Born Clyde Lensey McPhatter, Dutchville Township, Granville County, North Carolina, 15 November 1932
Clyde McPhatter possessed the most beautiful, purist, high tenor voice in R&B history. Born in the tobacco town of Durham, N.C., his upbringing was dominated by the Baptist Church (where his father was a minister) and Clyde soon became a boy soprano in the church choir. After the family moved to New Jersey in 1945, he formed a high school gospel group, until the family moved to New York City, where he joined the Mount Lebanon Singers, a popular group along the East Coast. In late 1950, McPhatter moved over to secular music when he joined Billy Ward's Dominoes, who had signed with Syd Nathan's Federal label, a newly formed subsidiary of King Records in Cincinnati. Their first Federal single (12001), "Do Something For Me" (lead vocal by Clyde)/ "Chicken Blues" (lead vocal by Bill Brown) was an immediate success, peaking at # 6 R&B in March 1951. Their third release,"Sixty Minute Man" (lead vocal by Bill Brown) became the biggest R&B hit of 1951 (# 1 for 14 weeks) and even crossed over to the pop charts (# 17), a very rare feat for a black group in those days. Over the course of the next two years, Clyde shone on such Dominoes classics as "That's What You're Doing To Me', "Have Mercy Baby" (another # 1 R&B, 1952), "I'd Be Satisfied", "The Bells" and "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You".
Clyde's major innovation in singing style was what he himself called "taking liberties with the melody" and what is technically called melisma (singing a single syllable over several notes).
Billy Ward, a strict disciplinarian, ran the group like a military outfit, with fines for any number of infractions, ranging from tardiness to unshined shoes to wrong notes to talking to the chauffeur. He dominated the group's image (most people thought that Billy Ward was the name of the lead singer) and finances, collecting all of the group's profits. In April 1953 Clyde had had enough and quit the Dominoes, where he was replaced by Jackie Wilson. When Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records discovered that McPhatter and Ward had fallen out, he tracked Clyde down in Harlem and encouraged him to put together a new group. At that time, black groups in the US were more in vogue and had a better chance of commercial success than any R&B individual. McPhatter quickly set about finding members for his new group, to be named The Drifters. However, when the group entered the studio for its first session on June 28, 1953, Ertegun and his new assistant, Jerry Wexler, were not satisfied. Although "Lucille" was used as the B-side of the Drifters' second single, the session was considered a failure. Clyde was told that he needed a better group, one that could create the appropriate support for his distinctive lead voice. Six weeks later, McPhatter had completely remodelled the Drifters, recruiting new members from gospel groups, and on August 9, 1953, one of the most historic R&B sessions of all time was held at the Atlantic studio in NYC. Four songs were recorded : "The Way I Feel", "Money Honey", "Gone" and "Let the Boogie Woogie Roll". Jerry Wexler writes in "Rhythm and the Blues", his autobiography : "The singing was like nothing I'd ever heard. The three- and four-part harmony was pitch-perfect and the gospel feel was real." (Page 89.) "Money Honey" was released as the first Drifters single (Atlantic 1006) and topped the R&B charts for 11 weeks, making it the biggest R&B record of 1953. It was covered by Elvis Presley in 1956 and thereafter by many others. But my personal favourite is "Let the Boogie Woogie Roll", which oddly wasn't released as a single until 1960 (coupled with the wild rocker "Deep Sea Ball"), when Clyde had already left Atlantic. When we conducted a poll among our list members in 2002, "Let the Boogie Woogie Roll" came out on top as the favourite Clyde McPhatter track (a tie with "A Lover's Question", I must add.)
More big hits followed in 1954-55 : "Such A Night" (# 2, also covered by Elvis), "Honey Love" (# 1), "Bip Bam" (# 7), "White Christmas" (# 2, with shared lead vocals by Clyde and Bill Pinkney) and "What'Cha Gonna Do" (# 2). Then McPhatter was drafted. Being stationed in America, he was able to carry on recording with the group, but he soon decided to go it alone, with the full backing of Atlantic. His first solo single, "Seven Days" (Atlantic 1081, preceded by a duet with Ruth Brown, "Love Has Joined Us Together") was recorded in August 1955, while he was still in the Army. It did well (# 2 R&B, # 44 pop) and was the beginning of a new, more pop orientated phase in his career. Clyde himself was looking for crossover success, but Ertegun and Wexler would not let him stray too far from his roots, though they employed white backing singers and orchestrations on Clyde's solo recordings. He now scored hits on both the pop and R&B charts, including three number ones (R&B) : "Treasure Of Love" (1956), "Long Lonely Nights" (1957) and "A Lover's Question" (1958), the latter being his biggest pop hit (# 6), written by Brook Benton and Clyde Otis. A switch to MGM did not improve his fortunes, certainly not artistically. Ray Ellis, his producer, gave him the full MOR treatment. The material was lacklustre, alienating his existing fan base without impressing the general pop market. Still, four of the six MGM singles that were released in 1959-60 made the Billboard Hot 100 (pop), with "Let's Try Again" (clearly modelled after "A Lover's Question") as the biggest seller (# 13 R&B, # 48 pop).
In March-April 1960, Clyde toured the UK with Bobby Darin and Duane Eddy. Upon his return, he signed with Mercury Records, where he would stay for the next five years, initially produced by Clyde Otis (in New York City) and later by Shelby Singleton (in Nashville). His first Mercury single, "Ta Ta", sold well (# 23 pop, # 7 R&B), but his best year was 1962, which returned him to the pop Top 10 with the Billy Swan composition "Lover Please" (# 7), soon followed by a successful remake of "Little Bitty Pretty One" (# 25), which had been a Top 10 hit for Thurston Harris in 1957. In 1965, "Crying Won't Help You Now" was his last chart entry (# 22 R&B). The Mercury stint was his last fruitful period, but Clyde could have been much bigger if he had focused on the newly emerging soul music (for which his voice was perfect) instead of clinging to his vision of MOR success. "Songs Of the Big City" and "Live At the Apollo" (both 1964) were excellent albums, though. In 1966-67, with Amy Records, he did finally attempt to address himself to the soul generation, but the five singles he made for the label were largely ignored by US radio programmers. Clyde made his second European tour in the summer of 1967. Based on the positive reactions that he received, McPhatter set his sights on the UK and moved there in 1968. He recorded for Deram (1968) and B&C (1969), but these singles fared no better in the UK than his earlier records had done in the States. His expectations of sustaining a UK-based career were unrealistic (his only ever UK chart entry had been "Treasure Of Love" in 1956) and the dreams of a fresh start evaporated when the Home Office refused to renew his work permit. Clyde returned to America in 1970, 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 alcoholism and depression. An alcohol-related heart attack killed him at age 39 in June 1972, silencing one of the greatest and most influential voices rhythm and blues has ever known. Surprisingly, there is still no book-length biography of his life.
More info :
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/cmcphatter.htm
Recommended listening :
Acknowledgements : Too many to mention. I have used at least fifteen different sources (printed and digital) for this piece.
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