One of the most popular vocal groups of the early 1950s, Billy Ward and His Dominoes owed their success to three men: Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson and Billy Ward. It was Ward's group - he organized it, masterminded in promotion, wrote the songs and arrangements and dictated every stage move right from the beginning. Billy Ward is a gifted musician, a former child prodigy trained in the classics, voice and composition. Born in Los Angeles on September 19, 1921, to a preacher father and choir-directing mother, Ward moved with his family to Philadelphia in the mid-1920s. He played the organ in church and at the age of 14 won an award from composer Dr. Walter Damrosch for an original piano composition.
During World War II, Ward was a commissioned officer and led the Coast Artillery Choir at Ford Eustis in Virginia. After the war he resumed his studies at the Chicago Art Institute and The Juilliard School in New York City. While pursuing a career as a vocal coach and part-time arranger on Broadway, he met talent agent Rose Marks, and they decided to form a vocal group from the ranks of his students; Clyde McPharrer, first tenor; Charlie White, second tenor: William Joseph Lamont, baritone; and Bill Brown, bass. In October 1950 they took first prize on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts television show. The Dominoes caught the ear of Ralph Bass of Federal Records, a new subsidiary of King. After coming up with original R&B material at the request of Bass, The Dominoes signed a contract with him. They laid down four tracks, all written by Ward and Marks, at the New York studio on November 14, 1950. Their first single was on the street in December.
"Do Something For Me" broke nationally in February 1951 and marched op the R&B charts to a respectable #6 position. Carried by the emphatic bass vocal of Bill Brown, "Sixty Minute Man" entered the R&B chart at the end of May 1951, rose quickly to #1. The demand for their personal appearances kept the group on the road and out of the studio until January 1952. Both Bill Brown and Charlie White bad been replaced, later to surface in a new group, The Checkers. They were replaced by bass singer David McNeil and second tenor James Van Loan. Two moderate hits, "I Am With You" and "That's What You're Doing To Me" kept the stores busy, and King/Federal owner Syd Nathan added a second shift to his pressing plant.
Ward's group clinched their title as she top R&B vocal group with another #1 hit in 1952. "Have Mercy Baby" was a storming rocker led by Clyde McPhatter at his frenzied best. Is was released in April 1952 and held the #1 R&B spot for ten weeks. Ward was depending more and more on McPhatter's unique gospel fervor, both on ballads and jump tunes, but McPhatter himself was virtually unknown to the public. Clyde McPhatter was born in Durham, North Catolina, on November 15, 1932. Like Ward, McPhatter was the son of a preacher father and organist mother. In 1945, the McPhatter family moved to New York City and Clyde was soon singing with the Mount Lebanon Singers, along with Charlie White. Joining The Dominoes as lead tenor was his first big break.
In the first week of September 1952, The Dominoes were working at the Michigan State Fair when Ward was approached by a young singer from Detroit named Jack Leroy Wilson. Wilson, born in Detroit on June 9,1934, had boxed under the name of "Sonny" Wilson and had been Golden Gloves Champion at the age of 16. He later sang with the Ever Ready Gospel Singers and an R&B group that included Hank Ballard and other future members of the Midnighters. Ward invited Wilson to join The Dominoes on tour. Working their way back East, the group stopped in Cincinnati on September 17 and did a double session, which turned out to be the last one for Clyde McPhatter. From this session came the hits "I'd Be Satisfied," "Pedal Pushin' Papa," "The Bells," and "These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You."
McPhatter decided to leave in April 1953 and was recording for Atlantic with his own group, The Drifters. Jackie Wilson took his place in the Dominoes and his first excursion as lead singer, "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down," was a Jukebox hit. None of the remaining Dominoes releases for King/Federal were very successful and Ward took his group to Jubilee Records in mid-1954. After just two singles, Ward landed a lucrative contract with Decca in April 1956 and the Dominoes' first record for that label, "St. Therese Of The Roses," enjoyed pop-chart action, attaining #27 on the Top 100.
As R&B fans were turning to groups such as the Midnighters, Drifters, Platters and Penguins, Ward still had not found a niche in pop music. His one-year contract with Decca expired and he moved his group again, this time to Liberty Records in April 1957. Finally he got the pop hit for which he had been striving since the Dominoes were formed. With the new lead voice of Eugene Momford, formerly with the Larks, "Star Dust" made #13 on the Top 100 in the summer of 1957 and sold for 24 weeks.
Billy Ward & His Dominoes never again enjoyed that success. Jackie Wilson worked out a deal with Ward to leave the group before their Liberty recordings and embarked on a highly acclaimed solo career, initially under the management of Billy Ward. He had 16 R&B and six Top 10 pop hits before he was felled by a stroke in 1975. Wilson survived for a hellish eight years before mercifully passing away in January 1984. Clyde MePhatter's career after he left the group reached the heights of pop stardom, but his decline in popularity in the late 1960s left him a broken man, he died in June 1972.
By Peter A. Grendysa, 1993
Source: The Master King Series, Rhino Records
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