When you heard him sing it would leave a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes.
His pretty boy good looks, charm, and magnificent voice would have all the girls in awe, mesmerized, jaw-dropped, and screaming and fainting in the first row.
Clyde McPhatter was the one who influenced the soul sound and just about every Soul and Rock n Roll singer to come in the 1960s from Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Elvis Presley, Dee Clark, Eddie Kendricks and Tom Jones. Besides Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter was the one to put gospel and rhythm & blues together to create SOUL.
Clyde McPhatter was the first to make the leap from gospel to rhythm & blues to pop and influence many others to follow in his footsteps. Clyde McPhatter was the most popular Black singer of the 1950s, he had a style, that couldn't be duplicated.
Clyde McPhatter sang in a high, almost strangulated, tenor. It was not without precedent, but it was distinctly unusual. What made McPhatter truly outstanding though was the emotion that he communicated. There is a scorching intensity to his best work that transcends the often trite material and occasionally dated arrangements. At his best and in his prime, he was truly brillitant. Clyde McPhatter could sing gospel, ballads, rock n roll, soul, pop, anything really, even opera. Like most artist, Clyde McPhatter had low self-estem, he never thought he was as good as people said he was. Yet like so many other brillitant artist, he didn't believe he was GREAT. Clyde was very insecure with self-doubt about his singing voice. He also had self-destruction buttons implanted all over him. His life did not end in a sorded murder like Sam Cooke, nor did it end in jail like Little Willie John. Instead McPhatter, riddled throught his life with self-doubt and reprobation, slowly killing himself with alcohol. For those who loved him or his music, it was bleak and humiliating demise. Clyde McPhatter had been one of the biggest stars of early rock & roll but when the hits dried up and the applause grew fainter, he drifted into a self-destroying hell. He was crippled by a combination of alcohol and gnawing personal problems to the point where he could barely capitalise upon his status as a faded hitmaker from the 50s and could certainly not attempt a comeback in soul music, a genre he helped to define.
Let's talk about Clyde McPhatter early beginnings. As big as Clyde McPhatter was, Surprisingly little is known of Clyde McPhatter's early years. He was born in the tobacco town of Durham, North Carolina on November 15, 1932 although some press reports knocked a year or more off his age. His parents, George and Beulah, were both strongly religious people. George was a preacher at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church and Beulah was the orgnist and choir mistress. Clyde and his siblings all got started in their mother's church. At the age of 13, McPhatter moved with his family to New York. Clyde attended James Fennimore Cooper Junior High school and, later, Chelsea Vocational school. When he was thirteen Clyde joined or helped to form the Mount Lebanon Singers who were based at the Mount Lebanon Church on 132nd Street. Clyde sand with David Baldwin(brother of novelist James Baldwin) and Charlie White(who would later flit in and out of many groups, sometimes in Clyde's company), The conflict between pop and gospel played itself out in th heart of McPhattet at a very early age. His parents would tell him, he was singing the Devil's music, and he would go to Hell. He could never understand religion, all he was ever taught was to fear God. He said in many interviews "Religion in my family is very closely related to suspicion. The Fear of God. I didn't understand in as much as it was never explained to me what religion was all about. It was nothing but another word for discipline. You know, God don't loike this or God don't like that. So one day I said God damn it! and my father beat the hell out of me. What the hell has God got to do with all this? That's just how the early part of my life was. Everything was built around God." The Mount Lebanon Singers toured a little up and down the eastern seaboard but Clyde had other sounds in his heads. His achievement was that he brought his gospeal based intensity and much of his gospel phrasing to secular music. That seems barely remakrable today fter the soul music revolution but it was a truly revolutionary concept in 1949-1950. And so it was that McPhatter found himself at the hub of secular black culture in New York, the Apollo Theatre. He appeared on Amateur Night and sand "Tomorrow Night", a huge R&B hit for Lonnie Johnson in 1948. Clyde later asserted that he won Amateur Hour Contest, although other reports have placed him second. If inded he placed second, it woul dbe interested to know who robbed him of the top placing. From that point on, Clyde McPhatter had a reputation of being the best in Harlem, Billy Ward ws a vocal coach and he had heard McPhatter's singing, he wanted to put together a group, and thought McPhatter would make a good lead and a good attraction. From the beginning, Billy Ward and Clyde McPhatter didn't get along.
