Clyde McPhatter possessed a unique vocal instrument, a lively high tenor that captured the promise and fervor of the teenage Fifties. McPhatter was one of the first singers to cross over from the church to the pop and R&B charts. He was a Baptist minister’s son who was born in North Carolina and spent his teen years up north, in New Jersey and New York. He made the crossing from sacred to secular at age 18, when he was invited to join singer Billy Ward’s vocal group, the Dominoes, after turning heads with his performance of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” in an amateur show at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. McPhatter was initially billed as “Clyde Ward,” and it was claimed that he was Billy’s brother.
McPhatter’s radiant, gospel-trained tenor exploded onto the R&B scene in the early Fifties on “Do Something for Me,” “Have Mercy Baby,” “The Bells” and other of the Dominoes’ dozen R&B hits. On “Have Mercy Baby,” which topped the R&B charts for ten weeks in 1952, McPhatter worked himself to the brink of tears. By recasting gospel’s fervid emotionality—a style known as “sanctified” singing—in a rhythm & blues setting, he presaged what would come to be known as soul music.
Chafing under Ward’s discipline, McPhatter left the Dominoes in 1953 and was quickly offered a recording contract and star billing with his own group by Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters cut a string of hugely popular R&B hits, including “Such a Night,” “Money Honey” (the biggest R&B hit of 1953), “Honey Love” and a timeless doo-wop version of “White Christmas.”
A stint in the army cut short his tenure with the Drifters, but he resumed his career as a solo artist upon his discharge, enjoying another successful run at Atlantic during the latter half of the Fifties. (The Drifters continued without him, recruiting a succession of lead singers.) In 1958 McPhatter scored the biggest hit of his career, “A Lover’s Question,” a doo-wop/R&B classic that captured his voice at a peak of ripeness. He had a dozen more R&B and pop hits during the later Fifties at Atlantic, including such highlights as “Treasure of Love” (his first Number One as a solo artist) and the sublime “Without Love (There Is Nothing).” His last Atlantic hit, “You Went Back On Your Word,” came late in 1959, at which point his contract expired.
After a brief stint at MGM, which yielded a minor hit, “Let’s Try Again,” McPhatter moved to Mercury Records, where he spent the first half of the Sixties working with producer Clyde Otis. At Mercury he scored such hits as “Lover Please” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” and recorded some highly regarded albums, including the urbanely conceptual Songs of the Big City (1964). He also recorded five critically prized but commercially unsuccessful singles for the Amy label in the mid-Sixties. In 1966 a disillusioned McPhatter moved to England, where he was still revered. He returned to the States in 1970, marking the event with an album entitled Welcome Home (1970). Sadly, it turned out to be his last recording. McPhatter’s career had been in steady decline due to mounting personal problems, including a debilitating alcoholism, and he died in his sleep of a heart attack at the age of 39.