At nineteen years of age, Sonny Wilson becomes Jackie Wilson, lead tenor for the nationally known Billy Ward and His Dominoes
Some people erroneously believe that Jackie Wilson had training as an opera singer. The famous (or infamous) audiotape of Norm N. Nite interviewing Jackie Wilson may be the source of this misconception.
Norm N. Nite: “People have described your singing voice and style almost to be operatic.
Did you ever have any formal training in this area?”
Jackie Wilson: “Well, I can give credit to Mr. Billy Ward for that. He was a vocal coach at Carnegie Hall. I studied under him for about—well, for two years straight.”
Those unacquainted with Jackie Wilson or Billy Ward might assume the singer visited Ward once a week for voice lessons aimed at preparing him for a Met audition. In reality, Ward was Jackie Wilson’s employer.
The Nite interview contains some deliberately deceptive statements and several outright lies (see Quotes and Common Sense), so I have no idea whether or not this particular exchange was intentionally misleading. Whatever the case may be, Jackie Wilson did not even read music and certainly was not trained for opera. However, it is likely true that Ward actively coached Wilson in vocal technique for at least two years.
Jackie the valet. At age eighteen, Jackie Wilson went on tour with Billy Ward and His Dominoes, a well established and nationally popular act, as a valet for the performers. The Dominoes were a vocal quartet, and Ward composed some of their music, arranged it all, played keyboards, and occasionally sang with the group.
At the time, Jackie was under consideration for a spot in the quartet and quickly became the unofficial understudy for Clyde McPhatter, who was preparing to leave to form The Drifters. During this tour, Ward began coaching Wilson in vocal technique, almost certainly working on his breathing, phrasing, and diction. It is probably at this point that Jackie began to regularly sing scales, which he would later do routinely in preparation for performances.
After this first tour with the group, Jackie stayed in Billy Ward’s Greenwich Village apartment for several months until a new tour commenced, and the vocal coaching most likely continued throughout that time and the next tour. Legend has it that at some point during this period of training, Ward gave Wilson a photograph inscribed “To a rough stone I am polishing into a diamond.” Ward was not overstating his role. Aside from the singer himself, no one else did as much as Billy Ward to develop Jackie Wilson as a performer.
A few weeks after his nineteenth birthday, Jackie Wilson, who had by then officially replaced McPhatter on tour, was recording as the tenor lead of Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Between late 1952 and spring 1956, Billy Ward’s instruction and rehearsals would combine with the performance and recording experience as the leading voice in the quartet to ready Jackie Wilson for his solo career.
Marv Goldberg. Billy Ward and His Dominoes hold a prominent place in the history of rhythm and blues. Music historian Marv Goldberg has done the best research on the group, and I strongly recommend visiting his Web pages at www.uncamarvy.com for details about The Dominoes and other groups of their era. Goldberg interviewed a number of former Dominoes and some of their associates, learning the following from Joe Lamont’s son about recording in the primitive King/Federal studios:
Yusuf Lamont told me that his father said it was difficult to be in a studio with Jackie Wilson because he was basically a solo singer with a powerful voice that needed to be baffled. “Your ears would hurt after being around him in a studio.” Whereas microphones were usually placed fairly close to the singers, in Jackie’s case, it was located several feet away.
I refer everyone to Marv Goldberg for substantial and fascinating details about both Ward himself and the group, but I want to introduce a few facts here to help illuminate how life as a Domino shaped Jackie Wilson’s solo career.
Background on Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Billy Ward was a gifted musician, arranger, songwriter, and vocal coach. As a teenager, he won a national competition for a work he composed for the piano. When he returned to civilian life after service in the army, he studied both graphic art and music, eventually leaving Julliard to find employment in New York City as a vocal coach. While applying himself to paid positions in this capacity, he also took on helping young Black vocal groups around town. It was among these young people that he found Clyde McPhatter and the other early members of the group he formed and would later call The Dominoes.
