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The Clovers - First of the great vocal groups

The Clovers - First of the great vocal groups cover

 "WE PAID OUR dues, singing on corners, at parties, driving all over the country, sleeping in cubbyholes where we had to take turns. We deserve a chance for the good places we missed in the past. I think we deserve it." The Clovers

By Pete Grendysa

Originally published in Goldmine

Date of publication 8 February 1991

"WE PAID OUR dues, singing on corners, at parties, driving all over the country, sleeping in cubbyholes where we had to take turns. We deserve a chance for the good places we missed in the past. I think we deserve it."

The speaker is Harold Lucas, founder and driving force behind one of the most popular R&B vocal groups of the 1950's. His Clovers showed a whole generation of aspiring black harmonizers how to do it, but few ever did it so well.

Springing from the Baltimore-Washington, DC axis along with the Orioles, Five Keys, Cardinals, and Swallows, the Clovers cooked where the others crooned, and put more rhythm in their blues. From 1951 to 1956 they had 20 bonafide national R&B hits, including three that reached #1. They put themselves in the hands of producers and managers who molded them musically and professionally and, in the long run, producers and managers caused their downfall.

When Harold Lucas formed his Clovers in 1946, he didn't lack for role models. In addition to the multitudes of gospel and spiritual quartets heard on records and radio, several black groups had achieved a measure of popular acclaim: the Delta Rhythm Boys, Charioteers, Five Red Caps, Jubalaires, and Four Vagabonds had joined the powerful Mills Brothers and Ink Spots in that elite club of national fame. Lucas was singing with a trio in the halls of Armstrong High when a new group called the Ravens introduced a new "blacker" sound to the musical stew. In that time of high tenor leads and basement basses, processed hair and shiny matching suits, the trio, named the Clovers for luck,assumed regulation quartet lineup by installing friend John "Buddy" Bailey as lead singer. Lucas took the baritone notes, Billy Shelton was another tenor, and Thomas Woods was the bass. The group struggled along working at small clubs and amateur shows for a couple of years as the decade came to a close. Shelton left and was replaced by Matthew McQuater, a strong and dependable craftsman in the second tenor spot.

One more change and an addition, and the Clovers were all set. In 1949, while singing on Jackson Lowe's WWDC new talent show, the group attracted the attention of another contestant, Harold Winley (brother of record man Paul Winley). Winley sang bass, and impressed the boys in the group by going as low as Jimmy Ricks in ‘Old Man River’. Faster than a "doo-wah", Woods was out of the group and Winley was in. At the time, the Clovers specialized in Pop material, and their showcase was a dirge-like rendition of the old toe-tapper, ‘Yes Sir, That's My Baby’. Apparently, no one else had thought of doing that 1925 tune as a ballad, or thought much of it at all until it was featured in the 1949 movie musical of the same name, starring Donald O'Connor and Gloria DeHaven.

As a gimmick it may not have been the strongest, but it was something different nonetheless. Most of the groups of that time either played instruments and sang, or had a singing or non-singing guitar player accompanist. Not much in the way of actual music was required from these guitarists (witness the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers), but they were important to stage appearances where the backing band might be inept or non-existent. Classically-trained guitarist Bill Harris, who had been playing behind the vaudeville troupe The Brownskin Models, joined the Clovers in 1950 and the lineup was complete.

Another group from the area, the Orioles, had struck gold in 1948 with ‘It's Too Soon To Know’ and repeated that feat in 1949 with ‘Tell Me So’, although single artists and big bands dominated the R&B scene. It wasn't necessarily the R&B arena that interested the Clovers (or the Orioles, for that matter). The big money was in Pop music, and that was a very tough nut to crack for a black singing group.

The Clovers were "discovered" by Waxie Maxie Silverman, owner of a large record store in DC, and silent partner in Atlantic Records. Atlantic wasn't particularly interested in vocal groups even though founder/president Herb Abramson had been the producer of the first hits by the Ravens. Groups weren't happening in R&B and Abramson had no intention of trying to compete in the Pop market against Decca, RCA, and Columbia. Silverman instead brought the group to Lou Krefetz, a record distributor, who became their manager.

