The world-famous Clyde McPhatter was one of the most popular singers in America during the 1950s and ’60s, initially championed by his friend Elvis Presley. He had a hit song with “The Young Conquerors” and he also played guitar on many of Elvis’ tracks.

Clyde McPhatter was a singer, songwriter and musician. He is best known for his hit songs “Hound Dog” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. He also had many other hits, including “Rock the Joint”, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and “Amen”.

Clyde McPhatter was a popular R&B performer throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. In his own time, his reputation and voice were so much bigger than the Drifters, the band he formed, that it took them five years to recover when he left. McPhatter was adored by Black audiences like few other singers before or since, and he helped define rhythm & blues and its transition into soul for almost 15 years. In some ways, he was the most unlikely of R&B artists, a soft high tenor who seemed to be more suited to the heavenly sounds of gospel music, at least on the surface. And his name gave some agents and managers pause: what sort of R&B artist, much alone a star, was called Clyde? Clyde McPhatter seemed to be a rustic parody of a Black American surname. Even on his live CD at the Apollo Theater, recorded during his waning years, when he portrays physical desire in the song “Ta Ta,” he makes it seem urgent and genuine, and completely believable.

McPhatter was born on November 15, 1932, in Durham, North Carolina, to George and Beulah McPhatter, the fourth of their six children. George McPhatter, a preacher at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where Beulah McPhatter was the pianist, and Clyde became a boy soprano in the church choir, came from a musical and devout family. In 1945, the family relocated to New Jersey, where McPhatter established his first gospel group during his senior year in high school. In the second part of the 1940s, the McPhatters relocated to New York City, where Clyde McPhatter joined the Mount Lebanon Singers, one of the most prominent gospel groups on the East Coast. McPhatter made the transition to secular music in late 1950 when he joined the Dominoes with Billy Ward, a former boxer turned vocalist. The band, formerly known as Billy Ward & the Dominoes, signed with Syd Nathan’s King Records label and recorded “Sixty Minute Man” towards the end of 1950. That song went on to become the greatest R&B success of 1951, as well as the first recognizable rock & roll single (though the term had not yet been established for music) by a Black group to reach the mainstream charts. McPhatter remained with Billy Ward & the Dominoes for three years, scoring a slew of successes including “Have Mercy Baby,” “The Bells,” “I’d Be Satisfied,” and “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You,” as well as performing as many shows as they could. Ward dominated the group’s image and finances — McPhatter’s was the lead voice, and it was the voice that everyone recognized; 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, couldn’t live on the meager salary that Ward paid him. McPhatter finally resigned in early 1953.

McPhatter’s singing with the Dominoes had made Ahmet Ertegun, the president and co-founder of Atlantic Records, a fan, and when he learned of his availability, he contacted him with a contract offer — to record his own group if he could arrange it. The Drifters were formed as a result of McPhatter’s collaboration with his manager, George Treadwell. Beginning with “Money Honey,” which went on to become the biggest R&B hit of 1954, McPhatter’s career took off as the leader of the Drifters, and he had a year of notable chart activity and burgeoning popularity, centered on the singles “Such a Night,” “Honey Love,” “White Christmas,” and “Whatch Gonna Do.” McPhatter was drafted in 1954, but was fortunate enough to be stationed in America, allowing him to continue recording with the group. However, he had already decided to quit the Drifters. McPhatter envisioned himself going in a different path from the rest of the group, toward a solo sound that fused pop, R&B, and rock & roll into one, and unlike many other aspirants to fame, he had what it needed to pull it off. His high tenor was as impressive on a gentle ballad as it was on a loud rock & roll tune, and he saw no reason why he couldn’t perform both in his own style. He couldn’t have realized it at the time, but he was paving the way for the likes of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, among others.

McPhatter began his formal solo career after his discharge in 1955, while still recording for Atlantic Records. McPhatter made his R&B debut in a duet with Ruth Brown on “Love Has Joined Us Together,” which reached number 8 on the charts, and in August of same year he recorded “Seven Days,” which went to number 2 in early 1956. This was McPhatter’s first effort at a crossover song, with a softer pop orchestra and chorus backing him up, but it was overshadowed on the pop charts by a number of white cover versions, most notably Dorothy Collins and the Crew Cuts. In the spring of 1956, he had a stronger run with “Treasure of Love,” which not only became his first solo R&B chart-topper, but also reached number 16 on the mainstream charts. In the spring of 1957, “Just to Hold My Hand” maintained him in the R&B Top 10 and the Top 30 in pop, while “Long Lonely Nights” topped the R&B charts while just scraping the Top 50 for pop record compilers. McPhatter was such a huge celebrity that he was the subject of two Atlantic LP releases in the same year, which was unheard of for a Black musician in those days, when R&B records (apart from Elvis Presley’s initial RCA long-players, which were classified R&B) didn’t sell well. Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters was published in 1956, followed by Love Ballads shortly after; the latter showed his and the label’s plan with a cover showing an audience of white adolescent females in colored overlays, gazing on eagerly and wistfully toward the camera. His aim, and the label’s desire, was to follow in the footsteps of Nat “King” Cole, who began in jazz and Eddy Arnold, who began in country, and move over to pop audiences — he aspired to challenge Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. “A Lover’s Question,” co-written by Brook Benton, was McPhatter’s greatest success on Atlantic in 1958, reaching number 6 on the mainstream charts while topping the R&B charts. In 1959, he had three additional charting singles, none of which made the Top 10 in R&B, although he did record another long-player, simply named Clyde.

