Clyde McPhatter, 1932-1972
June 13, 1972: One of R&B’s greatest singers, Clyde McPhatter, died of a heart attack in a New York hotel room. Only 39, he had struggled for years with alcoholism and depression and was, according to Jay Warner’s On This Day in Music History, “broke and despondent over a mismanaged career that made him a legend but hardly a success.”
McPhatter fronted two of the most influential groups in R&B history, helping to make him one of the top 1000 music makers of all time according to Dave’s Music Database. From 1950 to 1953, he was a member of the Dominoes. “Sixty Minute Man” was the biggest R&B hit of 1951, AMG topping the Billboard R&B charts for 14 weeks. All Music Guide called it “the first identifiable rock & roll record…by a black group to make the jump from the R&B to the pop charts.”
It was sung by Bill Brown, but generally McPhatter handled lead vocals, such as on 1952 #1 R&B hit “Have Mercy Baby.” With the group at one point billed as Billy Ward and His Dominoes, Ward collected the lion’s share of the profits. McPhatter wasn’t making enough to live on and quit. Atlantic Records’ co-founder Ahmet Ertegun offered him a chance to form a new group and the Drifters, a name suggested by McPhatter, were born. Ertegun once proclaimed them “the all-time greatest Atlantic group.”
The Drifters became a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee which, as their Rock Hall bio says, “epitomized the vocal group sound of New York City.” McPhatter saw two more long stays at #1 on the R&B charts with “Money Honey” and “Honey Love,” which was the biggest R&B hit of 1954. AMG
By 1955, McPhatter left for a solo career, landing R&B #1 songs with 1956’s “Treasure of Love”, 1957’s Long Lonely Nights”, and 1958’s “A Lover’s Question.” The latter was a top 10 U.S. pop hit as well.
The monstrous success of Motown groups like the Temptations, the Four Tops, and the Miracles owe a debt to the blueprint McPhatter forged. Significantly, McPhatter’s own ex-groups enjoyed success with and without him. The Dominoes landed a dozen top ten R&B hits in the 1950s with five different singers. The Drifters used six singers on 25 top ten R&B hits over a twenty-year chart run. The group’s most notable frontmen were fellow DMDB top 1000 music makers Jackie Wilson, who helmed two top ten R&B hits for the Dominoes (“You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”, “Rags to Riches”), and Ben E. King, who sang lead with the Drifters from 1959-61 on six top ten R&B hits, including “There Goes My Baby” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Both men also enjoyed solo success on the R&B and pop charts. Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” were both top 10 pop hits. King pulled off the same feat with “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me.” The latter makes the book The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era, 1954-1999.
Like so many gifted musicians, McPhatter led a troubled life. However, his legacy remains in tact, thanks to the music and influence he left behind.
For more information, including special recognitions for acts, songs, and albums, check out individual entries in the DMDB music makers’ encyclopedia for the Dominoes, the Drifters, Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, and Jackie Wilson.