THE DOMINOES - THE CLYDE McPHATTER YEARS (By Steve Walker)
Billy Ward (leader, pianist, arranger)
The Dominoes produced not one, not two, but three of the greatest voices in R&B history. During the life and development of the group, they were led, at different times, by Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson and Eugene Mumford.
The genesis of the Dominoes came in the late 1940's, when Billy Ward, the son of a Southern California minister and a serious student of classical and symphonic music, became a vocal coach and arranger at the Julliard School of Music, New York City.
Billy had been born in Los Angeles on 19 September, 1921 and had moved to Philadelphia as a child. He sang in his church choir alongside his mother and eventually became the church organist. As a child musical prodigy, he won an award from famed composer Walter Damrosch for a piano piece he had written (called "Dejection"); he was only 14. Before arriving at Julliard, he was in the army, rising to the rank of Captain, and directed the Coast Artillery Choir at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
In New York, he met Rose Ann Marks, who wrote songs and had a Broadway advertising agency. Billy ended up being employed by her as a composer and pianist, working out of studios at Carnegie Hall and the Brill Building at 1650 Broadway in New York. She became his manager and encouraged him to form a vocal group. Since Ward liked the Mariners, an integrated vocal group that occasionally appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Show, he formed his own mixed group. From the black and white of the group, he coined the name "Dominoes". The group met with no success and disbanded in 1950. Ward decided to try again, this time with an all-black group.
The group Ward formed, probably out of some of his students, was called the Ques. It didn't last long; he disbanded them when he found how undisciplined singers could be. Later that year (around September 1950), he formed another Ques group, and this time his army command training took over and he became very strict with the members. The Ques were: Clyde McPhatter (lead tenor), Charlie White (tenor), William Joseph Lamont (baritone), and Bill Brown (bass). All the singers had gospel backgrounds: Clyde and Charlie had come from the Mount Lebanon Singers; Joe and Bill were from the 5 International Gospel Singers of South Carolina. Billy was the pianist and arranger for the group.
Ward and Marks became partners both in managing this group and writing songs for them (they also had the Ward-Marks Music Publishing Company). Some of the songs that they wrote for the Dominoes are: "Do Something For Me", "Chicken Blues", "I Can't Escape From You", "Heart To Heart", "The Deacon Moves In", "No, Says My Heart", "Weeping Willow Blues", "Sixty Minute Man", "I Am With You", "That's What You're Doing To Me", "Have Mercy Baby", "I'd Be Satisfied", "The Bells", "Pedal Pushin' Papa", "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down", and "Can't Do Sixty No More".
Clyde McPhatter (born 15 November, 1932 in Durham, North Carolina) was already gaining recognition because of his showing at the world famous Amateur Night competition at the Apollo in Harlem. The gospel group named The Ques, returned to the Apollo stage on a Wednesday night in late September in 1950, and their spirituals got enough support from the audience to take home first prize, Clyde's high tenor style giving the new group a unique sound. On the strength of this, they appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show in October 1950, winning with the current pop hit "Goodnight Irene", arranged by Billy Ward. Rene Hall, an arranger working as a talent scout for King Records, saw their triumph and contacted King owner Syd Nathan; the Ques thus received a contract from King records. They also received a new name: the "Dominoes". Either someone felt that "Ques" was a strange name, or Ward liked the name he had previously chosen, or possibly they were named for Ward and Marks (as he was black and she was white).
On November 14, 1950, the Dominoes recorded their first titles for King's new Federal subsidiary. The sides were: Bill Brown's rollicking "Chicken Blues", and Clyde's plaintive ballads: "No! Says My Heart", "Do Something For Me", and "Weeping Willow Blues". When "Chicken Blues" and "Do Something For Me" were released in late December (as the first release on Federal 12001), it was the first time record-buying audiences heard Clyde McPhatter; the results would shake the R&B world.
