Instrumental rock and roll of the madcap kind was frequently dispatched by Bill Haley and his Comets during the band's heyday. Four teenagers from Fort Lee, New Jersey, attempted to follow that example, but plans went awry from the get-go. Their name, for one, didn't fly; too many groups named The Royals had come and gone. The instrumental thing went by the wayside as well with "Planet Rock," released in the latter months of 1957; seems everyone of a certain age preferred the other side, as sexy and suggestive a song as you could imagine ('Man, dig that crazy chick!') considering the lyrics were mindlessly simple: 'Who wears short shorts?...We wear short shorts!' and little else. Parental types had a point, at least as far as lyrics go, when they complained about the disposability of their teenage offspring's fave sounds. Excruciatingly for said adults, "Short Shorts" by The Royal Teens was a major hit.
The band came together in '56 at Bergenfield High School, a few miles up the road from Fort Lee. Tom Austin's uncle, a drummer, often let the youngster practice on his drum set. Bill Dalton played his grandfather's guitar and later took up bass. Bill Crandall played saxophone, at one point impressing King Curtis, who was amazed that such a scrawny kid could blow so impressively. Bob Gaudio played piano and had a propensity for writing songs. They made the acquaintance of The Three Friends when the Brooklyn-based act performed in Jersey; Tony Grochowski, Joe Francovilla (who became known as Joe Villa) and Frank Stropoli had hit big in New York and a few other east coast markets in late '56 with "Blanche" on the Lido label, a small operation run by Leo Rogers. Taking a trip across the bridge, the Royal-boys auditioned for Rogers, who gave them an assignment backing one of his groups, The Corvells, on "We Made a Vow," crediting them on the summer '57 single as The Royalteens, a name the guys weren't fond of and didn't figure on using in the future.
Back home on the west side of the Hudson River, Tom and Bob went for a drive one day while enjoying their favorite pastime: ogling girls walking down the street. Spotting a couple of cuties in skimpily-sheared cutoff jeans, they were struck with the idea for "Short Shorts." Girl watching songs were nothing new; The Four Lads had recently scored a major seller with "Standing on the Corner" ('...watching all the girls go by!') and The Coasters' latest smash, "Young Blood," had them going gaga over a tuff-looking chick '...standin' on the corner...' Austin and Gaudio structured their song with as few lyrics as possible to leave plenty of room for the sax and guitar solos. Taking the idea to Rogers, the hesitant label owner put them in the studio to lay down the two tracks (Crandall and Dalton's Comets-influenced "Planet Rock" being the other). Diana Costello, a high schooler from Queens who went by the name Diana Lee, had done some session work and was brought in with another girl to provide the "We wear short shorts' response. Rogers hedged his bets and made a deal with Lee Silver to have it released on Silver's Power label.
Somehow the Royal Teens moniker stuck with the band (two words now, no "the"); Leo and Lee decided to push the catchy "Short Shorts" side and by the end of the year it had begun getting airplay on stations in N.Y., Chicago, Los Angeles and other large markets; he shopped the record around to several major labels and accepted a sizeable offer from ABC-Paramount (Artie Singer of Singular Records had just done the same with Danny and the Juniors' "At the Hop" and ABC's crack promotion team made all the right moves to get it to number one). The band, with Diana temporarily along for the ride, appeared on American Bandstand and other dance shows and joined a tour as the opening act to several top stars. The single got as high as number three in March 1958; an R&B cover version by Tiny Bradshaw appeared on King but didn't catch on. A U.K. group, The Four Winds with their Teenage Friends, and another act from Australia, Bill and Ronnie, imitatively made attempts at recreating the song in their respective lands; no one made much effort to change the arrangement! An additional boost came when it was referenced in one of the year's biggest hits, Sheb Wooley's spring novelty monster "The Purple People Eater," its one-horned protagonist admitting his appreciation of an earthly pleasure taken straight from Austin and Gaudio's lyrics: 'I like short shorts!'
Crandall's parents stepped in and yanked him from the band; his replacement on sax was the slightly older (and taller) Larry Qualiano. That summer, the four-guys-and-a-girl Royal Teens performed "Short Shorts" in Let's Rock, a star vehicle for singer Julius LaRosa that featured several rock and roll acts (Paul Anka, Roy Hamilton and Teens labelmates Danny and the Juniors, performing the chart-topping "Hop"). By that time, ABC had put out the Teens' follow-up single, "Big Name Button" (the admittedly non-singing quartet vocalizing against type, with Diana Lee propping them up!), a Buddy Kaye-Leon Carr song that provides evidence of a fad only slightly less fleeting than the record's brief spring chart appearance. "Harvey's Got a Girl Friend" (penned by all four members) had a similarly limited life late in the summer; no sign-a Diana, but the guys had fun with the universe's only known use of the lyrics 'He holds hands with Susie (No I don't!) Yes you do!...He's a floozie-woozie! (No I'm not!) Yes you are!'
"Open the Door (Forgot the Key)" ventured further into novelty territory (with some great staccato sax work by Larry); after failing to sell, the group was dropped by ABC. "Sittin With My Baby" on Power and "Leotards" on the Mighty label drove home the notion that the band was a rock and roll parody act of sorts, nothing wrong with that particularly, but the records weren't selling. Group members began coming and going; Brooklyn native Al Kooper played guitar with the band during this time. Former Three Friends crooner Joey Villa, a genuinely good singer (wouldn't blame you if you mistook him for Dion DiMucci) came on board and an effort was made to rebrand the group as teen ballad singers. Capitol signed them and in November '59, the "new" Royal Teens landed in the top 40 with "Believe Me."
It took just two more Capitol singles for the love song schtick to play itself out. In 1960, Bob Gaudio left the group and joined The Four Lovers (soon to be famous as The 4 Seasons), a move that served him well for many years while offering a much stronger outlet for his songwriting. At that point Tom Austin was the only remaining original Royal Teen, a distinction he has retained through decades of performing with the act. There were a few more singles on various labels including a desperate revival of their famous hit as "Short Short Twist" in 1962. Ultimately, New Jersey's Royal Teens endure as a familiar pop culture entity, thanks to an often-aired series of Nair hair removal cream commercials that began in 1975. For years afterwards, people went around humming "We wear short shorts...' without necessarily knowing why!