Category Archives: Billy Ward and His Dominoes

Clyde McPhatter

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.

clyde mcphatter stampUltimately, 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.

Billy Ward and His Dominoes

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.

Clyde McPhatter

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.

Jackie Wilson’s diction

Sixty Minute Man” featured a bass lead and was a major hit for Billy Ward and His Dominoes. After some time, Ward wrote a sequel to the song called “Can’t Do Sixty No More.” This song was recorded after Jackie Wilson joined the quartet, but again, it featured a bass lead. Eventually, Ward wrote a tune that more or less formed a trilogy with these songs but featured Our Hero on the lead vocal, “That’s How You Know You’re Growing Old.”

One of my longstanding, nagging questions related to a Jackie Wilson vocal arose from this recording. Jackie developed beautiful diction under Ward’s tutelage, but this particular song, recorded well into Jackie’s tenure with the quartet, contained words I could not decipher. Thanks to my friend Dennis West, I now have the lyrics straight. And thanks to my friend Extinct 327, it is now available again on YouTube.

“That’s How You Know You’re Growing Old”
(Words and music by Billy Ward)

Look out, then, that’s how you know you’re growing old!

She wants to tease you
She wants to squeeze you
She whispers, “Love me, Baby”
You’re getting sleepy
You’re feeling creaky
You only whisper, “Uh, uh, maybe”
That’s how you know
That’s how you know you’re growing old

Chorus:
Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover
You’re at the end of your road
Like old Jack Horner in the corner
Lay down your heavy load, load
That’s how you know
That’s how you know you’re growing old.

She loves the moon rise
Up in the June skies
It makes her feel so grooo-vy
You get no kicks, man
You’re in a fix, man
You want to see a movie
That’s how you know
That’s how you know you’re growing old

Quotes and common sense

Before I return to commenting on books written about Jackie Wilson, I want to say something more about the way America consumes information from and about entertainers.

The more I look at material on the Fifties and Sixties, the more I cringe. On the one hand, we have rich harvest of memoirs, biographies, appreciations, and criticism on, by, or about the recording artists of that period. However, the unspoken-but-guiding principle in composing these books seems to be “it’s only info-tainment,” that ugly term coined a decade or so ago to cover the “information + entertainment” fluff pieces about anything from the revelation of a talent show contestant’s arrest record to printing Mel Gibson’s mug shot to analyzing Kanye West’s drunken behavior at an awards banquet.

The Info-tainment Principle goes something like this: “Truth is of no consequence because entertainers are not really important people; in fact, even if they were, so what? Even the President of the United States can be misrepresented and ridiculed unfairly, as long as it’s about his private life—and particularly if it’s about his sex life.”

Curiously, in the Fifties and Sixties, movie stars and other celebrities engaged in what were called “publicity stunts,” which were activities meant to help shape their images for the public, and their press agents concocted stories for gossip columnists as a way to further influence public opinion about their clients. Sometimes the objective was merely keeping the clients’ names in the public’s working memory. (Check this link for a sample of a press agent’s work, a story planted about Sam Cooke and Harlean Harris, the woman who would later become Jackie Wilson’s second wife.)

Yet, while all this fakery went on, “hard news” reporters worked to keep the facts straight, and biographers and critics went out of their way to prove or disprove certain events and widely-held beliefs about the big names of the entertainment industry.

Today we have a curious partnership of falsehoods vying for our attention: The Info-tainment Principle entwines itself around old lies, the ones composed and distributed by press agents and the stars who recited lines written by press agents, creating even more complex works of fiction.

For example, both Doug Saint Carter in The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson and Tony Douglas in Lonely Teardrops: The Jackie Wilson Story make use of an article printed in Musician magazine decades ago, an article that included extensive quotations from the late Dick Jacobs about his first interactions with Jackie Wilson. Both Carter and Douglas recycle the story as though it is an accurate account by Jacobs, although Jacobs is clearly offering a mere story, the work of press agents.

In the Musician article, Jacobs relates meeting with Jackie in order to determine how to write the arrangements for their first recording session together, which will include “Reet Petite” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” He spills forth an elaborate yarn based on Jackie not being able to sing that day due to a severe cold and sore throat. Supposedly, each time Jacobs strikes some chords on the piano, Jackie signals that he wants the arrangement in a higher key. After Jacobs goes through what he describes as all the usual “male” keys and a number of the usual “female” keys, he excuses himself to go to another room to confer with the boss, Bob Thiele, about whether or not they’ve signed a “real singer.” The boss says it will probably be the only recording session they do with the kid, so let him have his way.

Excuse me for groaning here, but these guys worked for Decca.

At the moment these two were supposedly having their despairing conversation over Jackie Wilson, Decca artists included Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Only the year before, just after coming to Decca from King/Federal, Billy Ward and His Dominoes scored a Top Twenty hit with “St. Therese of the Roses.” The lead singer on the recording was Jackie Wilson.