Krefetz got his group a recording deal with Rainbow Records, a quirky New York outfit run by Eddie Heller, a man who always found real success an elusive butterfly. The tracks recorded by the Clovers for Rainbow included, of course, ‘Yes Sir, That's My Baby’ and they were duly reviewed in Billboard magazine before sinking quickly into oblivion. Billboard correctly categorized the record as Pop and the reviewer grumbled that ‘Yes Sir, That's My Baby’ was "different", but "not enough". The flip side, ‘When You Come Back To Me’, fared a bit better and both tracks can be heard on Relic 5034, The Best Of Rainbow.

The Rainbow release was on the market in December, 1950, and by January, Atlantic had changed its mind about the Clovers. The change in attitude towards vocal groups was caused by the emergence of the Dominoes on rival King/Federal. The first release by this slick, gospel-oriented group, ‘Do Something For Me’, was selling strongly, and Atlantic had nothing in their bag to compare with that act. Previous vocal group outings on Atlantic were confined to the pseudo-bop Harlemaires and Three Riffs and leased masters by the Delta Rhythm Boys2.

Herb Abramson brought the Clovers to New York in February, 1951 and cut two tracks with backing by the Frank Culley band. ‘Skylark’ from this session was a well-rehearsed long-time feature by the group, but the flip side was an Ahmet Ertegun original, ‘Don't You Know I Love You’. A bit of legendary fluff has been woven around this song and its use of a tenor saxophone backing. Ertegun claims it was the first vocal group record to feature saxophone--a lucky accident. However, both the choppy, skip-beat rhythm and the sax accompaniment was closely copied from the style of the Ray-O-Vacs, who used it to good effect on ‘I'll Always Be In Love With You’, ‘I'm The Baby Now’, and the hit ‘Besame Mucho’ in 1950.

Atlantic's arranger Jesse Stone had much more to do with the new Clovers' sound. The veteran bandleader and writer had met Abramson at National Records, before Atlantic was formed, and is probably the single most important (and, most ignored) figure in Atlantic's success story. Speaking of the Clovers and the Cardinals, Stone recalled, "I was assigned to rehearse them, get them ready for recording. A week or ten days before the session, I'd go down to Baltimore to work with them. The music I was trying to show them was based on the sound that I had picked up in the South, but they were northern boys and didn't feel it."

When they heard the finished product, the Clovers didn't like it, but, fortunately, the public did. ‘Don't You Know I Love You’, a slight rhythm bounce, was propelled by Frank Culley's sensitive playing, Bailey's plaintive lead and burbling bass from Harold Winley. ‘Skylark’, which had been popularized by Billy Eckstine when he was with Earl Hines, reveals the "old" Clovers, much as they sounded during their early years. Any chance of them continuing to sing in this vein was eliminated when the flip side made the hit.

The record was released in March, 1951, and was very slow getting off the ground. It finally broke in June and entered the R&B chart at #3. At the top of the chart was the new and very hot ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and right behind was the classic ‘Sixty-Minute Man’ by the Dominoes, already with six weeks on the chart. The Dominoes moved into first place for several weeks, while the Clovers hung around near the top. On September 1st, after 15 weeks, ‘Don't You Know I Love You’ hit #1 for one week until the Dominoes reasserted their claim on the top slot.

Manager Krefetz thought this made him a hit-maker, and Ertegun, in Chicago to record Jimmy Yancey during July, 1951, took the hit personally, too: "I went to Maxwell Street and, as I walked down it, all the stall owners who sold records were playing the Clovers on their little portable record players. It was one of the great moments of my life to see all those people dancing to a record I had made. To think that so many black people would dance to my record." While Ertegun was basking in the glory of "his" record, the Clovers were brought back into the Atlantic studio on July 12th to do another session.