Although most of the leads for The Dominoes were arranged for high tenor Clyde McPhatter, one of the group’s most famous recordings, “Sixty Minute Man,” featured bass singer Bill Brown boasting of his sexual prowess. Composed by Billy Ward and Rose Marks, an agent who ran the business end of the act, “Sixty Minute Man” is considered one of the first rock and roll records. It made the pop charts, although many radio stations refused to play it, and it became a number one hit on the Rhythm and Blues chart in 1951. For the next two years, The Dominoes would appear regularly on that chart, reaching number one again with “Have Mercy Baby,” one of McPhatter’s leads, but the group did not chart another record on the Hot 100. Throughout this period, Ward had the quartet touring on the Chitlin Circuit.
The first two singles released with Jackie Wilson singing lead were also hits on the Rhythm and Blues charts. “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down” rose to number six and “Rags to Riches” went to number two. At this point Ward decided to gamble on establishing a less taxing and more prosperous future. He secured a contract for his group to play extended dates in Las Vegas, taking the act off the Chitlin Circuit in hopes of “crossover” success on the pop charts. “Crossover” success and the main Billboard chart meant catering to audiences that were primarily white, the demographic group that could afford upscale nightclubs and big collections of vinyl recordings.
With Jackie Wilson at center stage, the group became a hit in Las Vegas, but the dramatic reduction in the number of appearances before Black audiences meant that Billy Ward and His Dominoes disappeared from the Rhythm and Blues charts. However, just as Wilson prepared to leave the group for a solo career, his magnificent voice led them to a genuine Billboard Hot 100 hit, “St. Therese of the Roses.” In fact, the record rose all the way to the Top Twenty, peaking at number thirteen.
Lasting effects on Our Hero. Jackie Wilson has been quoted as saying that Billy Ward “was not an easy man to work for.” That opinion was shared by many of the singers Ward employed.
Above all, Billy Ward was The Boss. He paid his singers salaries. They did not share in the gate or record royalties. In fact, discussion of such topics among the singers was forbidden. Ward had exacting standards for personal appearance and conduct onstage and offstage, and he deducted not only expenses but also “fines” from his employees’ paychecks. Among other things, the vocalists could be fined for failing to shine their shoes, for consuming alcohol, or even for leaving the hotel without permission.
Once he figured out the financial arrangements, Clyde McPhatter complained bitterly about them. He was quoted as saying that he could hear his own voice coming out of a jukebox, but he could not afford to buy a coke so that he could sit down and enjoy the experience. Of course, McPhatter, who eventually drank himself to death, probably would not have wanted to restrict himself to Coca-Cola anyway.
But McPhatter wasn’t the only alcoholic tenor Ward groomed and paid. The restriction on drinking must have been difficult for Jackie Wilson as well, for even if Ward could not keep his singers from drinking altogether, the rules and the fines probably did curb their behavior significantly.
Although it was not easy to work for Billy Ward, Jackie Wilson did so for more than four years, and his later reference to Ward in the Nite interview shows that he clearly understood the value of this show business apprenticeship. Anyone doubting what Ward did for Wilson’s singing should listen to the horrid diction on the DeeGee label Sonny Wilson recording “Rainy Day Blues,” then check out the precision of songs Jackie recorded as a Domino, such as “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” or “Three Coins in the Fountain.”
Clockwise: Billy Ward, James Van Loan, Milton Merle, Cliff Givens, Jackie Wilson
More than voice lessons. However, Billy Ward’s influence on Jackie Wilson extended beyond teaching him vocal technique and requiring that Jackie live a disciplined existence. Ward’s determination to establish the Dominoes on the mainstream pop music charts and the steps he took to achieve this goal had to leave a deep impression on the young singer.
Black entertainers at this time faced an unpleasant truth: they could stay with their Black audience alone and remain poor, or they could seek fame and fortune with a broader audience, one that would be predominantly white.
Billy Ward made the choice to pursue that broader audience even though it meant forfeiting the comfort of living and working within the familiar and supportive network the Black community provided.
In the early 1950s, no single location manifested the isolation of Black artists striving for crossover success more starkly than Las Vegas, where audiences were overwhelmingly white and Black performers were not permitted to walk through the front doors of casinos in which they appeared. Today in America it is hard to imagine such a blunt daily affront to human dignity.
The vocal coaching, the discipline of preparing for performances, the years of laboring to please demanding Las Vegas audiences, the opportunity to learn how a successful show business act functioned day in and day out, and adherence to the goal of striving for success in unfamiliar territory were all highly valuable lessons for the very young man with the very extraordinary voice.