Have Mercy Clyde
Billy Ward was a wrong man, in Clyde McPhatter's eyes. Billy Ward formed Billy Ward and The Dominoes. Even though, Clyde sung lead on most songs. Billy Ward was jealous of Clyde's voice and his attention, he went around sometimes even calling Clyde McPhatter his little brother. Billy Ward and The Dominoes recorded on Federal Records. The group consisted of Billy Ward played piano and presumbaly worked on the arrangements, McPhatter on lead tenor, Charlie White on second tenor, Bill Brown handling the bass vocals and Joe Lamont on baritone. They would have many hits includeding, "Do Something For Me", "Chicken Blues", "Have Mercy Baby", "The Bells", "the gaunty, sexy, "Sixty Minute Man", Bill Brown took the lead on that song, and McPhatter making the timely little shrieks in the background. Sixty Minute Man was the first hit to conjoin the two words ROCK and ROLL. Despite the success, Clyde was very unhappy, Billy Ward fined him for any little things, those fines left him without money. Billy Ward has said he fired him, but McPhatter seems to imply he quit. No one really knows, but either way, it didn't hurt Billy Ward, because he had someone else on the side warming up to take McPhatter's place and that person was Jackie Wilson, who would have success later on. Even though, Jackie Wilson was a great attraction, the Dominoes, didn't have the success as they did with Clyde in the group. Clyde McPhatter wasn't left out with no where to go though. In Show Business news pass fast, on hearing Clyde McPhatter was out of the Dominoes, every executive, boss, songwriter, producer in town wanted Clyde to work for them. Clyde McPhatter signed with Atlantic Records in May 1953. Ahmet Ertegun(legendary songwriter and producer) wanted to build a group around McPhatter and that group would become the Drifters. They would have many hits "Money Honey", "Lucille", "Let The Boogie Woogie Roll", "The Bells of St. Mary's", "Honey Love", "What'cha Gonna Do","The Way I Feel", "Such A Night", "Warm Your Heart", "Bip Bam". Clyde McPhatter's high piping lead really set the Drifters apart from the other groups in the market at that time. Anyone could tell Clyde was the main attraction, the group behind him was just for decorations. The song The Drifters are most remembered for is the standard "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas", Clyde's performance in this song is breath-taking. The song has been the most requested Christmas song till this day. Its considered the best right alongside Bing Crosby singing of it. The Drifters "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" is a Rock N Roll standard. The Drifters were going fine. What broke them up was Clyde McPhatter's induction into the army. After basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, McPhatter was stationed at Grand Island on the border between Canada and The United State near Buffalo, New York. Clyde McPhatter enjoyed the army, the army was goo to him, he could fly home on weekends. They were very lenient. His enjoyment of the army surprised a lot of people. Clyde wasn't good with authority and discipline, basically people telling him what to do. The Drifters was a group he help create and make popular. The Drifters would become a bigger success later and become one of the greatest vocal groups of the 20th Century. Clyde would have success also on his own but, he isn't as much talked about and remembered. While in the serving in the Army, The people at Atlantic kept his name alive. Although no-one could have forseen it, Clyde McPhatter's release form the Army and his subsequent embarkation on a solo career could not have come at more opportune moment. Atlantic Records had tried to keep his name in the news while hw as away. He had been photographed in his Army duds while he was on leave in new York and he had even cut a record in the company of Ruth Brown. That pairing, which should have accounted for memorable music, was a bleak disappointment both musically and commerically. "Love Has Joined Us Together" and "I Gotta Have You" tried to make Clyde and Ruth into the Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand of their day. It was a profound disappointment for those who loved the music of either artist. One thing was transparently clear, though. When Clyde returned, he was no longer to be aimed at the Rhythm & Blues market exclusively. Clyde McPhatter was as big as a Black singer could get in that time. He head-lined mostly all the Rock N Roll shows of the 50s. He appeared in movies singing, most notably he appeared in Alan Freed's "Mister Rock and Roll" singing "You'll Be There" and "Rock and Cry". Clyde would have many popular and hit records such as "Without Love(I Have Nothing), "Treasure of Love", "Seven Days", "A Lover's Question". Listening to these songs and others you will surely know that he was the King of Sweet Soul Music. Clyde's declined happen around the late 50s, early 60s. Like a lot of Black Singers of the 1950s, when the 1960s came they were considered has-beens. They were considered too old-fashion for the music they help to create. Clyde