Brushing aside the long line of people who have taken credit for the success of the Clovers--Stone, Krefetz, Ertegun, Abramson--it was the marvelous harmony and engaging demeanor of the group that won them friends and fans everywhere they appeared. On their next release, ‘Fool, Fool, Fool’, they broke new ground as Bailey's rueful piping is expertly counterpointed with Winley's burbling bass. Ertegun wrote that one, too, as he is credited with the majority of the Clovers' works. Most of Ertegun's lyrics were incredibly simplistic and usually an amalgam of old blues lines, but the Clovers were able to rise above their material.

‘Fool’, their second consecutive #1 record, did a little better than ‘Don't You Know I Love You’, staying on the charts for 22 weeks, compared to 21 weeks for their first outing. The rest of the summer was spent touring the Midwest with Memphis Slim. In October they worked at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia with Slim Gailliard and made an unsuccessful session at Atlantic on October 26th. In November Krefetz prematurely announced that Charlie White of the Dominoes was leaving that group to join the Clovers. He actually went into the Checkers along with ex-Dominoes' bass Bill Brown.

On December 19th, 1951 the Clovers cut a session that included ‘One Mint Julep’, their third Atlantic release. ‘One Mint Julep’ was written by Rudy Toombs, a dancer turned songwriter who wrote many hit R&B songs, including ‘Teardrops From My Eyes’, ‘Daddy, Daddy’, ‘5-10-15 Hours’, ‘Crawlin'’, ‘One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer’, ‘Nip Sip’, ‘In the Morning Time’, ‘The Tears Keep Tumblin' Down’, and ‘Bump Miss Susie’. ‘One Mint Julep’ was outwardly similar to ‘Don't You Know I Love You’ but the lyrics were tough, black, and funny. The passing years and numerous cover versions have elevated the song to the status of an R&B classic, but it was not a #1 hit for the Clovers, being kept out of the top spot by, ironically, another Rudy Toombs tune, ‘5-10-15 Hours’ sung by Ruth Brown.

For the next four years, the Clovers were a major draw on the personal appearance circuit. Through their booking agent, Billy Shaw, they played all across the country with a wide variety of other stars. Harold Winley recalls the Shaw booking technique: "He had such artists as Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Ruth Brown, a lot of big acts. But he was mostly a one-nighter man, consequently for eight years the majority of our work was on one-nighters, dances. But then for a month or so we would do theaters, and scattered throughout the year would be clubs." In late Spring, 1952, they went off on a tour of the West and South with Joe "Mr. Goggle Eyes" August, Roscoe Gordon, and Billy Ford's Orchestra that lasted into the summer.

Their third #1 hit, ‘Ting-A-Ling’, entered the charts in late July. This tune defined the "Clovers Sound"--skip-beat rhythm, rambling piano by Harry Vann Walls, sizzling tenor sax break--and it sold heavily for 14 weeks. In August the group did a riverboat concert on the Chesapeake River with Charles Brown and made an appearance in Atlantic City with Bullmoose Jackson. Then they drove to Akron to do a live broadcast with Alan Freed from the Summit Beach Ballroom.

A few other vocal groups had begun making names following the extraordinary success of the Dominoes, Orioles, and Clovers, even though the big push was yet to come. 1952 brought hits to Chicago's Four Blazes, a group built along the old-fashioned "everybody plays something and sings" format. Their very cool ‘Mary Jo’ on United was very hot, spending three weeks at #1. Label and city-mates of the Clovers, the Cardinals had ‘Wheel Of Fortune’, the Swallows did well with ‘Beside You’, and regional hits were scored by the Royals, Marylanders, Five Keys, and Five Royales.

