The Dominoes Theory ©JCMarion


The Dominoes were the invention and creation of Billy Ward, the son of a Southern California minister and a serious student of classical and symphonic music. He spent some of his formative years at New York City's renowned and prestigious Julliard School of Music. Even at an early age Ward showed the talents and inventiveness in composing and arrangement that many serious musicians strive for. As a teenager Ward showed his prowess at this facet of musicianship by composing and arranging a symphonic work that was heralded in a major competition. By 1950 he began to explore his options as which direction he would follow in his chosen field. It is surprising that this son of a preacher and a church choir director would evolve into one of the first national star attractions of the raw and raucous sound of early fifties Rhythm & Blues, but Ward has said that he knew his family might not be very happy about his chosen field of music but his success was of prime importance.
Ward became acquainted with Rose Marks, a song writer and budding musical entrepreneur while at Julliard as a part time instructor of arranging and vocal performance. He was also a vocal coach and worked out of studios at Carnegie Hall and the Brill Building at 1650 Broadway in New York. It was at her suggestion that Ward begin to think about forming a vocal group. By getting together with some of his better students he soon had the nucleus of a good gospel quartet. The original group was led by a young North Carolina teenager named Clyde Lensey McPhatter, whose high tenor style gave the new group a unique sound. McPhatter was already gaining recognition because of his showing at the world famous Amateur Night competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The gospel group named The Ques, returned to the Apollo stage on a Wednesday night in late September in 1950, and their spirituals got enough support from the audience to take home first prize. A followup appearance on national television the next month bought the Ques to the attention of Cinncinati's King Records.
The new vocal group was now known as The Dominoes, and Syd Nathan the president of King used his newly contracted singers to launch a brand new label called Federal Records. In December of 1950 Federal #12001 was released. It paired "Do Something For Me" and "Chicken Blues". In January of 1951 the record sells well on the West Coast and the start looks promising. Two months later their second release for the label saw Nathan and Ward try and take advantage of the unique quality of the lead voice of Clyde McPhatter on the pop music standard "Harbor Lights" and the flip side rendition of "No Says My Heart" on #12010. Despite the timeless sound of the standard, it did not go over as well as had been hoped as the public was seemingly more attuned to their combination of jump, gospel, and blues, that they had exhibited on their first record. "Do Something" still continued to sell getting on the national R & B charts and placing in the top ten. Newark, N.J., and Louisville, Ky., gave it the number one seller in those areas. Nathan then had the idea to use The Dominoes as a backing group for one of their top R & B stars, Little Esther. The result was Federal #12016 - "The Deacon Moves In" which got instant airplay and sales for the combination of talent. The flip side was "Other Lips Other Arms". In late April The Dominoes were well established enough to embark on their first tour of one nighters as a starring act when they hit the road through the South with the Joe Thomas band. Just before the beginning of the tour, the new Dominoes record was issued. It was Federal #12022 - "Sixty Minute Man" and "I Can't Escape From You". The rocking 'A' side became an instant classic and a landmark recording in the history of American music. Bill Brown's bass singing of the double entendre lyrics led the way for this tune which literally exploded on the scene that late spring in 1951.
Everywhere one went in the Spring and Summer of that year, the sounds of the Dominoes "Sixty Minute Man" acted as a sound track of life for everyone. The record sold well over one and a half million copies, was in the top ten R & B tunes for months, and got considerable play in pop music areas. It was the single record that introduced thousands of White listeners to the music that had been bubbling right under their noses for the past few years and would soon take over the country. The charge of the record across the landscape of America turned The Dominoes into a top gate attraction and their was a huge demand to see them in person. At the helm of all of this adulation and sometimes hysteria throughout the Black community for his group, Billy Ward remained in control as manager, promoter, and writer for the vocalists. His association with Rose Marks remained and together they controlled the hottest act in all of R & B music that Summer of 1951. In late Summer The Dominoes again record as backup voices to Little Esther on Federal #12036 - "Heart To Heart". Because of the huge unprecedented success of "Sixty Minute Man", the record with Little Esther is somewhat lost in the shuffle.
In the Fall the Paradise Theater in Detroit plans to re-open and present live entertainment once again. The Dominoes are chosen to be the headline act for this inaugural show. Also on the bill are Dinah Washington and the Arnett Cobb combo. As the record continues to go national, the group goes on tour again with the Freddie Mitchell orchestra in the Midwest. Meanwhile demand becomes so great that King-Federal Records puts on an additional shift at its pressing plant to meet the huge demand for the Dominoes record. In September a measure of the huge success attained by the vocal group is realized when they receive an Award of Achievement which is presented at the Apollo Theater by The Independent Press Service, a unit that serves the more than 150 newspapers nation wide that are geared toward the Black community in America. As The Dominoes are playing to sold out crowds in Ohio, "Sixty Minute Man" is the object of a pop cover record by the adventurous Elliot Lawrence Orchestra (on King Records, no less !!). In October Syd Nathan finally believes that it is time for a follow up record and Federal #12039 - "I Am With You" and "Weeping Willow Blues" is released. Soon after this new record is out, Charlie White, tenor voice and occasional lead singer, leaves the group and moves to Atlantic Records, where he will take the place of Buddy Bailey of the Clovers as lead singer and also record as a solo artist.