By January of 1951 the record was selling well on the West Coast and the start looked promising. By early February 1951, it had entered the R&B charts, eventually climbing to #6. However, even before the song reached the charts, the Dominoes were back in the recording studio. On December 30, they recorded "Sixty Minute Man" (with Bill Brown on lead vocals), and Clyde's "Harbor Lights", written by Frances Langford in 1937. "Harbor Lights" was paired with "No! Says My Heart" (from the initial session), and released on Federal 12010 in January. Despite the timeless sound of the standard, it did not go over as well as had been hoped, as the public was seemingly more attuned to the combination of jump, gospel, and blues that they had exhibited on the two sides of their first record. "Do Something For Me" still continued to sell well, with Newark, New Jersey, and Louisville, Kentucky, giving it as the number one-seller in those areas.
At the end of January, Syd Nathan had the idea to use the Dominoes as a backing group for one of their top R&B stars, Little Esther, who had had a monster hit the year before with "Double Crossin' Blues" backed by the Robins. On 27 January, a split session produced a duet between Little Esther and Clyde McPhatter - "Heart To Heart", which would be held back for release in July, and then a lascivious Charlie White letched his way through "The Deacon Moves In" amidst squeaks and giggles from a clearly moved Esther. Two Clyde recordings fleshed out the session - "That's What You're Doing To Me" (not the release version) and "I Can't Escape From You", which would be released shortly as the b-side of "Sixty Minute Man".
"The Deacon Moves In" was selected for immediate release and got instant airplay and sales for the combination of talent. The flip side was "Other Lips Other Arms" - a Little Esther solo.
In March, 1951, Federal selected "Sixty Minute Man" and "I Can't Escape From You" as the Dominoes next release (Federal 12022). "Sixty Minute Man" entered the R&B charts in May, it remained for 30 weeks, including a staggering 14 of them at #1. It sold over a million and a half copies, crossing over onto the Pop charts, where it peaked at #17. It was such an important milestone in the development of the music that we all love, that it's worth digging a little deeper into the background of the record.
The history of "Sixty Minute Man" was the subject of an article by George Moonoogian in the November 1991 "Record Collector's Monthly". On record, the subject seems to go back to 1937, when both Georgia White and the 4 Southerners recorded "Dan, The Back Door Man". A "back-door man" was the lover of a married woman; he'd high-tail it out the back door (or window) as the lady's husband was coming in the front. However, Dan had a longer history than this. There was also Eddie Cantor's "Dapper Dan, The Ladies Man From Dixie Land", which goes back to 1921.
John A. Jackson, in his biography of Alan Freed ("Big Beat Heat", Schirmer Books, 1981), said:
It was no accident that the first true rhythm and blues record to cross over from the black charts to the white-dominated national pop charts was the Dominoes' sex-laden novelty "Sixty-Minute Man" in the summer of 1951. The song featured bass man Bill Brown's deep-throated boasting .. of his sexual prowess, of being able to satisfy his girls" with fifteen minutes each of "kissin'," "teasin'," and "squeezin'," before his climactic fifteen minutes of "blowin'" his "top."
The song had other, far-reaching effects. Chip Deffaa, jazz critic for the New York Post, wrote in his 1989 liner notes for a Ruth Brown album (talking about her hit "5-10-15 Hours"):
Herb Abramson, who played an important role in guiding Miss Brown's career during that period, recalls that Rudy Toombs originally wrote the song as "5-10-15 Minutes": "He came in and sang, 'Give me five-ten-fifteen minutes of your love.' I said that 'minutes' wasn't enough in this era of the '60 Minute Man' - we'd better make it 'fifteen hours of your love'."
To coincide with the release and growing popularity of this important record, the Dominoes embarked on their first tour of one-nighters as a starring act when they hit the road through the South with the Joe Thomas band.
"Sixty Minute Man" was the single record that introduced thousands of white listeners to the music that had been bubbling right under their noses for the past few years and would soon take over the country. The charge of the record across the landscape of America turned the Dominoes into a top gate attraction and there was a huge demand to see them in person. At the helm of all of this adulation and sometimes hysteria throughout the black community for his group, Billy Ward remained in control as manager, promoter, and writer for the vocalists. His association with Rose Marks remained and together they controlled the hottest act in all of R&B music that summer of 1951.
