Billy Ward & The Dominoes
The Dominoes (also sometimes known as Billy Ward & the Dominoes) had one of the finest musical pedigrees of any R&B vocal group of the 1940s, at least based on its founder’s training and experience. A lot of R&B acts came out of a gospel background, and Bo Diddley even studied violin as a boy, but rare is the R&B vocal group whose founder was trained at Juilliard. Billy Ward (born September 19, 1921, Los Angeles) had a minister father and a musician mother, and was a musical prodigy as a child, schooled in classical music theory and composition as well as performance. Before he was in his teens, Ward was good enough on the organ to play at his father’s services and he won a composition award at age 14 from Walter Damrosch, the celebrated New York music educator, composer, and administrator. Following his military service during World War II, Ward studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he later became a voice coach; he also began working on Broadway during the late ’40s. It was from the ranks of his ex-students that he recruited the original members of the Dominoes: Clyde McPhatter as lead singer, Charlie White (tenor), Joe Lamont(baritone), and Bill Brown (bass). The Dominoes won a series of talent contests, including a competition on the television show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which got them a lot of engagements and an audition with Ralph Bass, the head of the newly established Federal Records label, part of Syd Nathan‘s King Records, during the final months of 1950. Billy Ward & The Dominoes, with McPhatter‘s high tenor lead, had a startlingly fresh sound and enjoyed a number six R&B hit in early 1951 with one song from their first session, “Do Something for Me.” It was in May of that year that the group broke through to the top of the R&B charts with “Sixty Minute Man,” which also established them as one of the leading crossover acts between gospel and blues. Riding the wave of demand for their performances off of that hit — one of the first great double-entendre records of the ’50s and a very early example of what would be considered a “rock & roll” record — the group spent the next seven months on the road, building up a lot of public good will and a reputation as one of the top R&B acts of the era.
What made the Dominoes special, besides the excellent arrangements and McPhatter‘s unique voice, was their appeal beyond the usual racial lines of demarcation. They were huge in the black community, but they were also one of a relative handful of R&B acts that developed a small but fiercely loyal following among younger white listeners as well during the early ’50s, which didn’t matter a lot at the time — and, as things worked out, was only incidental to their fate — but helped plant a seed that blossomed into the full-blown rock & roll boom four years later. The Dominoes’ star seemed poised only to rise, but there was already trouble within the lineup as early as 1951, when Charlie White quit and was succeeded by James Van Loan, followed by Bill Brown, who was replaced by David McNeil, formerly of the group the Larks. White (who later joined the Clovers) and Brown passed through a short-lived vocal group called the Checkers, while the reconstituted Dominoes continued scoring hits with “I Am With You” and “That’s What You’re Doing to Me,” before scaling the top of the R&B charts again with “Have Mercy Baby,” which was number one for two and a half months in 1952.
Amid these successes, and the constant touring and occasional recording, there was rising dissension within the ranks of the group over the way that Ward had it organized, musically and financially. Nobody disputed that Ward had the musical training to run the group on that level, and his ruling it with an iron hand where arrangements and repertory were concerned was understandable. The problem was that the ticket-buying and record-buying public was enamored of the singing itself, especially that of lead tenor Clyde McPhatter, and the singers were seeing very little of the money that the group was earning. McPhatter himself was being paid barely enough to live on, which was bad enough, but to add insult to injury, he often found himself billed as Clyde Ward in order to fool fans into thinking he was Billy Ward’s brother. In the spring of 1953, it all hit the fan at once, as McPhatter exited the lineup in April. Under the encouragement of Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, he quickly organized a new group of his own called the Drifters. McPhatter‘s exit from the Dominoes hit the group’s core audience within the black community like news of an earthquake, so beloved was the lead singer among their fans. The group and the singer enjoyed the adulation appropriate to a pop/R&B outfit, but they also evoked deep passions that were more akin to those elicited by a gospel outfit, and his departure from the Dominoes should have derailed the group. Ward must have sensed that there was trouble coming, however, because during the prior year, he had approached a young boxer-turned-singer named Jackie Wilson, who had a voice that, if anything, was better than McPhatter‘s. A high tenor similar to McPhatter, he moved right into the fold with the latter’s departure and the Dominoes picked right up with their performances and their contract at King/Federal. Wilson‘s singles with the group included “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” and “Rags to Riches,” which kept their demand reasonably high for the next year. Billy Ward & The Dominoes seemed to be on track once more, despite more lineup shifts, including the departure of David McNeil for military service. The new Dominoes lineup wasJackie Wilson (lead), James Van Loan (second tenor), Milton Marle (baritone), and Cliff Givens (bass), with Ward still in charge. In 1954, Ward decided to forego renewing the group’s contract at King Records. It seemed as though they hardly ever saw anything from their work in the studio, despite having sold so many records that, at one point, Nathanhad put his pressing plant on overtime just to meet the demand for the group’s records. Ward made his move in 1954, taking the group to Jubilee Records that August, where they lasted through two singles. Finally, in early 1955, the Dominoes moved to Decca Records, where they enjoyed that long-sought national hit with “St. Teresa of the Roses.” The group was unable to replicate that success over the next year, however, and in late 1956, Wilsonquit to begin a solo career that would make him a star.
Ward tried to keep the franchise going with the addition of ex-Lark Eugene Mumford as lead singer, and got the group a new contract with California-based Liberty Records. The new incarnation of the Dominoes suddenly found themselves with a major hit in the form of “Star Dust,” which rode the pop charts for 24 weeks and got as high as number 13 nationally. This proved to be their last serious assault on the charts, however, and the group went hitless despite singles issued on the ABC label into the late ’50s. Despite their lack of chart success, the Dominoes continued to perform into the 1960s, and LPs — mostly exploiting Clyde McPhatter‘s and Jackie Wilson‘s name and work — did appear periodically. The group is principally remembered in the context of their respective careers, though “Sixty Minute Man” does occupy an exalted place in its own right as a breakthrough R&B record.
Biography by Bruce Eder