[Sourced from "Bull City Soul Revival"]
(November 15, 1932 – June 13, 1972)
Clyde Lensley McPhatter was born in the tobacco town of Durham, North Carolina, on November 15, 1932, and raised in a religious Baptist family, the son of the Rev. George McPhatter and wife Beulah (though some accounts refer to her as Eva).
[The McPhatter family, George and Beulah are listed at 910 Juniper Street in 1934. George is listed as a "lab(orer)," although there is a Reverend John McPhatter listed in the directory as well.- GK]
Starting at age five, he sang in his father’s church gospel choir along with his three brothers and three sisters. When he was ten, Clyde was the soprano-voiced soloist for the choir. In 1945, the Rev. McPhatter moved his family to Teaneck, New Jersey where Clyde attended Chelsior High School. He worked part-time as a grocery store clerk, and eventually was promoted to shift manager upon graduating high school. The family then relocated to New York City, and McPhatter formed the gospel group The Mount Lebanon Singers.
Membership in Billy Ward & The Dominoes (1950-53)
In 1950, after winning “Amateur Night” at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, McPhatter returned to his job as store manager and later was recruited by Billy Ward & the Dominoes, and was present for the recording of “Sixty Minute Man” for Federal Records, a song sometimes regarded as the “first record of rock ‘n roll,” produced by Ralph Bass.
Clyde’s fervent, high-pitched tenor was a large part of the Dominoes’ success. He was regarded as the main singer to infuse his gospel-steeped singing style into mainstream R&B, though blues singer Roy Brown was actually the first to do so. Although Roy Brown started the trend, McPhatter was more widely imitated, and he was a much bigger influence in the shaping of Doo-Wop/R&B. In his book The Drifters, Bill Millar names Ben E. King, Smokey Robinson of the Miracles, Sammy Turner, and Marv Johnson among the vocalists who patterned themselves after McPhatter. “Most important,” he concludes, “McPhatter took hold of the Ink Spots’ simple major chord harmonies, drenched them in call-and-response patterns and sang as if he were back in church. In doing so, he created a revolutionary musical style from which—thankfully—popular music will never recover.” Strangely, McPhatter didn’t think much of his own singing abilities. The numerous Clyde McPhatter imitators tell a different story, namely Nolan Strong of The Diablos, Bobby Day, and Dee Clark.
After recording several more songs, including “Have Mercy Baby“, “Do Something for Me,” and “The Bells,” McPhatter quit The Dominoes in 1953. He was sometimes passed off as “Clyde Ward,” Billy’s little brother. Others assumed it was Billy Ward doing the lead singing. Because of such occurrences, and because he was frequently at odds with Ward, McPhatter quit the Dominoes, intent on making a name for himself. Before leaving The Dominoes, McPhatter was asked by Ward to coach the group’s replacement lead tenor. Auditions were held at Detroit’s Fox Theater, and a young Jackie Wilson would take over as The Dominoes’ lead tenor. Wilson’s singing style was much influenced by McPhatter. “I fell in love with the man’s voice. I toured with the group and watched Clyde and listened…”—and apparently learned. Privately, McPhatter and Ward often argued, but publicly Clyde expressed his appreciation to Ward for giving him his start in show business.
Membership in The Drifters (1953-1954)
Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, eagerly sought McPhatter after noticing he was not present for an appearance The Dominoes made at Birdland, which was “an odd booking for the Dominoes”, in Ertegun’s words. After locating him, McPhatter was then signed to Atlantic on the condition that he form his own group. Clyde promptly assembled a group and called them The Drifters. They recorded a few tracks, including a song called “Lucille,” written by McPhatter himself. This group of Drifters did not have the sound Atlantic executives were looking for, however, and Clyde was prompted to assemble another group of singers. The revised lineup recorded and released such hits as “Money Honey,” “Such a Night,” “Honey Love,” “White Christmas” and “Whatcha Gonna Do,” with the record label proudly displaying the group name “Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters.” (The story of The Drifters is full of personnel changes. The first group of Drifters Clyde formed were mostly members of The Mount Lebanon Singers.)
In late 1954, McPhatter was drafted into the Army and assigned to Special Services in the continental United States, which allowed him to continue recording. After his tour of duty was up, he left The Drifters and launched a solo career.
McPhatter’s first solo hit occurred just after being discharged - “Love Has Joined Us Together” (with Ruth Brown). He released several R&B recordings in the next few years, including “Seven Days” (later a bigger hit for Tom Jones), “Treasure of Love,” “Just to Hold my Hand”, and his biggest solo hit, “A Lover’s Question,” written by Brook Benton and Clyde Otis, which peaked at No. 6 in 1958. In 1962, the song “Lover Please,” written by country artist Billy Swan was released. His 1956 recording “Treasure of Love” saw his first solo No. 1 on the R&B charts and one week in the UK Singles Chart. It reached No. 16 on the U.S. Pop charts.
After leaving Atlantic Records, McPhatter then signed on with MGM Records, and released several more songs, including “I Told Myself a Lie” and “Think Me a Kiss” (1960) and his first single for Mercury Records ”Ta Ta.” He recorded more singles, including “I Never Knew” and his final Top Ten hit “Lover Please,” which made it to No. 7 in 1962. It was after “Lover Please” that McPhatter saw a downward turn in his career, as musical styles and tastes were constantly changing during the 1960s.
In 1968, McPhatter moved to England, where he was still highly revered, and he was backed by UK band “ICE”.
McPhatter returned to America in 1970, making a few appearances in rock ‘n roll revival tours, but remaining mostly a recluse. Hopes for a major comeback with a Decca album were crushed on June 13, 1972, when Clyde McPhatter died in his sleep at the age of 39 from complications of heart, liver, and kidney disease, brought on by alcohol abuse – abuse that had been fueled by a failed career and the resentment he harbored towards the fans he felt had deserted him. In a 1971 interview with journalist Marcia Vance, McPhatter told Vance “I have no fans.” He was buried at George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, New Jersey.
Ruth Brown acknowledged in her later years that McPhatter was the actual father of her son Ronald, born in 1954. Ron now tours occasionally with a show of Drifters songs.