This was probably the time that Billy Ward's army background really surfaced. He instituted rules for this and rules for that; fines for this and fines for that. According to later bass David McNeil, you couldn't wear a moustache (a new rule; Bill and Charlie had them), you couldn't talk to the members of the band, you couldn't even talk to the chauffeur! If you left your room at night it was a $50 fine; if you knew someone else did and you didn't report it, it was a $100 fine. They weren't allowed to stay at the same hotel as other singers (when they played the Apollo, they had to stay in Greenwich Village, which was miles away; Clyde's family was in Harlem and he wasn't allowed to go up and see them). Ward even made each of them drink a warm glass of milk at night! The singers were on salary; there was no sharing of the profits. And he constantly drilled them in singing; at least that paid off: the Dominoes looked good and sounded good and their fans couldn't get enough. Once they hit it big, Ward started billing Clyde McPhatter as his younger brother, "Clyde Ward". At first Clyde was proud to say that he was Billy's brother, but as time went on, he rebelled.
A few days before "Sixty Minute Man" entered the charts, it was back into the studio, and, on 24 May, 1951, the Dominoes recorded the release version of "That's What You're Doing To Me" (Clyde on lead vocals, with Charlie on the bridge), "I Am With You" (Clyde and Bill), "Love, Love, Love" (Bill), "Don't Leave Me This Way" (Clyde), and "These Foolish Things" (Clyde). The recitation by Clyde at the start of "These Foolish Things" is a blueprint for Nolan Strong's similarly haunting spoken words in the Diablos' 1954 piece of wonderment - "The Wind"
July saw Federal release two Dominoes' records. The first (Federal 12036) was "Heart To Heart" (with Little Esther) from the January session, with a superb Esther solo ("Lookin' For A Man") on the flip. The other was pure Dominoes: "Weeping Willow Blues" (from their initial November 1950 recording session) and "I Am With You" (Federal 12039). "Weeping Willow Blues", high on my personal list of Clyde McPhatter favourites, made it to #8 (R&B), but it took about four months to enter the charts, probably due to the continuing popularity of "Sixty Minute Man". No further recordings were issued in 1951.
In the autumn of 1951 the Paradise Theater in Detroit planned to re-open and present live entertainment once again. The Dominoes were chosen to be the headline act for this inaugural show. Also on the bill were Dinah Washington and the Arnett Cobb combo. As "Sixty Minute Man" continued to go national, the group went on tour again with the Freddie Mitchell orchestra in the Midwest. Meanwhile demand for the record became so great that King-Federal Records put on an additional shift at its pressing plant to meet the huge number of orders. In September a measure of the huge success attained by the vocal group was realized when they received an Award of Achievement which was presented at the Apollo Theater by The Independent Press Service, a unit that served the more than 150 newspapers nationwide that were geared toward the black community in America. As the Dominoes were playing to sold out crowds in Ohio, "Sixty Minute Man" was the object of a pop cover record by the adventurous Elliot Lawrence Orchestra (on King Records, no less !).
In October, 1951, after such a hectic summer, Charlie White, tenor voice and occasional lead singer, left the group and eventually moved to Atlantic Records, where he took the place of John "Buddy" Bailey of the Clovers as lead singer and also record as a solo artist. However, before this happened, Syd Nathan asked Charlie to form a separate group for him. The result was the Checkers. Charlie would get to sing lead on two Checkers sides: his bluesy voice can be heard on "Flame In My Heart" and "Love Wasn't There". He finally reported to the Clovers to replace Buddy Bailey (who was in the army) on an April 1953 session.
In December, 1951 the Dominoes signed a new two and a half year recording contract with King-Federal Records. At the same time, it was established that Billy Ward and Rose Marks had joint ownership of the vocal group the Dominoes, and also rights to the name of the group. "Sixty Minute Man", not surprisingly, was voted the number one record in the jazz and blues field by music writers and again by the national juke box operators group. By the end of the year the figures were in and again - no surprise : "Sixty Minute Man" was the top selling rhythm & blues record of the year.
