By the time Clyde McPhatter crossed the line from being a gospel performer with The Lebanon Singers, he was a seasoned, standout voice with a unique delivery and a stage presence that captivated audiences. Clyde Lensley McPhatter was born on November 15, 1932, to Rev. George McPhatter and his wife, Eva, in the Hayti community of Durham, North Carolina. He sang in his father’s church choir along with his three sisters and brothers, becoming the soprano soloist by age ten.
After the family moved to New York in the 40s, McPhatter and The Lebanon Singers became known for singing on stoops. When participating in a contest at the famed Apollo Theater, he caught the ear of Billy Ward, who wanted him to sing like Bill Kenny of The Ink Spots. However, McPhatter was no imitator and brought his distinct gospel-infused techniques to the secular music he was singing.
McPhatter was just the touch needed to make Billy Ward and The Dominoes’ first hit, “Do Something for Me,” an early R&B smash in 1950. Unfortunately, as the leader, Ward was a hard taskmaster. He doled out fines for anything he saw as an offense to the group’s image, such as dirty shoes, suits without creases, lousy timekeeping. Ward refused to acknowledge the band or group members’ contributions to their work, even at times billing Clyde as ‘Clyde Ward” to insinuate Clyde was his younger brother.
The group’s earnings were a pittance, and things came to a head one night. Ward had been courting the then-unknown Jackie Wilson to replace McPhatter. Unbeknownst to Ward, Ahmet Ertegun—the Turkish-American businessman, songwriter, record executive, and philanthropist–had noted McPhatter’s voice, which he described as “flutey silk.” Ertegun showed up to a performance by the group but said McPhatter was missing. Upon inquiry, Ward responded, “I fired his ass.”
Ertegun admired the skill McPhatter had at arranging vocal parts and his voice; undaunted, the record executive searched for and found the artist. And McPhatter assembled a group that would become legendary: The Drifters! Success came quickly with two million-selling hits, “Money Honey” and “Such A Night.”
Eventually, he left The Drifters for a solo career, selling his portion of ownership to the band’s manager. McPhatter later regretted that decision.
Immediate success came for McPhatter and his “flutey silk” voice. In 1957, “Treasure of Love” sold over a million copies and crossed to the Top 20 Pop Charts. Noted as one of his most outstanding performances, “Without Love (There Is Nothing),” his follow-up, also sold over a million copies. Included in his noteworthy year was an appearance in an Alan Freed biopic called “Mr. Rock and Roll,” where the singer lip-synced his recordings of “Rock and Cry” and another underrated excellent performance on “You Be There.” which gave further evidence of his ability to so easily inject truthfulness into every line.
The biggest hit of McPhatter’s career was “A Lover’s Question,” written by Clyde Otis in 1959. The song became the third million-selling record for McPhatter, landing at number 6 on the pop chart and staying in the Top 100 for nearly six months. Before the run of this song was over, the artist exited Atlantic Records for MGM; a fateful decision as most MGM artists were very disappointed with the label.
That relationship didn’t last long, and sales weren’t the best, as the label gave preference to its white performers. McPhatter’s desire to appeal to a supper club-type audience that would provide more stability in pay and performances led him to Mercury Records. He was reunited with Clyde Otis and worked with new producers who could help him produce more best sellers. He scored a Top 10 hit on both the pop and R&B charts with a song he didn’t want to record initially, “Lover Please,” and a Top 30 hit with the memorable “Little Bitty Pretty One.”
Unfortunately, McPhatter wouldn’t return to the Top 100 for the rest of his career. He established a pattern of not showing up for performances, being drunk or high, and sometimes staying in the studio for hours in a state of languid drunkenness.
Perhaps the private battle McPhatter had with his sexuality kept him going to substances for a temporary escape. Singer Ruth Brown may have summed it up best: “He became impossible. He didn’t confide in people or ask for help.He was trying to hide it.” Ruth Brown thought that towards the end of his life, “McPhatter was terrified that his gay tendencies would leak out to the press, and drank to hide his guilt and shame.” An arrest for “loitering with intent to solicit sexual conduct” didn’t help, either.
McPhatter scored a contract with Decca Records, his last. Despite changes in the tastes of music audiences and not quite being the pretty fresh boy he once was, he released the underrated classic album “Welcome Home, Clyde McPhatter.” He pushed for the song “I’ll Belong to You” to be the lead single, but Decca instead went with “Why Can’t We Get Together.” Decca dropped the ball on giving the talent a chance at a revival. Several songs were worthy of being released as singles, and he was backed by the noted group MFSB. Those recordings were precursors to the burgeoning Philly Soul with the lush strings for which the iconic sound is known.
By the time he passed on June 13, 1972, from complications of heart, liver, and kidney disease brought on by alcohol abuse, Clyde McPhatter was a shadow of the elegant pretty boy he had once been. The sweet, innocent church boy had become bitter, knowing he hadn’t received the recognition he deserved. In an interview not long before his death, he said, “There were these guys like Jackie Wilson, who replaced me in The Dominoes – Ben E King, Dee Clark, Donnie Elbert, Smokey Robinson… and just about every lead singer of vocal groups in America, that have come to me and said they patterned themselves on me.”
Smokey Robinson stated, “While young Black men admired the singing of Sonny Til of The Orioles around the time, they didn’t want to be him, whereas Clyde was “The Man.”
McPhatter’s influence cut across the color boundary. Elvis Presley was amongst countless whites moved by McPhatter, ensuring he saw his act every time he played in Memphis. Presley once admitted that he hoped his voice “sounded more like Clyde’s.”
Clyde McPhatter is proof that our presence is innovative, ever-inspiring, and evidence that…
we were there, are present now, and will always be…
Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley is an author, writer, singer/songwriter, and bishop from Waterloo, Iowa. He received his master’s degree in business from the International Business Management Institute based in Berlin, Germany.
Currently residing in Atlanta, Mr. Shirley is a bishop of National and International Social Action, part of New Direction Overcomers’ International Fellowship (based in Richmond, Virginia).
A multi-faceted talent, Hartsel is a writer, author, and singer/songwriter. A bronze prize winner of the International Society of Poets, he has penned editorials for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier. His best-selling novel is entitled Three Words, Four Letters, published by Ishai Books. Additionally, Hartsel hascharted at #1 several times on the ReverbNation pop music charts.
Inspired by Langston Hughes, Bishop Shirley states, “I write what moves me. There is nothing I can’t write. I just have to care about it so I can write truthfully.”
According to Hartsel, his current book, The Night Eddie Sallis Died, is based on factual information he uncovered in 2002 about a 1966 jail cell “suicide” in Waterloo, Iowa (his place of birth). This revealing and riveting book pulls back the curtain on racism and police brutality. The author emphasizes, “These truths make Iowa a state not to be taken lightly–nor forget.”
Mr. Evans has reported and written for print and on line media outlets including the HuffingtonPost, The Washington Post, The Advocate, Bilerico, BaltimoreOUTloud, Washington Post, Baltimore Gay Life and the Washington Blade. His series of articles on issues such as Intimate Partner Violence and Abuse (IPV/A), Relationships, Depression, and Racism strongly resonate with the LGBTQ Community and its Allies.
To read his work for HUFF PO, visit: https://huffingtonpost.com/wyatt-obrian-evans/
Mr. Evans has written an in-depth, multi-part and award-winning series on racism within the LGBTQ Community for Bilerico..
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