did manage to have two hits "A Lover's Question" "Lover Please"and "Ta Ta". Then from then on he kind of faded from existence. Even though Clyde McPhatter wasn't a cocky, egotistical star it still hurt him to go down, he never had much self-esteem to start with, so his decline hurt the little he had. Around this time, his drinking was becoming a bigger and bigger problem He signed with different labels like MGM and Mercury records, he performed in Europe, where he got reasonable reviews and reasonable audiences. He didn't perform at the big clubs and theaters in Europe, just little speakeasies and clubs so little, the audiences would basically be on the stage. The British sojourn could hardly be counted as a success. British fans were in the thrall of Stax and Motown chich left little room for the sophisticated vocal artistry of Clyde McPhatter. The reviews he got from most shows were disappointing and humiliating. He did have a few highlights, he married a woman Lena McPhatter around 1962, who would become a positive motivator in his life, and she tried to help put his life back on track, but after a while that didn't help, his drinking took over him, and they separated. Clyde McPhatter was a very handsome man and a very vain man, the drinking took his looks away, to people who knew him, he looked very different from his days, and he was only in his early 30s. It was hard for Clyde McPhatter, to know not so long ago he was the biggest singing star, then credited for starting soul music, then being said by many that he was their influence, but then couldn't get any decent gigs or material hurt a lot. He was a loner, who hated to be alone, an aloof person. He was an uncommunicative and misunderstood person.
By 1970s, Clyde was physically, financially, mentally in rough shape. He did a lot of interviews the last 2 years of his life, the only way to get money. He said many times, that he had no fans. Which we all know isn't true, but he felt as though he didn't, he felt if he did, why was he where he was, nowhere. Clyde last days is very confusing, and hurting to many who knew him and his fans. Clyde McPhatter was starting to get chest pains from an enlarged heart that was the direct result of the alchohol abuse. His liver was also wrecked. The paying gigs were becoming fewer as his behaviour became more unpredictable. A new record deal was out of the question. Clyde even called Atlantic, trying to come home. As Jerry Wexler noted, "It was not the same Clyde McPhatter." His last days are shady, but its been said Clyde had taken up with a woman identified only as Bertha who liked to keep him company on his binges. On the night of June 12-13, 1972 they went to bed together at her apartment. Bertha awoke from a heavy night of drinking, Clyde didn't. Many were sadden but not surprised. It was a waste. Its never easy to understand how artist can self-destruct. McPhatter had everything to live for but if you asked him, he'd tell you quickly he had had nothing. I think sometimes he felt unworthy of the level of acceptance he had. Clyde could have stood should-to-shoulder with any of the top artist of the but he felt terrible confusion about how he wanted to achieve that level of acceptance. His Funeral had many people family, friends, show business associates. Where were all these people before? The answer of course, is that Clyde McPhatter placed am unbearable strain on every personal relationship. Virtually everyone had tried to help him at various times and in various ways. However, with few treatment programmes at the time and McPhatter's denying until the end that he never had a problem, it was inevitable that he would alienate anyone who would not accompany him on his binges. It was a terrible loss to Black Music. Clyde McPhatter could and should have grown as an artist. He was capable of much more then regurgitating his old hits on the revival circuit. Even his urge towards legitimacy could have found a viable means of expression. It was the conflict between secular and progane together with Clyde McPhatter's uncommunicativeness as a person that led him to express emotion so vividly in song. However, those same factors contributed to his downfall. He was truly tragic figure who rarely came close to realising his enormous potential as an artist, and, life so many others, have achieved the recognition after his death tht largely eluded him while he was alive. Alive he succeeded with some pop novelities. With hindsight we can see a truly gifted innovator whose talent crossed virtually every boundary in popular music. Clyde McPhatter is very well-known today, he gains more and more fans, as people start to listen more and more to the beginning sounds of Soul. He's gotten more recognition and honored now then when he was alive. He's been inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and called The Architect of Soul and he's featured on Black Hertiage stamps for his contributions to early Rock N' Roll and Soul.
Maybe a movie or book will be done on this Legend. But it'll be hard to find someone to play Clyde McPhatter. Maybe a documentary would be better.