At the end of August, 1952, Buddy Bailey was drafted into the Army, subsequently serving in Korea with Lloyd Price. Before Bailey left, they recorded ‘Hey, Miss Fannie’ and ‘Crawlin'’. The highly-derivative ‘Hey, Miss Fannie’, written by Ertegun, was coupled with a ballad, ‘I Played The Fool’, composed by manager/producer Lee Magid under his daughter's name. ‘I Played The Fool’ had started life as ‘Why Make A Fool Out Of Me’, and was recorded by the Marshall Brothers on Savoy. Magid changed it around a bit and after it was released by the Clovers, with covers by Bill Darnell and Cathy Ryan, he eventually earned over $12,500 on writer royalties4. The song was a fine showcase for the ballad abilities of the Clovers, a talent sometimes overshadowed by their jump hits.

To fill existing engagements, the group picked up John Phillips, a guitar-playing singer from West Virginia. The Clovers then moved West to work the Club Alabam in Hollywood with Roscoe Gordon. With Phillips in the group, the Clovers began 1953 by doing two weeks with Fats Domino in January. February was occupied with week-long theater appearances at the Earle and Howard, followed by one-nighters in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia. Early in March, before embarking on a Midwestern tour with Choker Campbell and his band, the group went into the Atlantic Studio. At this point Phillips was kicked out in favor of Charlie White, whose Checkers hadn't been doing all that well and who had a better lead voice.

The White-led Clovers recorded some of their toughest, most brilliant sides, including ‘Good Lovin'’, written by Danny ‘Run Joe’ Taylor, who later recorded as Little Eddie Mint, and music director Leroy Kirkland. White is also heard on ‘I Confess’, ‘Here Goes A Fool’, ‘The Feeling Is So Good’, ‘Lovey Dovey’, ‘Little Mama’, and ‘Got My Eyes On You’. Of these, ‘Good Lovin'’ and ‘Lovey Dovey’, written by Memphis Curtis, were substantial hits, and the group toured incessantly with artists such as Amos Milburn, Ruth Brown, Wynonie Harris, and Buddy Johnson.

White was replaced in the group in late 1953 by Billy Mitchell, a neighborhood friend from Washington who had been working with the Joe Morris Blues Cavalcade on Atlantic. Mitchell had a strong blues voice as evidenced by his first lead job, ‘Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash’, a hilarious number written by Jesse Stone. The song was a precursor of the Leiber-Stoller comic lyrics later used to such good advantage by the Coasters. Mitchell is seen doing the lead on ‘Hey, Miss Fannie’ and ‘Fool, Fool, Fool’ in the TV series Harlem Variety Review, re-released as Showtime At The Apollo.

The Clovers' position as top Atlantic vocal group was quickly eclipsed by Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters, who held on to the #1 R&B spot for an astonishing 11 weeks with their first Atlantic release, ‘Money Honey’, struck gold with ‘Such A Night’, and had another million-seller with ‘Honey Love’. Things at the label had changed, too. Herb Abramson was in the Army and Jerry Wexler had moved in as #2 man at the company. Wexler preferred the Drifters, a group he had assembled, over the older Clovers. "You see, the Clovers wanted to be a Pop group. Buddy Bailey, the lead singer, had no funk in him at all.

Ahmet forced them to sing blues and gospel changes by writing all their early numbers. But when you hear them sing ‘Skylark' or ‘Blue Velvet', that's where their hearts were really at. As for the Drifters, they were Clyde McPhatter. They sang exquisite, pure gospel harmony. Clyde would give them parts in the studio. His voice was naturally high and not a falsetto, and he could stir the others with the intensity of his feeling.".

Buddy Bailey was discharged from the Army in May, 1954 and immediately rejoined his group on tour on the West Coast. Surprisingly, Billy Mitchell was kept in the lineup, and the Clovers became a quintet plus guitar. As Bailey came out of service, Clyde McPhatter went in but, being stationed close to New York, McPhatter was able to keep in contact with his fans and the recording studio. The Clovers appeared at the Hollywood Shrine in June with the Chords, a new group managed by Krefetz that was very hot with their ‘Sh-Boom’ on Atlantic's subsidiary Cat label. Also on the bill were the Hollywood Flames and the Robins, the latter group still a couple of years away from their big breakout.