In December of 1951 The Dominoes sign a new two and a half year recording contract with King-Federal Records. Right after this Bill Brown leaves the group. The lineup for the quartet is now Clyde McPhatter-lead, James Van Loan (brother of the Raven's lead singer Joe)-tenor, original member Joe Lamont-baritone, and David McNeil-bass. It is established that Billy Ward and Rose Marks have joint ownership of the vocal group The Dominoes, and also rights to the name of the group. "Sixty Minute Man" not surprisingly is voted the number one record in the jazz and blues field by music writers and again by the national juke box operators group. By the end of the year the figures are in and again- no surprise : "Sixty Minute Man" is the top selling Rhythm & Blues record of the year. In January of 1952, Chicago's Regal Theater presents The Dominoes and Sarah Vaughn. Late in that month the group hooks up with Paul Gayten and his band for a series of one nighters . In early March Syd Nathan once again pairs a ballad standard utilizing the talents of McPhatter on "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano" (previously done in vocal group style by The Inkspots), paired with a jump-blues called "That's What You're Doing To Me" on Federal #12059. The record opens big on the East coast but then seems to fade.
In April Federal releases #12068 - "Have Mercy Baby" and "Deep Blue Sea". It is apparent rather quickly that The Dominoes have hit the bullseye again. "Mercy" takes off and keeps on selling. It shoots up the charts to number one and stays there for weeks. In mid May of 1952 comes one of the great double bills in music history at Chicago's Oriental Theater. At the height of each acts incredible popularity, The Dominoes share the stage with Johnny Ray ! Somehow the city of Chicago survived ! A review of sales figures show an interesting phenomenon - "Capistrano" and "Mercy" are selling well in different parts of the country to different population demographics, such is the unique talent of Billy Ward and his quartet. In mid Summer the group does an extended stay at Atlantic City's Surf Club. In Los Angeles, more than ten thousand copies of "Mercy" are sold in one location - John Dolphin's famous record store. Proving that Billy Ward is looking to expand the Dominoes audience, the group is booked to play the Michigan State Fair, hardly a Rhythm & Blues venue. During the Summer "Love Love Love" and "That's What You're Doing To Me" are out on Federal #12072. A surprise birthday party is given for Billy Ward in Chicago in September and is attended by a who's who of music which is further testimony to the immense popularity of the group. Even further proof of the drawing power of the Dominoes, is the box office record set at the Lyric Theater in Louisville, followed by an all time three day attendance record set at the W.C. Handy in Memphis.
In early October Federal releases two records by The Dominoes almost simultaneously - #12105 - "I'd Be Satisfied" / "No Room" and #12106 - "I'm Lonely" / "Yours Forever". The public finds this practice confusing, and this hurts the selling potential of both releases. The group is a huge draw in the state of Texas in late October, and goes to the Pacific Northwest in November, and winds up the year making appearances in and around Ward's hometown of Los Angeles. The Dominoes are named the number one recording act in the R & B field for the year 1952 by the Juke Box Operators of America. At years end the latest Federal release #12114 pairs "The Bells" and "Pedal Pushin' Papa". The mournful ballad performance of McPhatter on "The Bells" propels it to national attention as the vocal dramatics give the blues tune an almost operatic feel.
Early in 1953 as "The Bells" continues to sell nationally, the group is approached to become part of a touring show that is not drawing well on the road. The show stars two long time icons of popularity in the Black community - Louis Armstrong and former boxer and now entertainer Sugar Ray Robinson. It is apparent to the promoters of the show that this lineup is not attuned to the times, and so The Dominoes join up at the Fox Theater in Detroit. The result is instant pandemonium as the group takes over the show and the two former headliners are relegated to the status of opening acts. The Dominoes first performance on the bill results in five encores under riotous conditions, so great is their popularity. These conditions continue for the rest of the tour and serve as proof positive of the special place The Dominoes have in the R & B world. About this same time Federal #12129 is released - the old thirties pop classic "These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You" is given a modern rendering by McPhatter that is one of his finest moments with the group, and the practice of Billy Ward in having the group concentrate many of their recordings on reworking American popular standards finally pays off in sales and airplay.The heights of this adulation are rather short lived as the group soon finds out that their remarkable lead singer, Clyde McPhatter is to leave the group and move to Atlantic Records where he will form his own unit and have more control of his creative possibilities in writing and arranging, not to mention the financial aspect of the business.
In the middle of the year the prestigious poll published by the Pittsburgh Courier places the Dominoes at number three among vocal groups-trailing The Clovers and surprisingly, The Ravens, which is a strange choice given the huge successes of the Billy Ward group. The Dominoes have a new lead singer, a young Detroit native named Jackie Wilson who follows in Clyde McPhatter's footsteps with a strong tenor voice and dramatic stage presence. At this time the almost inevitable legal tangle ensues. King-Federal Records claims that they have a personal services contract on Clyde regardless of his status with The Dominoes, while Atlantic Records disputes that assertion and say McPhatter is their's free and clear. Whatever the claims and counter claims, Atlantic prevails and the Dominoes move on. The group is appearing for a week at that temple of pop music Americana, the New York Paramount. That will be followed by a European tour and then a string of one nighters during the fall in the United States. "These Foolish Things" which is Clyde's last performance with the group is big on the national charts and in some areas is entering the pop charts. The first Dominoes record with Wilson as lead is soon released - Federal #12139 - "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down" / "Where Now Little Heart".
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