The next trip to the recording studio took place on 28 January, 1952. This time they did "Deep Sea Blues" (Clyde), "Have Mercy Baby" (Clyde), "Pedal Pushin' Papa" (unreleased version), and "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano" (Clyde).
The next released paired "That's What You're Doing To Me" (from the May 1951 session) with "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano" (Federal 12059, February 1952). The record opened strongly on the East coast but then seemed to fade.
In February 1952, bass singer Bill Brown left the group. He immediately joined Charlie White in the Checkers and can be heard on "Without A Song", "Oh, Oh, Oh Baby" and "Let Me Come Back". The line-up for the quartet was now Clyde McPhatter (lead), James Van Loan (brother of the Raven's lead singer Joe) (tenor), original member Joe Lamont (baritone), and David McNeil (bass).
David McNeil, who was previously with the Larks, was assigned to be Clyde's roommate, and the pair soon fell into discussion regarding what advances and royalties the Dominoes were getting. Clyde had no idea that they SHOULD be getting any of those things. Ward treated the members like sidemen. They received a small salary (out of which they had to pay for their uniforms), and the rest was held back and invested for them (although they never saw any of it). Dave was severely reprimanded for talking with Clyde about these forbidden subjects.
On 21 March, the Dominoes had a singular honour. They were chosen to be one of three acts (and the only vocal group) at Alan Freed's "Moondog Coronation Ball", the first large-scale show he ever put on. The other acts were Paul Williams and his Orchestra and Varetta Dillard. Williams was on-stage playing for the sold-out crowd of about 9,000, when an additional 6,000 disappointed fans literally crashed the show (breaking down the doors of the Cleveland Arena). Neither the Dominoes nor Varetta Dillard ever got to perform, but already Freed showed that he knew who to book.
In April 1952, Federal released "Have Mercy Baby" c/w "Deep Sea Blues" from the January session (Federal 12068). It was quickly apparent that the Dominoes had hit the bullseye again. "Mercy" took off and kept on selling. It shot up the charts to number one and stays there for 10 weeks. Clyde simply rips into the song with no sign of the mercy for which he is begging from his baby. Buckets of tears at the end presage Mr. McPhatter's tour de force on "The Bells" later in 1952. The interesting thing about this record is that it signalled the end of "The Dominoes". From now on, record labels would read "Billy Ward and His Dominoes".
On 17/18 May, the Dominoes appeared at Alan Freed's "Moondog Maytime Ball" at the Cleveland Arena. Other acts on the bill were: Todd Rhodes and his Orchestra, H-Bomb Ferguson, Freddie Mitchell and his Orchestra, Little Jimmy Scott, Al "Fats" Thomas, Joan Shaw, the Kalvin Brothers, and Morris Lane and his Great Orchestra. This time, there were three shows to handle the expected crowds, and the Dominoes got to perform.
Also during May came one of the great double bills in music history at Chicago's Oriental Theater when, at the height of each act's incredible popularity, the Dominoes shared the stage with Johnny Ray. That same month, "Love, Love, Love" c/w "That's What You're Doing To Me" (again) was released on Federal 12072.
In mid-summer, 1952 the group conducted an extended stay at Atlantic City's Surf Club. In Los Angeles, more than ten thousand copies of "Have Mercy Baby" were sold in one location - John Dolphin's famous record store. Proving that Billy Ward was looking to expand the Dominoes audience, the group was booked to play the Michigan State Fair, hardly a rhythm & blues venue.
A recording session on 17 September produced the Dominoes' next two singles, which were released almost simultaneously: #12105 - "I'd Be Satisfied" c/w "No Room" and #12106 - "I'm Lonely" c/w "Yours Forever". ("I'm Lonely" and "No Room" were led by Dominoes' valet and watchdog Johnny Oliver, who was a protégé of Billy Ward). The record-buying public found the practice of dual releases confusing, and this hurt the selling potential of both records.