After one final success, “Lovey Dovey,” he departed Atlantic that year, finishing off his career with another Brook Benton song, “You Went Back on Your Word.” McPhatter’s contract had expired, so he signed with M-G-M Records, which offered a hefty advance in an attempt to capture the R&B market. Just “Let’s Try Again” equaled his Atlantic successes, reaching the R&B Top 20, and his association with them lasted only a year. In 1960, he scored two modest pop successes with “I Told Myself a Lie” and “Think Me a Kiss.” McPhatter’s personal and musical lives were turbulent in the early 1960s. As the new decade started, he switched to Mercury Records, and his career appeared to perk up with an R&B Top 10 song, “Ta Ta,” which also charted on the mainstream charts. “I Never Knew” was also a hit, and “Lover Please,” penned by Billy Swan, was a Top 10 pop song in 1962. Behind the scenes, however, McPhatter was balancing a tightrope of alcoholism and unreliability that was draining all of his capital in the music and Black communities — he was still a big enough name to get bookings at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, but hall managers and promoters, as well as his own backing bands, had no idea what to expect from him, even in terms of repertory. In addition, the music surrounding him was shifting. McPhatter had served as a musical model for a generation of soul singers who followed him into the charts, including Ben E. King in the Drifters and solo, as well as Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson, who all had a flurry of hit singles between 1960 and 1965. During this time, King’s old band, the Drifters, were experiencing huge radio play and album sales around the vocals of King, Rudy Lewis, and Johnny Moore, who had reformed with an entirely new lineup and a new sound. In addition, during the early 1960s, Sam Cooke, a member of the same generation as McPhatter, was the dominating figure in soul music, having undertaken the same trip from the deep south to the big city, as well as the cross-over from gospel to R&B and pop. All of them were excellent, as well as dependable and professional, and there was just no place for McPhatter, who was none of these things at the moment.

Before leaving Mercury, McPhatter had minor hits with “Deep in the Heart of Harlem,” a song that seemed to imitate the Drifters’ soft soul sound of the time, and “Crying Won’t Help You Now,” and released a good concert album, Live at the Apollo, in 1964, that featured a cross-section of his hits from his early 1950s career. He spent the following several years recording for lesser labels like Amy Records, but he was unable to find a hit or maintain his performance career. He must have recognized the cruel irony of his former Drifters stablemate, bass singer Bill Pinkney, heading a group of “Drifters” that performed McPhatter’s repertoire and had a successful concert career, particularly in England. Then, in a decision that foreshadowed the Drifters’ later career paths, McPhatter relocated to England. At the time of their initial release, McPhatter’s Dominoes and Drifters albums were unavailable in the United Kingdom. Between the growing interest in American R&B and the publication of his current solo recordings, as well as the foundation established by Pinkney in his performances, McPhatter gained notoriety and found a new audience in the early 1960s. For a few years, he worked in British nightclubs until his personal issues resurfaced. In the early 1970s, he returned to America, signing with Decca Records and released the album Welcome Home. It failed to create an impression, and McPhatter claimed that there was any remaining audience or admirers, which was not the case. (Even this writer knew who Clyde McPhatter was, or had been, as a neophyte R&B listener in the late 1960s with a lot to learn, coming from a middle-class white neighborhood where Jimi Hendrix was the most frequently played Black artist, and at a time when not a single one of the early Drifters’ songs was available on an album.)

However, both professionally and emotionally, it was too late for McPhatter. Years of drinking, despair, and a refusal to address his issues culminated in his death in New York in 1972 from a heart attack. It took years for Atlantic, where he’d been contracted for perhaps the most hopeful six years of his career, to start making his songs accessible in the US (though their British division made some efforts overseas). In the CD age, the company has licensed various portions of his legacy to Collectables and Sequel, in addition to its own best-of collection Deep Sea Ball. There is no definitive collection of his work, nor is there a biography of this pioneering R&B and soul artist.

Clyde McPhatter was a singer, songwriter and actor. He is best known for the songs “Rock The Boat”, “Lover Come Back To Me” and “Ain’t That Peculiar”. His music career spanned from 1955 to 1968. Reference: clyde mcphatter death.

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