Throughout pop music history, record company presidents have gone to great lengths to coax hit records out of their artists, but rarely have they gone to the extreme of writing the hits for the acts themselves. Ahmet Ertegun did that for the Clovers, however. In fact, Ertegun wrote eight A or B sides for that group out of their first nine singles, including their first two number one R&B chart records.
The Clovers story started in Washington, D.C., in 1946. Harold “Hal” Lucas founded the group by choosing schoolmates at Armstrong High School. The original members were tenor Thomas Woods, bass Billy Shelton, and Harold (all were from the area of T Street and 7th in the nation’s capital).
When John “Buddy” Bailey came on board as lead, Harold moved over to baritone. Hal wanted to give his music career a lucky start so he named the group the Four Clovers. By 1949, second tenor Matthew McQuater had replaced Thomas Woods. The group played clubs and amateur shows, singing songs by THE INK SPOTS, THE ORIOLES, and THE RAVENS. It was at one such show that Harold Winley met the group and wound up replacing Billy Shelton. They officially became the Clovers when guitarist Bill Harris gained membership in 1949.
In 1950 they met record store owner Lou Krefetz at a club they were playing (called the Rose Club) right in the neighborhood they grew up in. Krefetz became their manager and took them to Eddie Heller’s Rainbow Records at 767 Tenth Avenue in New York City, a label so small it shared space with a Hell’s Kitchen storefront known as Sonny’s Deli. Rainbow signed the Clovers, making them the label’s first vocal group. Rainbow would become the launching pad for two more great acts, LEE ANDREWS AND THE HEARTS and THE FIVE CROWNS (who later became THE DRIFTERS).
A recording session produced two sides. One was a remake of the 1925 Gene Austin hit “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” in an Ink Spots style with John Bailey doing an excellent imitation of Spots lead Bill Kenny. Accompanied by a tinkling piano and a standup bass, the group’s solid harmony was much in evidence, as were the Ravens and CHARIOTEERS influences. Rainbow Records slipped up on their promotional efforts, however, and “Yes Sir” never had a chance. The record was reviewed by Cashbox magazine on January 6, 1951 as a pop release, indicative of the industry’s initial perception of the quartet. Krefetz, noting Rainbow’s inabilities and still very high on his group’s potential, immediately took the Clovers to Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records. Ahmet, a son of the former Turkish ambassador to the United States, had launched Atlantic on an investment of $10,000 from his family’s dentist in late 1947.
Ertegun didn’t really like Ink Spots-type groups (he didn’t even like the Ink Spots) and was reluctant to sign the Clovers, but when “Waxie Maxie” Silverman interceded on his friend Krefetz’s behalf, the Atlantic chief began to see how he could mold the group into a successful act. To achieve that end he wrote a song that would forever dictate the style and direction of the Clovers. On February 22, 1951 the Clovers recorded “Don’t You Know I Love You,” a mid-tempo, choppy-rhythmed shuffle with Buddy Bailey’s blues-tinged vocal leading the group. The surprising use of a sax solo (one of the first on a vocal group record) came about when bandleader Frank Culley demanded to be paid even though he and his sax were not supposed to play on the record. Since Ertegun had to pay Frank as a leader anyway, he let him play and Culley winged it from “Skylark” written by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael and recorded in 1942 by Dinah Shore (a top five pop hit for her).
The songwriting credit for “Don’t You Know I Love You” on Atlantic 934 read Nugetre-Ertegun spelled backward. ( He may have been trying to avoid embarrassment for his relatives stemming from the notion of a diplomat’s son writing R&B songs.) Actually Nugetre wrote “head” melodies since he couldn’t play an instrument or write music. He would record his songs in Times Square recording booths, then take the paper discs and give them to his musicians to reproduce.
The single came out in March 1951 to little fanfare; vocal group records with a mid-tempo blues feel had not yet reached the black record buyer’s consciousness. Another obstruction was the fact that in 1950 the black charts consisted of only 10 positions, so a record really had to be selling to make it. But by June “Don’t You Know” had built enough momentum to jump on the R&B top 10 at number three. It took the Clovers 13 more weeks to get to number one, finally beating out THE DOMINOES’ “Sixty Minute Man” for the coveted spot. All told it lasted 21 weeks in the top 10 and sold a reported quarter-of-a-million copies.
