Many people consider Clyde McPhatter the most widely imitated of all the great rhythm and blues singers. In his prime with Billy Ward and His Dominoes, Clyde was “The Man,” the singer other singers admired. Among these other singers was a teenager called Sonny Wilson, known only locally in the Detroit area at that time. Sonny Wilson would not become Jackie Wilson until he became a Domino and began learning Clyde’s leads directly from The Man himself.
Ultimately, McPhatter’s talent and achievement received some of the critical acclaim he deserved, and he even appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1993, but his solo career was a disappointment to him, despite his making a number of hit records, including the classic “A Lover’s Question.”
McPhatter was a member of a Harlem gospel quartet, the New Lebanon Singers, when he met Billy Ward, who was at the time a professional vocal coach who trained young gospel singers free of charge. When Ward decided to form a secular singing group, Clyde became the original lead singer for Billy Ward and The Dominoes.
A thrilling tenor voice. While Clyde sang the tenor leads for The Dominoes, the group consistently appeared on the R and B charts. The songs he recorded then ranged from pop standards to rockers. Listen to The Dominoes’ version of “These Foolish Things.” I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, and I still get goose bumps when I hear Clyde sing the phrase, “a cigarette bearing lipstick traces.” The upbeat “Have Mercy Baby” was a great hit for Billy Ward’s group, but just to get a look at very handsome Clyde in action, watch this rendition of the song from an Englilsh Bobby Darin TV special:
One of Clyde’s most recognizable vocal characteristics was a “choke” (sobbing sound), sometimes referred to as a “crying tenor.” Jackie picked this up right away when he started with the Dominoes and employed it then and throughout his solo career. Elvis picked it up from the Dominoes records he listened to (both Clyde’s and Jackie’s leads.) You can hear it on many songs, such as the blues ballad version “Lonely Teardrops” (the way Berry Gordy had intended that the song be sung) and Elvis’s “I Believe.”
Personal life. McPhatter was an alcoholic, and he died of complications resulting from that alcoholism. Clyde’s life was also complicated by depression. In the 1950’s in America, no one spoke openly about any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality. It was often written that Clyde believed his fans had deserted him, leading to his depression and increased drinking. That “conventional wisdom” was established at a time when sexual orientation was not openly discussed and few fans knew what his peers in the entertainment industry understood—that Clyde was bisexual.
At one point, Clyde was arrested for “loitering with intent to solicit illicit sexual conduct” or some such nonsense. Although he was not prosecuted, the experience was humiliating for him. Because Clyde was the son of a Baptist minister and was close to his family, and because the Baptist Church at that time had no tolerance for what would have then been considered “sexual deviation,” Clyde may also have felt he had disappointed or embarrassed his family.
Clyde McPhatter was not only a great singer: he was also a good person. He was admired and loved by other entertainers, he was adored by fans of rhythm and blues and the tenor voice, and he served his country honorably in the U.S. Army. Yet Clyde’s life illustrates what happens to a good person when a society criminalizes sexual orientations. Feeling increasingly alienated in his own homeland, Clyde ultimately moved to England in the twin hopes that living there would be less problematic and that British fans would help revive his career.
Clyde McPhatter died an early death, denied the satisfaction of seeing his talent and achievement fully appreciated.