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Clyde McPhatter was one of the most influential R&B singers of the '50s and early '60s. In his own time, his name and voice loomed so much larger than that of the group the Drifters, which he founded, that it took five years for them to recover from his departure. McPhatter was idolized by Black audiences as few singers before or since ever were, and for almost 15 years helped define rhythm & blues and its transformation into soul. In a way, he was the most improbable of R&B stars, a gentle high tenor who, superficially at least, seemed more suited to the angelic strains of gospel music. And his name gave some potential managers and agents pause -- what kind of R&B singer, forget a star, was named Clyde? And Clyde McPhatter seemed like a backwoods burlesque of a Black American name. But when he sang, the doubts and the laughter all disappeared -- even on his live album from the Apollo Theater, recorded during his declining years, when he describes physical lust in the hit "Ta Ta," he makes it feel urgent and real, and utterly convincing.
McPhatter was born in Durham, NC, on November 15, 1932, the fourth of six children of George and Beulah McPhatter. The family that was both musical and religious, George McPhatter preached at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church where Beulah McPhatter was the organist, and Clyde became a boy soprano in the church choir. The family moved to New Jersey in 1945 and McPhatter formed his first gospel group that year in high school. The McPhatters moved to New York City, and Clyde McPhatter joined the Mount Lebanon Singers, who were one of the most popular gospel groups on the East Coast, and sang with them in the second half of the '40s. In late 1950, McPhatter made the jump to secular music when he joined Billy Ward, a former boxer-turned-singer in the Dominoes. The group, usually known officially as Billy Ward & the Dominoes, signed with Syd Nathan's King Records label, and at the end of 1950 cut "Sixty Minute Man." That song went on to become the biggest R&B hit of 1951 and the first identifiable rock & roll record (though that phrase had not yet been coined for music) by a Black group to make the jump from the R&B to the pop charts. McPhatter stayed with Billy Ward & the Dominoes for three years, racking up a very respectable array of hits, including "Have Mercy Baby," "The Bells," "I'd Be Satisfied," and "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You," and playing as many engagements as they could handle. The problem for McPhatter was that Ward dominated the group's image and its finances -- McPhatter's was the lead voice, and the voice that everyone identified; Ward had his name on the front end of the billing and collected all of the profits, while McPhatter, who was sometimes referred to as "Clyde Ward" by unknowing admirers, wasn't earning enough to live on from the meager salary that Ward paid him. Finally, in early 1953, McPhatter quit.
Ahmet Ertegun, the president and co-founder of Atlantic Records, was a fan of McPhatter's singing with the Dominoes and, on learning of his availability, approached him with a contract offer -- to record his own group, if he could organize it. Thus were born the Drifters, originally organized by McPhatter in partnership with his manager George Treadwell. It was as the leader of the Drifters that McPhatter's career momentum picked up considerably -- beginning with "Money Honey," which became the biggest R&B hit of 1954, he saw a year of notable chart activity and burgeoning popularity, around the singles "Such a Night," "Honey Love," "White Christmas," and "Whatch Gonna Do." McPhatter received his draft notice in 1954, but was lucky enough to be posted in America, which allowed him to continue to record with the group. He had already made a decision to leave the Drifters, however. He saw himself moving in a different direction from the group, toward a solo sound that would meld pop, R&B, and rock & roll all in one, and unlike a lot of other aspirants to that sort of stardom, McPhatter had what it took to pull it off. His high tenor was equally convincing on a slow ballad or a hard rock & roll number, and he saw no reason that he couldn't do both types of song his own way. He couldn't have known it at the time, but he was opening up a path that would later be followed by the likes of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, among many others.