The Clovers’ next session was on July 12 at WHOM Studios where they cut “Needless” by guitarist Harris, tenor McQuater, and manager Krefetz (everyone was getting in on the writing act), and another Ertegun tune called “Fool, Fool, Fool.” Their Ink Spots styling gone, the Clovers were now a pioneering blues vocal group. The group’’ sound was rough and unpolished. They sang riffs usually played on a keyboard. Buddy’s lead was bluesy, a little like what B. B. King might have sung.
“Fool” became their second number one hit, staying at the top of the Billboard R&B chart for six weeks and selling more than half a million platters. Amazingly, with two number one records Atlantic was still recording only two sides at a time. On December 17, they cut yet another Ertegun song, “In the Middle of the Night,” with pounding drum beat ad walking bass line woven into a bluesy ballad. The other recording done that day was “One Mint Julep,” a witty Rudy Toombs composition about one libation too many. “In the Middle” rose to number three, giving Ertegun his third hit in a row as a writer. “One Mint Julep,” went to number two and was only kept out of the top spot because of Rudy Toombs himself: the number one record at the time, “5-10-15 Hours” by Ruth Brown, was also one of Rudy’s compositions. In that same month the Clovers cut three sides of which two, “Ting-A-Ling” and “Wonder Where My Baby’s Gone,” charted in July. “Wonder” went to number seven while “Ting-A-Ling” and “Wonder Where My Baby’s Gone,” charted in July. “Wonder” went to number seven while “Ting-A-Ling,” another Ertegun slice of R&B, went to number one.
The next release was another chart-bounded two sider: “Hey Miss Fannie” (cut at an August 7th session) and “I Played the Fool” (from the March session that produced “Ting-A-Ling”). “Fool” was their prettiest and most harmony-oriented ballad since “Skylark,” with a weaving falsetto harmony behind Bailey’s lead that was ahead of its time y several years. “Fannie” was an out rocker with more than a passing similarity to THE MOONGLOWS’ 1954 “Real Gone Mama” and THE PARAGONS’ 1957 “Hey Little Schoolgirl.” It was a rock and roll cut two years before such recordings were considered to exist. “Fannie” (another Ertegun original) peaked at number two R&B while “I Played the Fool” went to number three.
By the time the Clovers charted with “Crawlin’ ” their ninth song on six singles, lead John Bailey had been in the army almost four months. “Crawlin’ ” was Bailey’s last lead for two years. While it was reaching the number three spot in March 1953, Bailey’s slot was filled by former DOMINOES and Checkers member Charlie White. Their next single had White on lead. Ertegun’s “Good Lovin’ ” reached number two, spending four-and-a-half months on the charts.
In 1954 White made his biggest contribution to the ever-growing Clovers legend when he led the group through two scorching blues rockers, “Little Mama” (#4) and the Ertegun co-penned “Lovey Dovey” (#2). The “Little Mama”/”Lovey Dovey” September 24th session was the first Clovers production matching Ertegun with the now-legendary producer Jerry Wexler.
Ongoing chart recognition enabled the quartet to work the top theaters around the country, from the Apollo to the Howard and the Regal. They also played Alan Freed’s first rock and roll show in early 1954 and toured with other Atlantic artists such as Big Joe Turner, the Drifters, and Ruth Brown.
By April 1954 Charlie White had joined the Playboys on Cat (another Atlantic subsidiary) and was replaced by Atlantic vocalist Billy Mitchell. He had previously issued four singles on Atlantic as a solo artist between 1951 and 1952 but had never charted. His stint with the Clovers changed that with Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash” (#6, 1954). The B side, a holdover from the “Little Mama” session, was written by Harold Winley’s brother Paul (Paul would go on to write many of the great recordings of the Paragons and THE JESTERS), and it reached number seven. By the fall of 1954 Bailey had returned; the group decided to retain Mitchell for alternate leads.
“I Confess” (written by Nugetre and featuring Charlie White) and “All Right Oh Sweetie” (Bailey’s re-debut) came out in November and failed to chart. Luckily the R&B hit list had expanded allowing a number 14 charting for the classic ballad “Blue Velvet,” issued in late 1954 with an exceptional Buddy Bailey lead and harmony background. By early 1955 the R&B market was saturated with vocal groups and record labels, all competing for the top spots on the charts. The Clovers’ new releases weren’t up to the competition: “Love Bug” failed and “Nip Sip” spent two weeks getting to number 10. In January 1956 Atlantic released the Clovers’ 15th single, a pop-sounding ballad entitled “Devil or Angel” that lifted the group back up to number three while it’s flip side, the rocking “Hey Doll Baby,” went to number eight and became the last of six double-sided charters for the group.
