The Clovers - One of a Kind©JCMarion


The Clovers were the one vocal group in the history of Rock and Roll music whose hit making talent spanned the entire spectrum of the first great age of this art form. Beginning in the early days of Black oriented Rhythm & Blues during the post World War II forties, the "Moondog Years" when White America discovered the music, the days of Elvis inspired pop idolatry, right up until the coming wave of Beatlemania which ushered in the "progressive rock" era, the Clovers were a constant. Other groups have had a longer history as a performing unit (Coasters, Dells, and Drifters, for instance), but none had the star hit making power of the Clovers through so many changes - and they had the talent to change with the times and stay on top. The great paradox comes when the history of this music is retold and played, the Clovers are most times just an afterthought, a name that is sometimes included so that the history is complete. Why is this so? My explanation is that the experience of the Clovers is a parallel to that of Bill Haley. The reluctance of so called retro-historians of the music find that these artists do not fill the popular mythology of someone like Elvis, the downtrodden outsider, the rebel, or the tweaker of the established order. The vision of an older more mature performer, one more mainstream in their outlook, does not fit the common perception of the founders of this music, and so replacement heroes are offered up instead. Bill Haley as the pioneer who made the first rock & roll record ? The Clovers as the standard unit of the 1950s ? No, these quasi-historians need someone more in tune with the romantic notions of the history of the music. Instead of the Clovers, we are told it was the Teenagers, Belmonts, or Danny & The Juniors that turned the musical world upside down. The one redeeming fact of all of this, is that there are enough of us to know the real truth and the fight is to preserve that truth as part of history.

The story of the Clovers begins in post war Washington, D.C. As with most fledgling Black vocal groups of the time, the music begins with the Inkspots. Harold Lucas and a few of his friends got together and began to hone their abilities doing covers of the Bill Kenny led group and soon they were in demand at local clubs in the area. The word began to spread about this new vocal group and they were soon in contact with one of the many small independent R & B labels that existed at that time, New York based Rainbow Records. This label run by Eddie Heller had split from Derby Records, and was now going to concentrate its releases in the R & B field instead of pop artists such as Ralph Flanagan and Dick Todd. The first release by the group for Rainbow was the old pop standard "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" sung a la The Inkspots. The flip side was "When You Come Back To Me" and neither tune got much airplay or sales. The group consisted of lead singer John "Buddy" Bailey, Harold Winley on bass, baritone Harold Lucas, and tenor Matthew McQuater. The fifth member of the group was guitarist Bill Harris. Because of the persistence of the legendary D.C. music personality "Waxie Maxie" Silverman, the Clovers came to the attention of the Ertegun brothers at their Atlantic Records company. Ahmet Ertegun decided to take the Clovers out of the Inkspots mold and try something blusier and more in tune with what that label was trying to accomplish. Along with co-founder Herb Abramson and soon to be producer Jerry Wexler, the Clovers entered the Atlantic studios in February of 1951 and music history was about to be made. That history was Atlantic #934 - "Don't You Know I Love You"/ "Skylark". The "A" side was picked to be "Don't You Know" which was written by A. Nugetre, the pen name of the label head Ahmet Ertegun. This tune set the standard for all subsequent Clovers releases in the first half of the decade. It was a medium tempo rocker with a smooth lead by Bailey over an insistent guitar-bass-piano figure and the signature Clovers sound-the "skip beat" in which the recognizable 2/4 R & B tempo is reduced to accenting only the "2" beat with the drums. The sax break by Frank Culley was also a new departure in vocal group tunes which was included because of a demand by Culley to be paid for his session time (according to Jay Warner in his Billboard book "American Singing Groups 1940-1990). The flip side, the pop tune written by Johnny Mercer had been a hit for Dinah Shore and also was given a memorable performance by Billy Eckstine with Earl Hines earlier. This maiden voyage for the Clovers on Atlantic was a complete success as the tune made its way to the number one position on the R & B charts and boasted sales in excess of 300,000 (a heady number for an independent R & B disc in the early 1950s.) The Clovers were finally on their way. The group began to do the usual circuit of one nighters in support of their records, and during the summer the second release for Atlantic was out - "Fool Fool Fool" / "Needless". With name recognition becoming a marketing plus for the Clovers, this release outsold their first and became a number one R & B smash. Sales were reported to be more than 600,000 and so the group was suddenly one of Atlantic's hottest commodities. Late in the year former member of the Dominos, Charlie White joined the group as they prepared for their next sides for Atlantic. "Fool" closed out the year as the number one record in both sales and juke box plays in the R & B field, and the bluesy ballad certainly signaled the Clovers as one of the top draws in the country.