Upon his discharge in 1955, McPhatter embarked on his official solo career, still recording for Atlantic Records. McPhatter first emerged in a duet with Ruth Brown on "Love Has Joined Us Together," which made number 8 on the R&B charts, and in August of that year he recorded "Seven Days," which became a number 2 R&B hit in early 1956. This was the first of McPhatter's attempts at a crossover record, complete with a softer pop orchestra and chorus behind his singing, but it was undercut on the pop charts by a variety of white cover versions, most notably by Dorothy Collins and the Crew Cuts. He fared better in the spring of 1956 with "Treasure of Love," which was not only his first solo R&B chart-topper, but also managed to make number 16 on the pop charts. "Just to Hold My Hand" kept him in the Top 10 on the R&B charts and the Top 30 in pop in the spring of 1957, and "Long Lonely Nights" topped out the R&B listings while just brushing the Top 50 for pop record compilers that summer. McPhatter was a big enough star that he was essentially the focus of two LP releases on Atlantic in the same year, unheard of for a Black artist in those days, when R&B albums (apart from Elvis' first RCA long-players, which were considered R&B) didn't sell in serious numbers. In 1956, Atlantic released Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters and followed it up with Love Ballads soon after -- the latter revealed his and the label's strategy, with a cover depicting an audience of white teenage girls in tinted overlays, looking on toward the camera excitedly and longingly. His goal, and the hope of his label, was to follow the path opened previously by Nat "King" Cole had done starting from jazz, and Eddy Arnold had done from country, and cross over to pop audiences -- he had aspirations of rivalling Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. McPhatter saw his biggest hit on Atlantic in 1958 with "A Lover's Question," co-authored by Brook Benton, which hit number 6 on the pop charts that fall while topping the R&B listings. He had three more charting singles in 1959, none of which broke the Top 10 in R&B, but saw another long-player released to his credit, entitled simply Clyde.
He left Atlantic that year after one last hit, "Lovey Dovey," closing out his career there with another Brook Benton song, "You Went Back on Your Word." McPhatter's contract was up, and he jumped to M-G-M Records, which was offering a large advance in its eagerness to grab hold of the R&B market. His relationship there lasted but a year, through four singles, of which only "Let's Try Again" matched his Atlantic hits, making the R&B Top 20. He also had some minor pop hits in "I Told Myself a Lie" and "Think Me a Kiss" in 1960. The early '60s were a tumultuous time for McPhatter, personally and musically. He jumped to Mercury Records as the new decade began, and his career seemed to pick up again with an R&B Top 10 single, "Ta Ta," which also made the pop charts. "I Never Knew" also did well, and was followed by a Top 10 pop single in 1962 with "Lover Please," written by Billy Swan. Behind the scenes, however, McPhatter was walking a tightrope of alcoholism and unreliability that was expending all of the capital that he'd built up in the music community and the Black community -- he was a big enough name to still rate bookings at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, but hall managers and promoters, and his own backing bands, never knew what to expect from him, even in terms of repertory between rehearsals and showtime. Additionally, music was changing around him. McPhatter had served as a musical model for a soul singers of two generations who followed him onto the charts -- Ben E. King in the Drifters and solo, but also Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson, and they were all producing hit records in prodigious numbers between 1960 and 1965. Even his former group the Drifters, now reconstructed with an entirely new lineup and with a new sound, were enjoying massive radio play and record sales during this period around the voices of King, Rudy Lewis, and Johnny Moore. Additionally, Sam Cooke, who was of the same generation as McPhatter, and had made the same journey out of the deep south to the big city, and the cross-over from gospel to R&B and pop, was the dominant figure in soul music during the early '60s. All were good and were also reliable and professional, and there was just no room for McPhatter, who wasn't any of those things at the time.
Before leaving Mercury, McPhatter enjoyed slight success with "Deep in the Heart of Harlem," a song that seemed to emulate the soft soul sound of the Drifters of that era, and "Crying Won't Help You Now," and cut a good concert album, Live at the Apollo, in 1964, which featured a cross-section of his hits across his career dating back to the early '50s. He spent the next few years recording for smaller labels such as Amy Records, unable to get a hit or keep his performing career going. He must have appreciated the grim irony, that his one-time Drifters stablemate, bass singer Bill Pinkney, was leading a group of "Drifters" who sang McPhatter's repertory and had a viable concert career, especially in England. And then, in a maneuver that anticipated the career course of the latter day Drifters, McPhatter moved to England. McPhatter's Dominoes and Drifters records hadn't appeared in the U.K. at the time of their original release. In the early '60s, between the booming enthusiasm for American R&B and the release of his current solo records, and the groundwork laid by Pinkney in his performances, McPhatter achieved recognition there and found a fresh audience. He found work in British clubs for a few years, until the same personal problems caught up with him. He returned to America in the early '70s, signing with Decca Records at the time and releasing an album, Welcome Home. It failed to make any impact, and McPhatter himself denied having any audience or fans left, which was not the case. (Even this writer -- as a neophyte R&B listener in the late '60s with a lot to learn, coming from a middle-class white neighborhood where Jimi Hendrix was the Black artist most often played, and in a time when not a single one of the early Drifters' songs was available on an album -- knew who Clyde McPhatter was, or who he had been.)