By mid-1957 the Clovers (the most popular R&B vocal group of the first half of the ‘50s, with 19 hits on 15 singles) had accomplished about everything a group could do except put a record on the pop listings. That changed in June 1956 when “Love, Love, Love” rose to number 30 (#10 R&B). But instead of leading to a greater degree of national popularity, the pop hit had just he opposite effect. Their next six singles failed to chart on either Pop or R&B lists. Having taken the Clovers to the masses, Atlantic now found itself losing its original R&B base. In August 1957 the label’s dismay led them to release a four-year-old recording, “Down in the Alley,” whose chief feature was its “changity-changity-changity-changchang” intro and an exit borrowed from the feel of Joe Turner’s “TV Mama.” The B side was reworking of “O Solo Mio” (from 1899) (and the Clovers’ version quite possibly gave Elvis the idea for his 1960 hit “It’s Now or Never”).
Though their deal expired with Atlantic in July 1957 Ertegun’s company still released two more singles-that went nowhere. Lou Krefetz then decided to start his own Poplar label, releasing two less-than-exciting singles and an LP by Bailey and company. In 1959 they moved to United Artists and continued their slump with nine non-charting records, including an average reading of the oldie “Old Black Magic.” In the summer of 1959 the magicians behind the COASTERS hits, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, took hold of the Clovers and wrote a cross between “One Mint Julep” and half the records recorded by the Coasters. Titled “Love Potion No. 9,” it was their most successful release ever on the pop listings, peaking at number 23 in October (#23 R&B, December).
Trying to keep the magic going, they remade their old hit “One Mint Julep.” It, and the next three U.A. singles, stirred little interest. By November 1961, the Clovers found themselves back on Atlantic for only one release.
The original Clovers disbanded, but Bailey and Hal Winley formed a new Clovers to record for Paul Winley’s Winley Records in 1961. In 1962, Harold Lucas formed a second Clovers group with Roosevelt “Tippie” Hubbard on lead, Jerome “Toy” Walton at tenor, and Robert Russell on bass. This group sang for Brunswick, Stenton (as Tippie and the Clovermen), and Tiger Records (as Tippie and the Clovers). Meanwhile, Bailey’s Clovers had moved over to Porwin Records for two singles, the best of which, a ballad titled “Stop Pretending,” featured background harmonies that were closer to a girl group sound than they typical Clovers raunchiness. In April 1965 Bailey and Lucas, with Jimmy Taylor on tenor and Robert Russell, recorded “Poor Baby” and “He Sure Could Hypnotize,” produced by original Atlantic co-owner Herb Abramson. Soon after, Russell died and Bailey’s Winley Clovers never recorded again. It’s reported that Lucas, with Jimmy Taylor on tenor and Robert Russell, recorded “Poor Baby” and “He Sure Could Hypnotize,” produced y original Atlantic co-owner Herb Abramson. Soon after, Russell died and Bailey’s Winley Clovers never recorded again. It’s reported that Lucas, with the addition of Walton, John Bowie (he and Walton were formerly in the Bachelors on Royal Roost), and Tippie, recorded for Josie in 1968 and continued to perform into the ‘70s. 43 years after he formed the Clovers, Harold Lucas and the current contingent (John Bowie, Steve Charles, and Johnny Mason) recorded “Run Rudolph Run” (formerly by Chuck Berry) and an original song called “The Magic of Christmas Eve.” Both were included on the 1989 LP A Capitol Xmas (BJM Records).
The Clovers were the most successful rhythm and blues vocal roup of the ‘50s, scoring 21 chart records, far more than any other group. That alone would have secured their place in music history. But their distinctive style is better remembered than many of their hits. Under the guidance of Ahmet Ertegun, Herb Abramson (who coproduced many of their early hits with Ahmet), and Jerry Wexler, they reworked blues and gospel into blues with a beat. In so doing they became on of the first R&B groups to cross the bridge to rock and roll.
– Jay Warner