After working Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago with Big John Greer and Fats Domino and making a highly-publicized appearance at Ebbets Field with the Orioles, Dominoes, Count Basie, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Domino, and Buddy Johnson (Alan Freed's Shower Of Stars), the Clovers went back to the studio on August 28, 1954, for their first session as a quintet. Backed by a big band, they recorded ‘All Righty Oh Sweetie’, a driving rocker written by Dossie Terry. Following this the group returned to the road for a Southern swing with Fats Domino. On the charts, the Clovers were represented by ‘Got My Eyes On You (See Everything You Do)’ with lead by Charlie White and ‘Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash’ featuring Billy Mitchell.

‘Got My Eyes On You’ was a relentless uptempo blues written by Harold's brother Paul Winley and band leader Charlie Singleton. Both sides did well enough, but the summer of 1954 belonged to ‘Work With Me Annie’ by the Midnighters and Atlantic's back-to-back smashes ‘Shake, Rattle, And Roll’ by Joe Turner and ‘Honey Love’ by the Drifters. In the fall, the Clovers returned to New York to work the Apollo with Edna McGriff and the Paul Williams Orchestra.

‘All Righty Oh Sweetie’, backed with the older track ‘I Confess’ (led by Charlie White), did not chart after release in October, when the biggest thing going in R&B was Faye Adams' ‘Hurts Me To My Heart’.Making a complete turnabout in sound and style, the Clovers next recorded ‘Blue Velvet’, first a hit for Tony Bennett in 1951, later reprised unsuccessfully by the Statues in 1960 and, finally, a #1 Pop hit for Bobby Vinton in 1963.

Carefully crafted as a straight R&B ballad, the tune was good for the Clovers, although it didn't sell that well. The flip side, ‘If You Love Me (Why Don't You Tell Me So)’ was a formula skip-beat dance number written by Memphis Curtis which did not make the charts.

By the time ‘Blue Velvet’ was in the stores, the Clovers had already made their appearance at Alan Freed's first ‘Rock 'n' Roll Jubilee Ball’ at the St. Nicholas Arena in New York, performing in the company of Joe Turner, theDrifters, the Moonglows, Fats Domino, the Harptones, Red Prysock, Danny Overbea, and Buddy Johnson.

On Christmas Eve, 1954, they began a ten-day gig at the Five-Four Ballroom in Los Angeles. From February through March, 1955, they did one-nighters with one of the great multi-star touring packages put together to play large theaters. Lou Krefetz assembled one of the largest of these tours, which included the Clovers, Moonglows, Charms, Faye Adams, Joe Turner, Lowell Fulson, Al Jackson, Bill Doggett, and the big band of Paul ‘Hucklebuck’ Williams. Each act did two or three songs before being whisked off the stage, and tickets were only $1.75 advance and $2.00 at the door for this array of superstars.

‘In The Morning Time’, with lead by Billy Mitchell, failed to bring the Clovers the hit record they sorely needed by this time and the flip side, Ertegun's embarrassing ‘Love Bug’, was their weakest side in quite a long time.

Recorded at the same April, 1955 session was their first attempt at ‘Love, Love, Love’, not released until it was included on Atco LP33-374 Their Greatest Recordings. ‘Nip Sip’, a knock-off of ‘One Mint Julep’, made #10 in October, 1955, but the group was clearly being eclipsed by the new stellar lights of R&B--the Platters, Moonglows, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and Bo Diddley.

‘Devil Or Angel’, a tune written by an amateur composer from Georgia, Blanche Carter, restored the Clovers to the top rungs of the hit ladder, reaching #3 in early 19565. This lovely R&B ballad production had all the elements for breaking into the top spot, but the competition in that golden year for R&B was too stiff: ‘The Great Pretender’ by the Platters, ‘At My Front Door’, the Eldorados, and the blockbuster hit ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ by the Teenagers. Backing side ‘Hey, Doll Baby’ by Titus Turner was a major hit for Bobby Vee in 1960 and resurfaced on the country charts by the Sweethearts Of The Rodeo in 1986.