But this gets worse. Jacobs then describes how he hires the top session men in New York City to play on “Reet Petite.” (Sure, you pay for the best when you think you are going to scrap what you record.) And then Jacobs tells us that when they first heard Jackie sing, all the session men went slack-jawed in awe.

Oh, sure, they did. None of New York’s top session men had ever heard of Billy Ward and His Dominoes, a group that had become popular with its first lead tenor, Clyde McPhatter, and maintained its success when McPhatter gave way to Jackie Wilson, who sang the tenor leads for almost four years. It is simply amazing how ignorant of popular music those who manufacture it can be, isn’t it?

Like compound interest reported on your bank statement, the balance in a “falsehoods account” increases when someone recycles a piece of fiction as though it were fact. Yet this process works comfortably alongside The Info-tainment Principle.

At least both Carter and Douglas realized that the famous Norm N Nite interview with Jackie Wilson was full of fiction. Jackie was never a Golden Gloves contestant, much less a champion, and of course the story of Jackie being shot while intervening in a fan’s attempted suicide was also a flawlessly recited fib. The lie, of course, had been devised to make a hero of Jackie in the midst of whatever the specific embarrassing reality was—probably that Jackie, a married man, was trying to keep one of his girlfriends, Juanita Jones, from shooting another of his girlfriends, Harlean Harris. (See Jackie Wilson Biography.)

The value of the Norm N Nite interview rests in hearing Jackie’s speaking voice and detecting his genuine enthusiasm for Elvis Presley and his late friend Sam Cooke. There is precious little truth in the whole audiotape. Maybe that’s why there were so few interviews with Jackie Wilson. The man obviously loved to laugh and smile. He probably couldn’t keep a straight face for interviewers.

JW and EP and “Don’t Be Cruel”

On September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley makes the first of his three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and performs his smash hit, “Don’t Be Cruel.”

At the time, Jackie Wilson was the lead singer for Billy Ward and His Dominoes. You can bet he had heard the record many times by this date. It’s likely he saw Elvis performing the song somewhere—possibly on this Sullivan broadcast. (The show was guest hosted because Sullivan had been injured in an automobile accident.)

Elvis sees Jackie. The Dominoes played Las Vegas as a lounge act, and part of their entertainment menu included their own renditions of current hits. Jackie had a go at several Elvis Presley numbers, and guess who ended up in the audience four nights in a row in November, 1956? Right. Elvis. A few weeks later, Elvis, sitting in the Memphis studios of Sun Records with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, describes the performance of a “real slender” “colored guy” (“a Yankee”) who is “one of Ward’s Dominoes.” The conversation, along with Elvis’s demonstration of Jackie’s interpretation of the song, is preserved on the recordings known as the Million Dollar Quartet sessions.

Note that Elvis says that the singer is doing a “takeoff” of him. I hardly ever hear that term anymore, but it was common in the Fifties. Rather than being an impersonation, a “takeoff” indicated that an artist approached something by adopting and adapting someone else’s performance: starting with an exaggeration, perhaps, of some features of the original, then proceeding to improve on the original, making the performance unique.

As you can hear, Elvis declares that Jackie “sang hell outta that song” and sang it better “than that record of mine.” Also note that Elvis has studied the details of what Jackie did, including footwork, diction (“don’t ta” is a “Yankee” pronunciation of Elvis’s Southern “doan a”; “tel-ee-phone” draws a laugh from the whole Southern crew), tempo, and Jackie’s big finish for the song.

Elvis incorporates Jackie-isms. Jackie studied Elvis. Elvis studied Jackie. Each knew he had seen something worth analyzing. Each would use the other’s vocal and stage mannerisms–often playfully. Look at Elvis’s January 9, 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, just a month after his Sun Studios explication of Jackie’s performance. Listen to his pronunciation of the word telephone at :15 and then watch him grin. What do you think he is thinking about? No doubt in my mind. At :54, check the sexy “ummm” and the resultant laugh. Note the slightly slower tempo—and the need for the “big finish,” which is unfortunately compromised by the order to photograph Elvis only from the waist up. Since he cannot get down on the floor with a microphone, Elvis elects to just spin out of the camera shot, but it’s a far step from the tame ending he used in his first Sullivan appearance.

 

Jackie does Elvis. One of my favorite Elvis bits in Jackie’s repertoire is the music video for “Lonely Life” from the teen movie Teenage Millionaire. Jackie’s fans know the man loved to smile. Well, he holds off long enough to give us a taste of an Elvis-as-tortured-rebel face before that smile sneaks in. Supposedly Elvis sat through this horrible Jimmy Clanton movie twice just to see the two videos of Jackie the film contained (“Lonely Life” and “The Way I Am.”)

For Jackie doing an Elvis sound-a-like, listen to “Love Train.”

I hate those “X stole from Y” arguments, but I love looking at how Jackie and Elvis showed each other respect and admiration. After he became so extremely famous, Elvis disliked going out to clubs, but he would make an exception when he got the opportunity to see Jackie perform.