Clyde McPhatterJun 3rd, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1932-1972 Clyde McPhatter was one of the great lead R&B singers of the 1950s. His emotive high tenor voice led his vocal group, The Drifters, to tremendous popularity. His subsequent solo career brought him pop chart cross-over success, and a career that prefigured the development of both the rock and roll and soul genres.
McPhatter was born in 1932 in Durham, North Carolina. The fourth of six children born to a Baptist preacher and his organist wife, McPhatter sang in the choir. In 1945, the family relocated to New Jersey where McPhatter attended high school and formed his own gospel group. Soon after, they moved again to New York City. There, McPhatter joined one of the most popular gospel groups in the east, the Mount Lebanon Singers, with whom he sang for the rest of that decade.
His shift into secular music came in 1950 when he joined the group called Billy Ward & the Dominoes. That year, the group recorded “Sixty Minute Man” for King Records, which became the top R&B hit of 1951. It has also been cited as the first time a black band cut a “rock and roll” record that crossed to the popular music charts. Despite Ward’s heavy-handed dominance of the group’s billing and finance, McPhatter sang with the Dominoes for three years, fueling such further hits as “The Bells,” “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You,” and “Have Mercy Baby” while sustaining a vigorous live performing schedule. But he remained in Ward’s shadow and was paid a meager salary. Dissatisfied, he left in 1953.
Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun attended a Dominoes concert soon after, and asked after their missing lead singer. Learning that McPhatter was available, he promptly offered him a recording deal that included the incentive of creating his own band. McPhatter, in partnership with his manager George Treadwell, went through many of the Mount Lebanon Singers and other colleagues before coming up with a four-voice and guitar core ensemble. The electric guitar as an essential component of a vocal group’s arrangements was at that time unprecedented, and hinted at things to come: The Drifters were born.
In the course of a remarkably productive two-year period, McPhatter and producer Jerry Wexler led The Drifters to a series of R&B hits. This began with “Money Honey,” the top R&B tune of 1954, and continued with the band’s rendition of “White Christmas,” “Such a Night,” “Honey Love,” and “Whatcha Gonna Do.” Drafted into the Army in 1954, McPhatter was posted in the United States which enabled him to keep recording with the group. Nevertheless, he developed a different musical direction during this period and decided to separate from the band. McPhatter had the well-placed confidence in his talent to imagine a new form embracing R&B, pop, and the emerging rock and roll sound, driven by a single voice, and his experience entertaining his fellow soldiers encouraged him to take the chance.
A Solo Singer
Discharged from the Army in 1955, McPhatter began his solo career still under the auspices of Atlantic Records. His early releases, including a duet with Ruth Brown entitled “Love Has Joined Us Together” and “Seven Days,” became R&B hits and revealed a more pop-oriented approach in an effort to achieve cross-over appeal. However, his success in this regard was hampered by white artists releasing cover versions of his songs, against which a black artist couldn’t hope to compete for white listeners at that time. Nevertheless, he did reach the #16 pop chart position with 1956’s “Treasure of Love,” and crossed over again with “Just to Hold My Hand” and “Long Lonely Nights” in 1957. Atlantic was concurrently pushing McPhatter via long-playing albums compiling many of his singles, a treatment normally accorded only white singers, in an effort to replicate the genre-crossing success of such pop phenomena as Nat “King” Cole, and the vocal fame of Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.
McPhatter reached his popular peak in 1958 with “A Lover’s Question,” which topped the R&B chart while hitting #6 on the pop chart. Several singles in 1958 also charted, but none nearly as well as his earlier successes. With the expiration of his Atlantic contract, McPhatter left for a lucrative offer from MGM Records, which was then seeking to build share in the R&B market. This relationship lasted for just one year and four singles, with “Let’s Try Again” in the R&B top 20, and some modest pop success. Moving to Mercury Records, McPhatter’s career seemed to pick up with the R&B top 10 “Ta Ta,” and 1962’s pop top 10 “Lover Please,” and performances at such venues as Harlem’s Apollo Theater. But a longstanding problem with alcoholism was beginning to take its toll on his reliability and professionalism. At the same time, younger singers who had followed the trail blazed by McPhatter such as Smokie Robinson and Jackie Wilson, were now creating new sounds that met with greater popular success. Ironically, even a reconstituted Drifters were faring well without him.
The 1960s brought modest success after McPhatter left Mercury, including a performance album entitled “Live at the Apollo,” but his audience base was clearly dwindling. Like other American R&B artists, he revivified his career with a move to the U.K. where many of his earlier records were only then being released. After enjoying the fruits of Britain’s R&B-based rock revolution, he returned to the United States in the early 1970s and released an album for Decca Records, “Welcome Home.” The response was less than welcoming, and McPhatter slid into despondence. He died of a heart attack in 1972 in New York. McPhatter was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and The Drifters joined him there in 1988, in a fitting recognition of his seminal role in creating the band and the modern day rock and soul singer. With his work covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Ry Cooder, and Otis Redding, and much of his catalog available in re-release, McPhatter’s legacy lives on.