Born November 15, 1932, Durham, NC; (died June 13, 1972, Teaneck, NJ); son of a minister.

A prominent singer in rock history, Clyde McPhatter's short life was marked by a steady stream of chart-topping hits and unprecedented success. McPhatter achieved mainstream popularity in the early 1950s as the lead singer for Billy Ward & His Dominoes, applying the intensity of his well-trained gospel tenor to the secular love songs of the group. This winning combination reached beyond McPhatter's personal success to become a basic formula in R&B and soul music. Feeling stifled under the constraints of the Dominoes, McPhatter left in 1953 to form the Drifters. His unparalleled vocal style and name recognition helped create one of the most notable vocal groups in R&B. After being drafted in 1954 and serving a short stint in the Army, McPhatter embarked on a solo career. Although he continued to record hits like "A Lover's Question" and "I Never Knew," his alcoholism eventually eclipsed his distinctive and magical sound and led to his death from a heart attack in 1972. Although neglected at the time of his death and unaware of his influence on music history, McPhatter had become one of the pioneer voices in rock.

Born a minister's son in Durham, North Carolina, on November 15, 1932, and raised in New Jersey, McPhatter spent much of his childhood in church, singing gospel in the choir and mastering the passion of the music. At 18, McPhatter was asked to join vocal group Billy Ward & His Dominoes, the first consequential move of his career. Reservations about bringing the religious dramatics of gospel to the sexy, romantic secular tunes of the group led McPhatter to initially bill himself as Clyde Ward, claiming to be Billy's brother. From 1950 to 1952, the group scored with hits "Do Something For Me," "I Am With You," and "Sixty-Minute Man," one of the first R&B singles to also score on the pop charts; "Have Mercy Baby," reached number one on the R&B charts for ten weeks in 1952.

In 1953, however, McPhatter grew resistant to Ward's inflexibility and left the band with encouragement from Atlantic Record's Ahmet Ertegun, who promised him top billing and a recording contract with his own act. McPhatter tapped his former gospel group, The Mount Lebanon Singers. Band members included William Anderson, James Johnson, David Baughn, and David Baldwin, who chose the name "the Drifters" from a bird book. The group signed with Atlantic Records, but when the chemistry failed to emerge, McPhatter regrouped with Bill Pinkney of Jerusalem Stars, Andrew and Gerhart Thrasher of Thrasher Wonders, and Willie Ferbie. The combination proved successful and their first debut hit "The Way I Fell," reached number one on the R&B charts and sold in the millions. The group went on to record several other hits, including "Money Honey" and "White Christmas." Just before the release of the successful hit "Honey Love" in May of 1954, McPhatter was drafted to the Army.

In July 1955 McPhatter returned from his short time in the Army and left the Drifters to go solo. The group continued a long and successful career without McPhatter, whose stardom was still holding throughout the second half of the decade. His first hit after returning from military service was a duet with Ruth Brown called "Love Has Joined Us Together," which reached the top ten on the R&B charts. His releases continued to chart consistently during the next several years, among them "Come What May," "Long Lonely Nights," "Just to Hold My Hand," "Seven Days," "Without Love (There is Nothing)," and "A Lover's Question," one of the biggest hits of his career and an R&B classic. Singles like "You Went Back on Your Word," and "Lovey Dovey" hit the top 20, but the climax of McPhatter's career had already passed.

In early 1960, McPhatter switched from Atlantic to MGM, and later switched again to Mercury. Though he was still headlining venues like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, he was beginning to lose his battle against alcoholism. He moved to England in 1968 and toured heavily, but his top 20 singles, including "Ta Ta" on the Mercury label and "I Never Knew," were already behind him. After two years and little success, he returned to the U.S., where he recorded an LP for the record label Decca. McPhatter died of a heart attack related to his excessive drinking in 1972 in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Although McPhatter never reached the stardom of Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, or Elvis Presley, his distinct and passionate vocal style heavily influenced these artists. The profound effect of McPhatter's role in rock history was honored in 1987 when he was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

by Karen Gordon

Clyde McPhatter's Career

Joined Billy Ward's Dominoes after years singing gospel in church, 1950; gained prominence with several Dominoes hits, including "Have Mercy Baby," "Do Something For Me," and "Sixty-Minute Man," 1950-1952; left the Dominoes and signed to Atlantic Records as lead singer of his band, the Drifters, 1953; drafted into the military, 1954; returned from the Army late in the year and resumed career as solo artist on Atlantic, 1955; continued to hit R&B top ten with songs including "Just To Hold My Hand," "Come What May," and "Long Lonely Nights," 1956-1958; released extremely successful single "A Lover's Question," 1959; switched from Atlantic to MGM and, later in the year, to Mercury, 1960; released last significant hit "I Never Knew," 1961; released biggest pop hit of his career with "Lover Please," 1962; moved to England, 1968; returned to U.S. and completed last recording, an LP for Decca, Welcome Home, 1970; died of a heart attack after many years battling alcoholism, 1972.

Clyde McPhatter's Awards

Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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