The sweetest voice in rock and the man who inspired Elvis Presley among many others would have turned seventy this month, but instead he died, unwanted and underappreciated thirty odd years ago. Clyde McPhatter possessed the most beautiful, purist, high tenor voice in r'n'b history. His sound came from the church and whilst many of rock's greatest moments came from the struggle between good and evil, Clyde's voice was heavenly all the way, there wasn't a drop of the devil to be seen. (It was voice, oh what a voice it was, it really was, such a voice ...)

Born in Durham, North Carolina on 15th November 1933, his upbringing was dominated by the Baptist Church and Clyde soon became a boy soprano in the church choir. After the family moved to New Jersey in 1945, he formed a high school gospel group, until the family moved to New York City, where he joined the Mount Lebanon Singers, a popular group along the East Coast. In late 1950, McPhatter moved over to secular music when he joined Billy Ward's Dominoes. The group were on Syd Nathan's King Records. At the end of 1950 they cut "Sixty Minute Man" which became the biggest R&B hit of 1951 (# 1 for 14 weeks), also making the unprecedented jump to the pop charts (# 17). Over the course of the next three years, Clyde shone on such Dominoes classics as "Have Mercy Baby," "The Bells," "I'd Be Satisfied," and "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You".

There was conflict among the group though, with Ward dominating the decisions and more importantly, the takings and so in early 1953, McPhatter quit. He was approached by Ahmet Ertegun, the president and co-founder of Atlantic Records, who offered him a contract and his own group. The group became the Drifters and this glorious aggregation soared over the airwaves with gems like "Money Honey" (#1 R&B for 11 weeks), "Such a Night," "Honey Love," "White Christmas," and "Whatcha Gonna Do." McPhatter was drafted in 1954, but being stationed in America, was able to carry on recording with the group. He soon left the group though and headed in a different direction, becoming more pop orientated.

His solo career took off following his discharge in 1955, still with Atlantic Records. His first session saw him duet with Ruth Brown on "Love Has Joined Us Together," which made number 8 on the R&B charts. Solo hits came with "Seven Days," "Treasure of Love," (#1 r'n'b, #16 pop), "Just to Hold My Hand" "Long Lonely Nights" (#1 r'n'b). Although albums were still in their infancy at this time, Atlantic issued two McPhatter albums in quick succession - Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters and Love Ballads.

His biggest hit on Atlantic came in 1958 with the bouncy McPatter-Brook Benton composition, "A Lover's Question," which hit #6 on the pop charts and topped the r'n'b listings. Three smaller hits followed the next year as well as another album, simply titled, Clyde.

He moved to MGM Records, but his work was patchier and he lasted for only one year and four singles, of which only "Let's Try Again" made the R&B Top 20. By the early '60s he was falling away worryingly fast, both musically and personally. Now at Mercury Records he showed a brief sign of picking himself up, "Ta Ta," and "I Never Knew" did well and in 1962 he enjoyed a Top 10 pop single with "Lover Please," written by Billy Swan. However, despite a couple more smaller hits like "Deep in the Heart of Harlem" and "Crying Won't Help You Now" he was spiralling downward. It seems amazing that his voice didn't have an audience with the developing soul market. Imagine what he could have done in Memphis with the Stax house band. By contrast, a 1964 album recorded Live at the Apollo saw Mercury trying to push him on a more sophisticated, whiter audience. The album was surprisingly good, but would have been more beneficial to future generations if it had been done with a smaller r'n'b combo backing. He spent the next few years recording for smaller labels before moving to England where he found a fresh crowd. He returned Stateside in the early '70s and signed with Decca Records, who released an album, Welcome Home. He wasn't that welcome though, and after years of alcoholism and depression he suffered a fatal heart attack on 13th June 1972.

Not only did he leave behind a body of work that stands testimony to his talents, he'd also left an unquantifiable mark on music history by being so influential on artists like Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke. Basically, he sang like Jayne Mansfield walked.

Recommended Listening:
CM & the Drifters/Rockin' & Driftin' - US Collectables
Deep Sea Ball - Best of CM - Atlantic
Love Ballads/Clyde - US Collectables
The Latest & The Greatest - Plaza
Rockin' and Boppin' - Ring of Stars

©Shaun Mather, November, 2003

© Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®