Only one more hit was in the Clovers' hoard--‘Love, Love, Love’, written by Sunny David, Teddy ‘Mr. Bear’ McRae, and Syd Wyche. The record battled it out with a carbon-copy version by the Diamonds on Mercury, but both versions made #20 on the Pop chart, while the Clovers hit #11 on the R&B listing. Sparked by low-register baritone sax by Paul Williams and rinky-tink piano, the session was their first to include a choral group, a portent of bad things to come at Atlantic.

The idea of putting a choral group behind a vocal group to "sweeten" the sound and make it more accessible to the Pop listener belongs to Jerry Wexler, the same man who felt the Clovers were "too Pop" to begin with. The deadly-dull chorus and arrangements by Ray Ellis that are heard on so many Atlantic records from the late 1950's adroitly alienated the R&B audiences for the Clovers, Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, and Clyde McPhatter, without making a place for them on the Pop charts. In retrospect, Wexler has stated that he could "kick myself in the ass" when he hears those records today, a feeling shared by most R&B fans and collectors.

Atlantic issued the group's first LP in 1957, initially on the mainline ($4.98) series but quickly reissued on the R&B ($3.98) line. Typical of the times, the album was a compilation of their previous hits. Although the Clovers stayed with Atlantic until 1958, the magic was clearly gone. After recording for Lou Krefetz's own Poplar label, and making the charts with the Coasters rip-off ‘Love Potion #9’ on United Artists in September, 1959, the group split in two--one led by Buddy Bailey and the other by Harold Lucas. These groups recorded sporadically into the 1970's, with the Lucas-led bunch doing a session for Atlantic in October, 1961 that resulted in the unfortunate ‘Bootie Green’.

Clovers singles from this period can be found on Winley, Porwin, Port, Tiger, Brunswick, Josie, and Stenton. In December, 1964 Buddy Bailey, Harold Lucas, and Harold Winley appeared together for one show at the Apollo Theater, then went their separate ways again. Bill Harris, at least, got to pursue his dream of becoming a notable guitarist. Specializing in finger-picked acoustic, he recorded a solo album for Mercury's EmArcy label in 1956, followed by two more sets. He then founded his own guitar school in Washington, but lost a club, Pigfoot, and his home to the IRS. He died of pancreatic cancer in December, 1988.

Winley and Bailey have worked with Jimmie Nabbie's Ink Spots over the years, Lucas still leads a Clovers' group, McQuater is a businessman in Texas, and Mitchell is in Washington, but works outside of music. In retrospect, the Clovers deserve a place in R&B history right alongside the Ravens and Orioles for their part in originating the vocal group style. After successfully developing that style in 1951 and maintaining their popularity throughout an era of great changes in American music, they finally lost the battle. It hurt them then, and Harold Lucas recalled that hurt in 1973 when he wistfully told an interviewer, "I thought it would go on forever..."

NOTES:

1. Winley says Woods was the bass singer he replaced. Other sources say Shelton was the original bass singer.

2. The Four Sharps on early Atlantic were in reality the Delta Rhythm Boys.

3. Toombs died in November, 1962 after a beating by muggers outside his uptown Manhattan apartment house.

4. Lucas has stated that, at their peak, the Clovers were earning $35-40,000 a year.

5. Atlantic changed label color from yellow to red during the pressing of ‘Devil Or Angel’.

COLLECTING NOTES: All yellow-label Clovers' records were re-pressed as part of the 1972 reissue program. The reissues are easily spotted by the "fan" device left of center and the address across the bottom of the label. ‘Don't You Know I Love You’/‘Skylark’ (Atlantic 934) has been bootlegged. Originals have a -45 after the master number in the dead wax and a short lead-in groove section.

© Pete Grendysa, 1991




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