It was too late for McPhatter, professionally and personally, however. Years of alcoholism and depression, and a failure to deal with his problems ended with a fatal heart attack in New York in 1972. It took years for Atlantic, where he'd been signed for what were probably the six most optimistic years of his career, to begin to make his music available in the United States (though their British division made some efforts overseas). In the CD era, in addition to its own best of compilation Deep Sea Ball, the label has licensed different parts of his legacy to Collectables and Sequel. There is no definitive compilation of his music, or biography of this seminal R&B and soul star.
Clyde Lensley McPhatter (November 15, 1932 – June 13, 1972) was an American R&B and rock n' roll singer. He was immensely influential, perhaps the most widely imitated R&B singer of the 1950s and 1960s, making him a key figure in the shaping of doo-wop and R&B. His high-pitched tenor voice was steeped in the gospel music he sang in much of his younger life. He is best known for his solo hit "A Lover's Question". McPhatter was lead tenor for The Mount Lebanon Singers, a gospel group he formed as a teenager, and later, lead tenor for Billy Ward and His Dominoes. McPhatter was largely responsible for the success the Dominoes initially enjoyed. After his tenure with the Dominoes, McPhatter formed his own group, the Drifters, before going solo. Only 39 at the time of his death, he had struggled for years with alcoholism and depression and was, according to Jay Warner’s On This Day in Music History, "broke and despondent over a mismanaged career that made him a legend but hardly a success." At the time of his passing, Clyde McPhatter left a legacy of over 22 years of recording history.
He was the first artist in music history to become a double inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, first as a member of the Drifters, and later as a solo artist, and as a result, all subsequent double and triple inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are said to be members of "The Clyde McPhatter Club.""Clyde McPhatter". OLDIES.com. Retrieved 2012-12-16. Robert Palmer, "Roy Brown, A Pioneer Rock Singer", The New York Times, May 26, 1981. Arnold Shaw, Honkers And Shouters. The Golden Years Of Rhythm And Blues. New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1978, p. 381. "Google Image Result". Google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-16. "Image". Google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-16. "10 Most Likely Next Members of the Clyde McPhatter Club", Rock Hall Monitors, May 23, 2011. "New members of 'The Clyde McPhatter Club'", Future Rock Legends, January 17, 2009.
ContentsLife and career1.1 Early life1.2 Membership in Billy Ward & the Dominoes (1950-53)1.3 Founder of the Drifters (1953-1954)1.4 Solo career
Life and career
Clyde Lensley McPhatter was born in the tobacco town community of Hayti, in Durham, North Carolina, on November 15, 1932, and raised in a religious Baptist family; the son of Rev. George McPhatter and wife Beulah (though some accounts refer to her as Eva). Starting at the age of five, he sang in his father's church gospel choir along with his three brothers and three sisters. When he was ten, Clyde was the soprano-voiced soloist for the choir. In 1945, Rev. McPhatter moved his family to Teaneck, New Jersey, where Clyde attended Chelsior High School. He worked part-time as a grocery store clerk, and eventually was promoted to shift manager upon graduating high school. The family then relocated to New York City, where Clyde formed the gospel group The Mount Lebanon Singers.
Membership in Billy Ward & the Dominoes (1950-53)
In 1950, after winning the envied "Amateur Night" at Harlem's Apollo Theater, McPhatter returned to his job as store manager but later was recruited by Billy Ward & the Dominoes, and was present for the recording of "Sixty Minute Man" for Federal Records, a song regarded as the "first record of rock 'n roll," produced by Ralph Bass.
