Two-time Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer paved the way
Yesterday marked the 82nd birth anniversary of one of the most important figures in the history of rhythm and blues (R&B) - Clyde McPhatter.
Possessing a velvety fluid tenor voice, he anchored two of the top vocal groups of the 1950s -The Dominos and The Drifters, before launching a successful solo career. McPhatter's contribution, both as a group singer and as a solo act, paved the way for the emergence of soul music, while influencing dozens of soul greats, including Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
McPhatter actually began his career in 1950 as the soaring, high-tenor lead vocalist of a New York-based, all-black vocal quintet named The Dominos. In less than a year, the teenaged McPhatter, along with the group, had three major hits, Do Something For Me, I Am With You and The Sixty Minute Man, a risque episode, which became one of the first R&B singles to cross over to the pop charts. Its bawdy concoction of blues and gospel, laced with suggestive lyrics, incited music lovers to sing along to the words:
"Look here girls, I'm telling you now
they call me loving Dan
I rock 'em roll 'em all night long
I'm a sixty minute man.
If you don't believe I'm all I say
come up and take my hand.
When I let you go, you'll cry 'Oh yea', he's a sixty minute man.
There'll be 15 minutes of kissing, 15 minutes of teasing,
15 minutes of squeezing
and 15 minutes of blowing my top.
then you'll holler 'please don't stop'."
The North Carolina-born McPhatter, however, saw his career taking a dramatic turn on an evening in early 1953, when he was approached backstage by the fledgling Atlantic Recording Company's boss, Ahmet Ertegun, while the group performed at the New York club, Birdland. Ertegun had just learnt that McPhatter had quit the group, and sought to capitalise on his departure by signing him to his record label. The deal was completed in minutes with Ertegun insisting that a group be formed for the recording sessions. It was a most unusual occurrence, perhaps the first and only instance in recording music history that a group was formed at the instigation of a record label chief.
McPhatter went about his task by recruiting his backing singers from the ranks of local-based gospel groups, including the Mount Lebanon Singers of which he was once a member. After a number of line-up changes and unreleased recordings, McPhatter settled with Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher, Willie Ferbee, Jimmy Oliver (guitarist), and himself. For all intents and purposes, the group that Ertegun requested was born, and tagged with the name 'Drifters', all this happening in 1953. The unusual title befuddled many, but the explanation was given that the members drifted in from other groups.
First Drifters hit
McPhatter's first recording session with the group, for the New York-based Atlantic Records in August of 1953, produced the million-selling smash, Money Honey, followed in 1954 by Such a Night, Lucille, Honey Love and the holiday classic, White Christmas, which became the group's first crossover pop entry. Drafted in late 1954 to the army base in Buffalo, McPhatter was allowed to rejoin the group on weekends, resulting in him landing his final hit with the group in 1955, the Ahmet Ertegun-penned, Whatcha Gonna Do, a proposition in rhythm and blues that became one of the real gems from the Drifters' catalogue. McPhatter had thus set in motion what would become the longest-running success story in pop-soul music history, and in the process, laid a solid foundation for R&B, pop and soul that would emerge in the following decade.
Upon his discharge from the army in 1956, McPhatter sold the right to the group's name to their manager George Treadwell, a former jazz musician who had masterminded the career of his wife, Sarah Vaughan. The move was an ill-fated one for the group members, who now became salaried employees to Treadwell, who could hire and fire at will, while they were being subjected to a meagre $100 per week, without any claim to the name 'Drifters', no share of royalties from record sales, or benefits from concert fees.
Long working hours also became a bone of contention and indiscipline crept in. Dissatisfaction and discontent reached boiling point in late 1958 when, during a run of shows at the Apollo Theatre, an inebriated Drifter made the impolitic mistake of berating the Apollo owner. Treadwell apparently ran out of patience and fired the group en bloc. He was left without a group to honour his obligations on the road, some of which had already been paid for, and he could end up in court. But 'The Crowns', a Harlem-based group, came to Treadwell's rescue, when he signed them, rechristened them Drifters, and began the mopping-up process that would re-establish the group in march 1959, with Ben E. King, Elsbeary Hobbs, Charlie Thomas and Doc Green, charting the unforgettable gems, There Goes My Baby, This Magic Moment, Save the last dance for Me, and others.
In the meantime, McPhatter, who had gone solo from 1956, was firing on all cylinders with an explosion of hits for Atlantic Records that have gone down in history as some of the best that R&B had to offer. Jamaican music in its embryonic stage was deeply indebted to some of these: The Treasure of Love (1956) was one that charted a route to love's easy access:
"The treasure of love is easy to find,
it's waiting for you, if your heart isn't blind.
The treasure of love is not very far,
it glows like a fire and it shines like a star."
He followed up with Without Love, Long Lonely Nights, Come What May in 1957, and his biggest pop hit, A Lover Question (1959). Leaving Atlantic, he had commendable efforts like Lavender Lace, Denver and Ta-Ta for other labels.
Excessive alcoholic abuse led to a heart attack and a somewhat premature end to McPhatter's life at age 39. He became the first artiste to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: as a solo artiste and as a Drifter.