Sunday, 27 September 2015

Clyde McPhatter

Prompted by Colin Escott's book on Clyde McPhatter (above), I have now listened to a representative sample of McPhatter's work with the Dominoes and the Drifters plus his solo work on Atlantic, so here are a few more thoughts.

First, no real surprises about the solo sides: my vague recollection of the arrangements being rather poppy and old hat was confirmed. But the less cluttered they are the better, as with A Lover's Question or Deep Sea Ball - or the classic Without Love, which reeks of gospel: you are hearing a sermon being preached. True, it ain't just a piano backing but the arrangement is restrained and supports the vocal, never overwhelming it.

Nevertheless, the solo work on Atlantic isn't a case of a performer being forced to betray his deepest instincts: Jerry Wexler says that "Clyde wanted to be Perry Como" and the material was slanted to the pop market, though he maintains Atlantic didn't go in for "vomitacious" productions - in fact the only regret he expresses is about their decision to use a white backing group. Ahmet Ertegun, however, talks about the "leaden feet" of the arrangements, likening the resultant recordings to a chrome-heavy 1940s car which has dated less well than a sleeker earlier model.

The Dominoes' and Drifters' recordings retain their power,although for sheer raw exhuberance and gospel abandon perhaps the best of the Dominoes sides have the edge. As with the Flamingos and Moonglows on Chance, there are particular performances where the backing band is a big part of the overall effect: the guitar, in particular, is another voice, interweaving with McPhatter's, commenting on his phrasing, prompting him to greater heights - to say nothing of the other singers also pushing him, as on a number like I'd Be Satisfied (not to be confused with a similarly titled Jackie Wilson song). There is a gospel-style climax, complete with handclaps.

And here is a particularly good example of McPhatter at his most intense - and again, his performance cannot be separated from the backing, both vocal and instrumental:

Those earliest records, then, are not only about McPhatter's voice, remarkable as it is, but the whole kaboodle. Some of those interviewed for Escott's book suggest that there were cases where more sterile backdrops of later (post-Atlantic) solo work may have failed to inspire McPhatter to go the extra mile. Alan Lorber, who worked with McPhatter during his time at Mercury (and who had arranged and produced at Scepter/Wand Records) said of him:
His voice had a certain sound that had to be very carefully cast. He was a very fragile man and you had to watch for sparks. Sometimes something in the arrangement would ignite him and he would dig much deeper into himself.

It seems that McPhatter's time at MGM, for example, did not bring out the best in him. Ray Ellis (of Lady in Satin fame), who was producing, would tell him to "stick to the melody a little more" and the sessionmen were probably "moonlighting classical musicians" with no knowledge of R&B, "reading the notes faultlessly" but unable to add those "subtly jazzy fills which were just a little more than the notes on the charts called for."

For purposes of comparison with the Dominoes, here is one the Flamingos' records on Chance, recorded in 1953; Sollie McElroy is the lead, sounding not unlike McPhatter. And it's a good example of what the backing band, in this case Red Holloway's Orchestra, bring to the table.

The Drifters' recordings on Atlantic may be tighter and better-drilled than those of the Dominoes on Federal - the book talks about the amount of rehearsals Atlantic insisted on - but could it be said that they don't have quite that hint of uncertainty as, say, a Dominoes recording like Harbour Lights, later covered by Elvis Presley? It's thrilling in a manner which brings to mind Rudy West's lead on the Five Keys' recording of Red Sails in the Sunset the following year (another gospel-trained singer): in both performances there are moments where you suspect the singer's abandon might lead to musical disaster and your enjoyment is the greater at seeing the ship safely steered home.

And hey, as they were written by the same team (Jimmy Kennedy and Hugh Williams) why don't we hear both songs below?

Against that, it's difficult to make a case for anything which came before the fiery Drifters side Money Honey being superior to it. This is Pete Grendysa's description, not from the book but from a 1988 article on Atlantic Records:
'Money Honey', written and arranged by Jesse Stone, assured the continuation of the Drifters [after a false start with a different lineup]. Chosen as their first release, it appeared on the charts in late October, 1953 and remained there for 21 weeks, eventually reaching #1. From the very first chords – the Drifters' "aah-oom, aah-oom", reinforced by drums and immediately followed by Clyde's wavery, thin piping – the song was infectious and irresistible. Stone's lyrics were comic genius and the theme had universal appeal. Clyde's delivery increased in intensity throughout the song and made good use of his guttural gospel rasp.

