Singer Billy Joe Royal dies

CNN  — 

Musician Billy Joe Royal, the voice of 1960s pop hits including “Down in the Boondocks” who resurfaced as a country star in the 1980s, died at age 73.

Royal died in his sleep Tuesday in his home in Morehead City, North Carolina, friend and tour partner Ronnie McDowell said.

McDowell, a childhood friend, said the two were scheduled to start touring after Thanksgiving.

There was “never a nicer guy on the planet than Billy,” he said. “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Billy Joe Royal in 1980

Royal was born in 1942 in Valdosta, Georgia, and raised north of Atlanta. He performed on local radio shows before moving to Savannah to perform with the house band at the Bamboo Ranch. There, he became friends with Roy Orbison and learned from guest performers at the club, including Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and The Isley Brothers, according to his biography.

His early hits bore traces of pop and R&B, including 1965’s “Down in the Boondocks,” which launched his career, peaking at number nine on the Billboard Top 100. Subsequent hits included “I Knew You When” and “Cherry Hill Park,” his final top 40 on the pop charts in 1969, according to Billboard.

Royal left Columbia to record music on smaller labels in the 1970s before releasing a self-titled album in 1980 with Mercury Records. He was poised for a comeback in 1985 with his first release for Atlantic Records, “Burned like a Rocket.” The track was climbing the country singles chart when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and “radio dropped it like a hot potato,” Royal said in a 2010 interview, according to Billboard.

His career continued with 14 singles that hit the country charts, including “Tell It Like It Is,” which peaked at number two in 1989. His final chart single was 1992’s “I’m Okay (And Gettin’ Better),” which peaked at number 51 on the Country Airplay chart.

He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1988. His most recent project, “His First Gospel Album,” was released in 2009. Since then he has toured with other performers from his era, including B.J. Thomas and McDowell.

Thomas mourned Royal’s death.

“My best friend, Billy Joe Royal, died this morning. He was a sweet and talented man. Never a bad word. One of a kind.”

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CNN’s Sam Stringer contributed to this report.