Billy Ward and his Dominoes was one of the top R&B vocal groups in the country, garnering more popularity than the Clovers, the Ravens and the Five Keys, largely due to Clyde's fervent, high-pitched tenor. He is regarded as the main singer to infuse a gospel-steeped singing style into mainstream R&B, though blues singer Roy Brown was actually the first to do so. Even though Roy Brown started the trend, McPhatter was more widely imitated, and was a much bigger influence in the shaping of Doo-Wop/R&B. In his book The Drifters, Bill Millar names Ben E. King, Smokey Robinson of the Miracles, Sammy Turner, and Marv Johnson among the vocalists who patterned themselves after McPhatter. "Most important," he concludes, "McPhatter took hold of the Ink Spots' simple major chord harmonies, drenched them in call-and-response patterns and sang as if he were back in church. In doing so, he created a revolutionary musical style from which---thankfully---popular music will never recover." But McPhatter didn't think much of his own singing abilities. The countless imitators tell a different story, including Bobby Hendricks, an interim Drifter, Nolan Strong of the Diablos, Bobby Day and Dee Clark. Patsy Cline shows McPhatter's influence (listen to his version of "Someday You'll Want Me to Want You", recorded in 1954 with the Drifters. Compare it to Cline's version, which seems to follow that example). In the course of his career Elvis Presley recorded several of McPhatter's songs. Presley's version of "White Christmas" has strong similarities to McPhatter's.
After recording several more songs, including "Have Mercy Baby", "Do Something for Me," and "The Bells", McPhatter left the Dominoes on May 7, 1953. He was sometimes passed off as "Clyde Ward, Billy's little brother." Others assumed it was Billy Ward doing the lead singing. As a member of The Dominoes, Clyde didn't earn much money. Ward paid him $100 a week, minus deductions for food, taxes, motel bills, etc. During an interview in 1971 McPhatter told journalist Marcia Vance "whenever I'd get back on the block where everybody'd heard my records - half the time I couldn't afford a Coca-Cola." Because of such occurrences, and because he was frequently at odds with Ward, McPhatter decided he would quit the Dominoes, intent on making a name for himself. McPhatter announced his intent to quit the group which Billy Ward agreed to if Clyde would stay on long enough to coach a replacement. Later, auditions for a replacement were held at Detroit's Fox Theater and a young Jackie Wilson would later take over as lead tenor for the Dominoes, influencing Wilson's singing style and stage presence. "I fell in love with the man's voice. I toured with the group and watched Clyde and listened..."—and apparently learned. Privately, McPhatter and Ward often argued, but publicly Clyde expressed his appreciation to Ward for giving him his start in entertainment. "I think Billy Ward is a very wonderful musician and entertainer. I appreciate all he did for me in giving me my start in show business."
Founder of the Drifters (1953-1954)
Ahmet Ertegün and Herb Abramson, founders of Atlantic Records, eagerly sought McPhatter after noticing he was not present for an appearance the Dominoes once made at Birdland, which was "an odd booking for the Dominoes", in Ertegün's words. After locating him, McPhatter was then signed to Atlantic on the condition that he form his own group. McPhatter promptly assembled a group and called them the Drifters. They recorded a few tracks in June 1953, including a song called "Lucille," written by McPhatter himself. This group of Drifters did not have the sound Atlantic executives were looking for however, and Clyde was prompted to assemble another group of singers. The revised lineup recorded and released such hits as "Money Honey," "Such a Night," "Honey Love," "White Christmas" and "Whatcha Gonna Do," with the record label proudly displaying the group name "Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters." (The story of the Drifters is full of personnel changes. The first group of Drifters Clyde assembled were mostly members of the Mount Lebanon Singers.)
In late 1954, McPhatter was inducted into the Army and assigned to Special Services in the continental United States, which allowed him to continue recording. After his tour of duty was up, he left the Drifters and launched a solo career.