'Money Honey' was perfect, and that was no accident. Wexler, in an interview with Ted Fox, recalled, "We rehearsed. That was unheard of. Nobody else was doing that. We would rehearse for weeks. We would line out the arrangements with Clyde and Jesse Stone there. We'd work out the routine, and actually pick the key, get the layout. We'd rehearse the song with the group and the piano player, maybe it'd be Jesse or somebody in the group. We'd all sit around chipping in with ideas and notions for songs, arrangements, tempos, the whole thing. Then we'd bring the group back again and drill it and drill it." In retrospect, Wexler defined the Atlantic sound of this era as "immaculate funk."
But I don't want to use the remainder of this post to go over songs in detail. The Dominoes' and Drifters' recordings can be explored on youtube and elsewhere, and Unca Marvy's R&B Notebooks has a two-part entry about the group (begin here). No, the question which has been on my mind over the last few days is precisely why McPhatter was never able to capitalise on his early success. There is no doubt of McPhatter's status and influence in the early days of doo wop but why couldn't he maintain that impetus? He helped invent soul so why wasn't he a major figure in the soul era? Why was it left to Sam Cooke and others?

Escott's book offers some suggestions. McPhatter's insecurity meant that when he moved from Atlantic he may not have been the best judge of how to display his voice to best advantage, wanting the prestige of strings or other instruments. Towards the end of the book there's a suggestion that his difficulties in communicating directly contributed to the power of his singing but he was not a good negotiator, and was perceived as "militant" by some in the industry. There was a drink problem, too, although I'm not sure when it began.

I have written elsewhere about Peter Guralnick's biography of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie. Cooke seems to have been a consummate politician, able to make anyone with him feel that they were the most important person in the whole world at that moment. Many people have lamented the fact that Cooke signed with RCA, not Atlantic (Guralnick actually says Cooke was warned off Atlantic by McPhatter), but Cooke managed to achieve a balance between pop and soul on that label. It's a while since I have read Guralnick's book but I think I'm right in saying that Cooke's relationship with Hugo and Luigi was something which developed over time, with Cooke gradually being assigned more power.

I recently listened to Clyde McPhatter being interviewed in 1968 by Charlie Gillett (it can be found on the subscription-only rocksbackpages website here). It sounds like it was only research for an article, but even so it's noticeable how disjointed McPhatter seems to be and how vague he is about his plans. 

But let's end with an acknowledgement of his importance, first of all from Ben E King, as quoted in the earlier post about Stand By Me. This is either from Gerri Hershey's Nowhere to Run or Bill Millar's book on the Drifters:
It all came together in Clyde. He could sing the blues, but he had that gospel sound since he came up in church. What Clyde did was to bring gospel into pop in a big way as a lead singer. I guess you could say he made a wide-open space by mixing it up like that. A space a lot of guys were grateful for.
And this is Millar's own summation of McPhatter's achievement:
McPhatter took hold of the Inkspots' simple major chord harmonies, drenched them in call-and-response patterns and sang as if he were back in church. In doing so he created a revolutionary musical style from which - thankfully - popular music will never recover.
Clyde McPhatter: a Biographical Essay by Colin Escott is published by Bear Family and can be bought inexpensively  from them via eb*y or amaz*n. (Amaz*n seem to be treating it as vinyl so the postal charges are cheaper.) As mentioned in the previous post, it's a slim volume, and is padded out with reproductions of articles, not all of which are reproduced in a size large enough to be legible. But there is a discography, and the tale Escott tells, is readable and clear, although tantalising in its brevity: it seems that a lot of details about McPhatter's life must remain forever unknown.

The post about the evolution of Stand By Me, here, includes clips of the Dominoes. A post about the radio series Street Corner Symphony here refers to the influence of Clyde McPhatter and his supplanting Sonny Till as a role model for aspiring singers and has a clip of Have Mercy Baby.

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