Gary: “I just loved this man’s voice. Although my choice for best voice would go to Jackie Wilson, this guy comes real close. He had an association with Billy Ward and was part of the Dominoes; he was also lead singer and started The Drifters in their hey-day. But he also had an independent career. Sadly, he left us too soon due to alcohol abuse that was brought on and fueled by a waning career. I know at the end he believed that his fans deserted him, but the music had changed. So we will go back to the early Fifties and take a look at…
With the Dominoes:
With the Drifters:
Clyde Lensey McPhatter was born in Durham, North Carolina on 15 November 1932 and at an excruciatingly tender age he uttered his first notes as a boy soprano at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in his hometown.
By the time he was twelve, his family moved to New Jersey, and McPhatter’s father George, a church minister, organized his own family choir in which Clyde was again featured. McPhatter joined the Mount Lebanon Spiritualist Singers aged fourteen who were based in New York on 132nd Street.
During the following four years McPhatter toured extensively with the group and he got the chance to test out his ideas and prepare himself for that day that he would be ready to follow his dream, a move into secular music.
Billy Ward an ambitious pianist/ arranger/ songwriter, after seeing McPhatter perform at Harlem’s Apollo amateur night, called him and arranged an audition at his studio. Ward was looking to create a new group that could rival the Ink Spots. He signed Clyde and Charlie White, Joe Lamont and bassman Bill Brown to a management contract through the Rose Marks Agency. He even gave them a ‘black’ name that would be instantly recognisable to white folks, the Dominoes.
Once they had secured a contract with Federal, the new King subsidiary, they had a US hit with their debut single ‘Do Something For Me’.
They spluttered a bit at first but after the huge success of ‘Sixty Minute Man‘ the hits rolled out one after another.
But McPhatter was unhappy because with all the fame came little reward; in his innocence he had signed a bad contract with Ward who paid the group only wages – no royalties, as he owned the Dominoes name.
In 1952 the Dominoes scored three huge R&B hits and two of them ‘That’s What You’re Doing To Me’ and ‘Have Mercy Baby’ became classics.
The wrangles between Ward and Clyde continued to sizzle and when the manager changed the groups name to ‘Billy Ward & His Dominoes’ Clyde went ballistic.
Argument developed into feud and after a particularly bitter exchange, Ward sacked McPhatter on the spot. He engaged Jackie Wilson as his replacement and the Dominoes resumed their engagements without a hitch.
Since their inception in 1950 the Dominoes were rarely off the R&B chart and while McPhatter remained in the group they scored 9 top 10 R&B singles in less than two years: after his departure, they would miss him more than he would miss them. Wilson struggled to replicate Clyde’s success on vinyl but failed.
When Ahmet Ertegun heard Clyde had left the Dominoes he rapidly signed him to a deal with his label, Atlantic Records. McPhatter formed ‘Drifters Incorporated’ with new partner and manager George Treadwell to prevent Domino history repeating itself and put together his new group the Drifters, who after some reshuffle, turned out to be Bill Pinkney and two brothers Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher.
As early as their second Atlantic session the Drifters laid down ‘Money Honey’, the Jesse Stone classic that would launch them on a musical extravaganza that still has momentum 50 years later.
At that time, the single was so hot it took them to #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and, though it did no business on the pop chart (not many R&B records did at that time), the record made a big impression on all that was to follow.
Elvis Presley, who must have heard it on the radio when still in his mid teens, recorded a homage version in ’56.
Drifter’s records were very influential on Elvis’s early vocal style and because of that their songs reached a much wider audience.
Over the following two years Clyde & the Drifters clocked up six top ten US R&B hit singles with ‘Such A Night’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Bip Bam’, ‘White Christmas’ and ‘What’cha Gonna Do’.
‘Honey Love’ also crossed over to the Hot 100 pop chart at #21 in June ’54. None of these influential recordings were issued anywhere else in the world, so their fame was somewhat domestic but in the USA they made the Drifters into huge stars.
‘Such A Night’ was another of their songs that Presley admired and their sensational reworking of ‘White Christmas’ was a yuletide repeat hit for many a year.
The international dance craze ‘The Twist’ was written and recorded by Hank Ballard in ’59 who closely based the melody line on their hit ‘What’cha Gonna Do’.
‘Seven Days’ reached #2 R&B, and ‘Treasure Of Love’ went one higher to #1 , as did ‘Long Lonely Nights’.
In America, Clyde’s popularity soared and like Ray Charles before him he left Atlantic seeking greater riches elsewhere, but unlike Charles he would not reach that level of public recognition again.
MGM signed McPhatter in May ’59 but the move was a disaster for Clyde and he was never quite happy with the results there; they lacked ‘feel’ and could not create enough interest to put Clyde where he wanted to be – on the charts. He did have one hit however with ‘Let’s Try Again’ (#13 R&B/48 pop).
The career was not going to plan. So within a year Clyde had switched labels to Mercury, where he turned things around with ‘Ta Ta‘ his very first single for them that raced to #7 R&B/23 pop in August ’60.
Mercury were then busy building up their album repertoire and during his time with them, Clyde recorded eight. His biggest hit single for the label was ‘Lover Please‘, cut in New York with arranger Stan Applebaum in February ’62.
The follow up, a revival of the Thurston Harris classic ‘Little Bitty Pretty One‘ went to #25 pop. The hits bumped up McPhatter’s appearance fees but he could not maintain the run after Mercury switched studios from New York to Nashville and sales began to dwindle once again.
Enter Alan Lorber, who had made his reputation producing the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson and Tommy Hunt at Scepter/Wand. The McPhatter-Lorber combination clicked and together they cut his finest album, Songs Of The Big City, an excellent collection of socially orientated songs.
‘Deep In The Heart Of Harlem‘ was issued as a single but, due to public apathy, had only registered at #90 pop by January ’64.
For his last Mercury album Clyde went back to his roots Live At The Apollo. In these familiar surroundings McPhatter raised his level once again to provide an accurate insight into the enormous ability he always had as an entertainer.
Lorber took McPhatter to Amy where he cut a handful of very good singles but scored no chart hits. ‘Lavender Lace‘ sold well in the UK, where Clyde always had a small but dedicated following. It had been released to coincide with his second European tour in the summer of ’67.
Based on the positive reaction that he received, Clyde set his sights on the UK. He signed to the Deram label in ’68 and cut two sessions at Decca Studios in London with Wayne Bickerton but results were mediocre.
Things began to look more promising when the B&C label issued ‘Denver‘ in ’69 but these singles faired no better in the UK than his earlier records had done in the States.
The unrealistic expectations of sustaining a UK based career soon brought him down to earth and the dreams of a fresh start evaporated when the Home Office refused to renew his work permit. Clyde returned to America, even more disillusioned than when he had left two years earlier.
After the failure of his final album Welcome Home that he cut with Clyde Otis and Belford Hendricks for Decca in 1970, Clyde sank into a cycle of drink and depression. During the night of 13 June ’72 a recurrent liver complaint caught up with him and he died in his sleep. “Clyde McPhatter, the Original Drifter, Dead”, read the headlines.