is a psychological blow and business setback that’s often difficult, if not impossible, for a band to fully bounce back from.



Scan of the Midnight Rose's CD.

"We're not really concerned with whether we sign with an indie or another major label," Ellison, 32 at the time, was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times article. "It's no fun being without a label, but we're not going to sign with the first place that shows interest in us. We want to record for someone who gives a s - - -."


“We wanted to make another record,” Carlton said in the Pencil Storm interview. “We'd gotten dropped from Sire, and we were just knocking on doors and not realizing that, well, they're not going to pick up because you're knocking. That's for sure. Especially if you were dropped on the level that we were. We went to Capricorn Records; we went to, I don't know, several [labels]... Capricorn was mine. I was trying.”

Midnight Rose's record releaMidnight Rose's record release show. Photo: Local Waste Music
Midnight Rose's record release show. Photo: Local Waste Music

Carlton's ability to connect transcended musical boundaries. Whether playing reggae with Irie or jamming with Stonebyrd, his versatility and passion were evident. His involvement with Gathering Stars reflects his enduring dedication to music.


Carlton’s diagnosis was the impetus for reaching out and making the Royal Crescent Mob reunion happen. But others in the band were impacted by cancer too, as so many of us are. Ellison is battling prostate cancer and B lost his wife Sally to pancreatic cancer in May 2022. They gave the reunion shows added purpose by donating the proceeds to the American Cancer Society and the Tri-State Cancer Research Fund.

Pre-show at The Athenaeum, December 16, 2022
Pre-show at The Athenaeum, December 16, 2022

The December 16, 2022 Athenaeum show was my first time seeing the band, and it was worth the wait. They transcended.


It occurs to me that the Gathering Stars recording sessions Carlton did in our home studio may have been his last. It’s a big loss. The overflowing attendance at his celebration of life on December 2, 2023, at Natalie's underscored the impact he had on so many lives.

Farewell at The Athenaeum - December 16, 2022
Farewell at The Athenaeum - December 16, 2022

In the face of personal struggles, Carlton remained committed to his craft. His legacy lives on through his music, touching the lives of those fortunate enough to have known him or experienced his artistry. Carlton Smith's impact, both as a musician and a person, continues to resonate. The reunion shows raised $50,000 for the Tri-State Area Cancer Research Fund.


Tracklist
Photo of the Midnight Rose's cassette.

Companies, etc.
Ticket stub 12/31/90 Bogart's

Credits
Midnight Rose's album flat


KUKQ Birthday Bash 1991 ad

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