McPhatter's first solo hit occurred just after being discharged - "Love Has Joined Us Together" (with Ruth Brown). He released several R&B recordings in the next few years, including "Rock and cry", "Seven Days" (later a bigger hit for Tom Jones), "Treasure of Love," "Just to Hold my Hand", and his biggest solo hit, "A Lover's Question," written by Brook Benton and Jimmy T. Williams, which peaked at No. 6 in 1958. In 1962, the song "Lover Please," written by country artist Billy Swan was released. His 1956 recording "Treasure of Love" saw his first solo No. 1 on the R&B charts and one week in the UK Singles Chart. It reached No. 16 on the U.S. Pop charts.
After leaving Atlantic Records, McPhatter then signed on with MGM Records, and released several more songs, including "I Told Myself a Lie" and "Think Me a Kiss" (1960) and his first single for Mercury Records "Ta Ta." His tenure on these labels proved to be less fruitful than his time with Atlantic. He recorded more singles, moving to other record labels, including "I Never Knew" and his final Top Ten hit "Lover Please," which made it to No. 7 in 1962. It was after "Lover Please" that McPhatter saw a downward turn in his career, as musical styles and tastes were constantly changing during the 1960s. These directional changes were the main reason McPhatter turned to alcohol abuse, as more sporadic recordings failed to chart.
In 1968, McPhatter moved to England, where he was still highly revered, utilizing UK band "ICE" as backup.Cite error: The named reference Honkers_And_Shouters_1978.2C_pg._381 was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Clyde McPhatter at AllMusic Shaw, Honkers And Shouters, 1978, p. 384. "The Drifters: Let the boogie woogie roll - 1953-1958", Atlantic Records 81927-1, by Peter Grendysa "The Drifters: Let the boogie woogie roll - 1953-1958", Atlantic Records 81927-1, by Peter Grendysa Shaw, Honkers And Shouters, 1978, p. 382.
McPhatter returned to America in 1970, making a few appearances in rock 'n roll revival tours, but remaining mostly a recluse. Hopes for a major comeback with a Decca album were crushed on June 13, 1972, when he died in his sleep at the age of 39 from complications of heart, liver, and kidney disease, brought on by alcohol abuse. That abuse was fueled by a failed career and resentment he harbored towards the fans he felt deserted him. During his interview with journalist Marcia Vance, McPhatter told Vance "I have no fans." He died at 1165 East 229th Street, Bronx, New York, where he had been living with Bertha M. Reid; they were traveling together as he tried to make a comeback.
McPhatter was a resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, at the time of his death. He was buried at George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, New Jersey.
Ruth Brown acknowledged in her later years that McPhatter was the actual father of her son Ronald, born in 1954. Ron now tours occasionally with a show of Drifters songs."The Drifters: Let the boogie woogie roll - 1953-1958", Atlantic Records 81927-1, by Peter Grendysa Album liner notes, "The Drifters: Let the boogie woogie roll - 1953-1958", Atlantic Records 81927-1, by Peter Grendysa via Associated Press. "Death Claims Hit Singer At Age of 41", Merced Sun-Star, June 16, 1972. Accessed September 13, 2011. "Clyde McPhatter, rhythm and blues singer in the early days of rock 'n' roll, died Tuesday in the Bronx of an apparent heart attack. He was 41 years old and lived in Teaneck, N.J." Browse by Cemetery: George Washington Memorial Park, Find A Grave, accessed April 6, 2007 Strauss, Robert. "Sometimes the Grave Is a Fine and Public Place", The New York Times, March 28, 2004. Accessed September 13, 2011. "A decade before the Shirelles became famous, Clyde McPhatter started the Drifters. He had a heart attack and died at 40 in 1972; he's buried in George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus." Pierre Perrone, "Ruth Brown" (obituary), The Independent, November 20, 2006.
Legacy and honors
In 1987 was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Rockabilly Hall of Fame recognized his pioneering efforts.
The Original Drifters were inducted in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.
The United States Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor in 1993.
The song "Money Honey" (1953) was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
McPhatter was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
Clyde was also named by Digital Dream Door as the Greatest Ever Lead Singer of a Vocal Group. "2009 Inductees". North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
No album he recorded ever appeared on the charts.