Early in 1952 Atlantic put out release #963 "One Mint Julep" / "Middle Of The Night" and both sides took off at top speed. "Julep" was a sensational tune written by the unique Rudy Toombs, and the Clovers vocal behind Van Walls piano figures and loping guitar by Harris made the tune instantly recognizable. (For contrast listen to an alternate take on the Atlantic History of R & B collection.) The sly lyrics and inventive harmony behind Bailey's lead ensured the popularity and longevity of this recording. The flip side is very similar to the feel on the previous side "Fool", taken at a slower, more blues oriented sound. Sales charts for the time show "Julep" at #1 in Atlanta and "Fool" #1 in New Orleans showing the tremendous drawing power for the group after the first three sides for Atlantic. They were now viewed as the labels biggest name after Ruth Brown. In July the next Atlantic pairing was released. The original A side selected was the tune "Wonder Where My Baby's Gone", however it gathered very little airtime or sales. The flip side "Ting-A-Ling" however, started to break out in a number of cities. It was another bluesy medium tempo rocker with an insistent rhythm figure played by Bill Harris and Van Walls that gave the tune its identity. To support the recordings the Clovers spent the summer months appearing all across the country from Atlantic City, to Texas, to a very successful booking with Roscoe Gordon's Combo on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. While on the coast, the fifth release for Atlantic hit the streets. "Hey Miss Fannie" / "I Played The Fool". This recording did not seem as strong as the previous four for the label, despite heavy promotion by Atlantic, but in time both sides would chart in the top three R & B records in the country. "Fool" a mellow ballad seemed to have a slight edge. At this time the manager of the group, Lou Krefetz, took a national sales position with the label, so support for the group by Atlantic was even stronger. The group did a number of dates in the mid-Atlantic states in an interesting pairing with Fats Domino. In early 1953 it was time for a new Clovers release. Within two weeks of its release, "Crawlin'" / "Yes It's You" was nearing the 200,000 mark in sales which for an R & B release on an independent label was certainly no mean feat. The fact that this was the sixth straight hit (many of which were two sided) proved that the Clovers were one of the top acts in the country. Atlantic Records proved this out when they presented a special gold record award to the group for topping the two million mark in total sales for the label in early April. The ballad side "Yes It's You" was a bit of a departure for the guys in that it was neither a straight blues or a reworked standard. This tune had many of the musical calling cards of the recognizable vocal group sound that was to become so prevalent in the mid fifties and was a forerunner of the later style of the group. In the summer the Clovers next release was Atlantic #1000 - "Good Lovin" / "Here Goes A Fool". Long time lead singer Buddy Bailey was now in the army, so lead was taken over by ex-Domino Charlie White. This change had no effect on the group's hit making potential. The Danny (Run Joe) Taylor penned "Lovin'" was a huge hit for the group remaining on the R & B charts for most of the second half of the year. At the same time the Clovers were beginning a west coast tour (again with Fats Domino) Atlantic released the latest - "The Feeling Is So Good" / "Comin' On". This pairing was the first time the Clovers failed to chart big with Atlantic. Neither side really caught on with the public.

In January of 1954, two Charlie White led rockers, "Little Mama" / "Lovey Dovey"were out on Atlantic. "Lovey" was a Clovers classic-the now familiar midtempo song with tight harmony and the signature sound of the skip beat. To promote the tune the group embarked on a two month tour of the south and midwest with Billy Eckstine and Ruth Brown. In the spring of 1954 the Clovers were named as one of the top ten money makers by Billboard magazine and the Juke Box Operator's Association. At the same time two events were reported that would have historic consequences in the years to come. The first was the report that huge numbers of teenagers were listening to R & B music on the radio and that this interest was starting to show up in record sales. The second story came out that Moondog Freed from Cleveland was planning to hold his first stage show in the East in Newark, New Jersey, where his show was heard transcribed on station WNJR. The Clovers would be the headline act. The Moondog Coronation Ball was indeed held in Newark on May 1, to a wildly enthusiastic sell out crowd of more than 10,000. Anyone who doubted the coming R & B explosion should have seen the light. The Clovers headed the bill, and interested reporters noted that about 20 per cent of the audience was White. During the summer many radio personalities and music industry personnel report great interest in R & B discs among white teenagers and college age young adults.

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