After the September session, Dave McNeil went into the army (while there, he sang with a group called the Pyramids, which included Rudy West and Jesse Belvin - wowie!). When he was discharged, he joined Charlie Fuqua's Ink Spots, staying with them until Charlie's death in 1971. Dave then took over the group, which stayed together for several more years.
The Dominoes were named the number one recording act in the R&B field for the year 1952 by the Juke Box Operators of America.
At the year's end the latest Federal paired "The Bells" and "Pedal Pushin' Papa" (Federal 12114) from the September session. I can never find the right words to describe how I feel about "The Bells". In anyone's book, Clyde's histrionics are way over the top, and I have had people try and jump out of my car at 50 mph just to get away from it as I crank the volume up to full whack. For full tilt, surely, is the only way to get through the experience of "The Bells". You have to sort of immerse yourself into it completely, let it take you over, absorb every note, every nuance, every sob, every deep-voiced swoop. It's not a pleasurable or relaxing record, but it is mighty powerfully moving and a little scary too. And that sax break in the middle (can the electric organ) - just too much:
Baby please forgive me
In contrast, "Pedal Pushin' Papa" is a sub-"Sixty Minute Man" romp, this time fronted by David McNeil playing the part of Dan ("I'll rock your soul and make you roll"). The boys would revisit Dan again in later years in "Can't Do Sixty No More", by which time the poor old feller was walking around with a cane.
The record really took off, as a double-sided hit. "The Bells" entered the charts in January 1953, eventually peaking at #3, while "Pedal Pushin' Papa" entered in March, and climbed to #4.
Early in 1953, as "The Bells" continued to sell nationally, the group was approached to become part of a touring show that was not drawing well on the road. The show starred two long time icons of popularity in the black community - Louis Armstrong and former boxer and now entertainer Sugar Ray Robinson. It was apparent to the promoters of the show that this line-up was not attuned to the times, and so the Dominoes joined up at the Fox Theater in Detroit. The result was instant pandemonium as the group took over the show and the two former headliners were relegated to the status of opening acts. The Dominoes first performance on the bill resulted in five encores under riotous conditions, so great was their popularity. These conditions continued for the rest of the tour and serve as proof positive of the special place the Dominoes had in the R&B world.
About this same time Federal #12129 was released - the old thirties pop classic "These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You" was given a modern rendering by McPhatter that is one of his finest moments with the group, and the practice of Billy Ward in having the group concentrate many of their recordings on reworking American popular standards finally paid off in sales and air-play.
The heights of this adulation were rather short lived as the group soon found out that their remarkable lead singer, Clyde McPhatter was to leave the group and move to Atlantic Records where he would form his own unit, the Drifters, and have more control of his creative possibilities in writing and arranging, not to mention the financial aspect of the business.
In the middle of 1953, the prestigious poll published by the Pittsburgh Courier placed the Dominoes at number three among vocal groups - trailing the Clovers and surprisingly, the Ravens, which was a strange choice given the huge successes of the Billy Ward group.
By the time of their next release - Federal #12139 - "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down" c/w "Where Now Little Heart", the Dominoes had found a new lead singer - a young Detroit native named Jackie Wilson.
This seems a good point to draw breath, so we'll revisit the story of the Dominoes further on down the road.
Marv Goldberg's R&B Articles at:
J.C. Marion's DooWop Nation at:
"The Billboard Book Of American Singing Groups", Jay Warner
Most Dominoes compilations feature songs led by both Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson - double enjoyment:
Billy Ward & His Dominoes - Famous Groove FG 97 2001 (1999) (also includes two Little Esther duets and two Eugene Mumford-led tracks, one of which is "Stardust" - sheer bliss!)
The Very Best Of Billy Ward & The Dominoes - Collectables COL CD 2827 (2002)
Sixty Minute Men - Rhino 6909624 (1993)
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