Soul Serenade: Billy Ward And His Dominoes, “Sixty Minute Man”

Billy Ward and His Dominoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you think that today’s rappers have corned the market on sexual braggadocio, think again. While the current hip-hop stars may describe their amorous adventures in explicit detail, there’s a tradition of sexual one-upmanship that goes back to the blues songs of the 1920s, and probably before that.

Some say that “Sixty Minute Man” was the first rock and roll record. While there are always going to be differing opinions on that score, what is not in doubt is that Billy Ward and His Dominoes were one of the most successful vocal groups on the R&B scene in the 1950s. Ward himself was a musical prodigy. He was born in Savannah and following a stint in the Coast Guard, where he sang in the choir, Ward studied music at the Julliard School of Music in New York City. It was an experience that was extremely rare for a black person in those days.

Ward was working as a vocal coach in New York when he met Rose Marks, who became his agent and his songwriting partner. The pair decided to form a vocal group, drawing the singers from among Ward’s students. At first, they were called the Cues, and Clyde McPhatter was chosen as the lead singer after he won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. The other Cues were Charlie White, Joe Lamont, and Bill Brown. Ward played piano for the group and created their vocal arrangements.

The Cues made successful appearances at the Apollo, and on the Arthur Godfrey TV show. They were recommended to Ralph Bass of Federal Records, an imprint of the King label. When the label signed them, the Cues became the Dominoes. McPhatter sang lead on their first single for the label, “Do Something For Me,” which reached #6 on the R&B chart in early 1951.

Not long after that, the Dominoes released “Sixty Minute Man,” this time with bass singer Brown singing the lead vocal. Brown promised his lady 15 minutes of kissing, 15 minutes of teasing, and 15 minutes of squeezing, after which he would be “blowing his top.” Whew! Those sentiments were enough to take “Sixty Minute Man” to the top of the R&B chart, where it remained for 14 weeks and, crucially, crossed over to a spot on the Pop chart at #17. The groundbreaking blend of gospel, blues, and sex, apparently appealed to everyone, although in some quarters it was relegated to the ranks of novelty records.

Billy Ward and His Dominoes

Billy Ward and His Dominoes became bigger than contemporaries like the Five Keys and the Clovers. But Ward was a tough taskmaster and didn’t pay the Dominoes enough to make the discipline worthwhile for them. Jackie Wilson, who would replace McPhatter in 1953, said:

“Billy Ward was not an easy man to work for. He played piano and organ, could arrange, and he was a fine director and coach. He knew what he wanted, and you had to give it to him. And he was a strict disciplinarian. You better believe it! You paid a fine if you stepped out of line.”

Ward and Marks owned the Dominoes name, giving them the power to hire and fire at will. Meanwhile, McPhatter was barely making enough money to live on. “Whenever I’d get back on the block where everybody’d heard my records—half the time I couldn’t afford a Coca-Cola,” McPhatter said. Given the name of the group, many people thought that Ward was the lead singer, and sometimes he billed McPhatter as Clyde Ward so that people would think that he was Billy’s little brother.

The first two defections came in 1951 when White and Brown left to form the Checkers. They were replaced by James Van Loan and David McNeil, who had been in the Larks. Despite the lineup changes, the hits kept coming. Maybe Ward had a point. “Have Mercy” hit the top of the R&B chart in 1952 and enjoyed a 10-week stay at the top. The big departure came the following year when McPhatter decided that he had had enough and left the Dominoes to form his own group, which he called the Drifters.

That could have been a death blow for the Dominoes, but McPhatter’s replacement was Jackie Wilson, a vocal student of McPhatter’s. At around that time McNeil and Lamont left and were replaced by Milton Merle and Cliff Givens. The interchangeable parts continued to function successfully as records like “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” continued to find chart success, albeit not the same level of success as the McPhatter-led hits.

In 1954, the Dominoes moved first to Jubilee Records, and then to Decca. They had a nice-sized pop hit with “St. Therese of the Roses,” with Wilson singing lead. But that was about it for chart activity for the group. They soldiered on though, with more lineup changes, and when Elvis Presley saw the Dominoes in Las Vegas in 1956 he was so impressed by Wilson’s vocals on Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” that he returned to Memphis and recorded it again, this time with the Million Dollar Quartet. Elvis always said that Wilson sang the song much better than he did, and he appreciated the Dominoes slower arrangement so much that he did an impersonation of it backed by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

In 1957 Wilson left to begin his own legendary solo career. Enter another former-Lark, Gene Mumford. Another label change took the Dominoes to Liberty Records where they hit #13 on the Pop chart with “Star Dust.” Somehow, despite all of the changes, including the loss of two future superstars, there was still some gas in the Dominoes tank. Incidentally, “Star Dust” was one of the first multi-track recordings in rock and roll history, as well as one of the first to be mixed in true stereo. It was the Dominoes only million-seller, and their final big hit, although various Dominoes lineups continued recording and performing well into the 1960s.

Billy Ward and His Dominoes were elected to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2006. They were a group that not only broke new ground musically but one that gave birth to the careers of two of the biggest stars, in McPhatter and Wilson, that soul music has ever seen.

Soul Serenade: The Marvelows, “I Do”

The MarvelowsSometimes the events of the day are overwhelming. There have been a lot of days like that lately. As I write this, a group of Republican members of Congress who were practicing for a charity baseball game were targeted by a shooter who wounded several of the people on the field, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. There will be lots of analysis of this event in the coming days but the bottom line is that it’s hard not to be concerned about the very future of this country.

And sometimes even music doesn’t help quell the anxiety, but writing about the music that I love is what I do, and to not do that today would indicate some sort of surrender to the powers of evil that are afoot in this world. I’m not quite ready to give up on hope just yet, and I hope you’re not either.

So let’s talk about the Marvelows this morning, a Chicago vocal group that laid one indelible single on the world in 1965. They got together in the late 1950s. The original lineup included Melvin Mason, brothers Frank and Johnny Paden, Sonny Stephenson, and Jesse Smith. The inclusion of Smith was particularly crucial to the group because it was his mother that suggested to the group that they look up an old schoolmate of hers, Johnny Pate.

Pate had recently scored a job as the head of Midwest A&R for ABC/Paramount Records. Working with Pate, the Marvelows recorded four songs for the label including “A Friend,” “My Heart,” “Hey, Hey Baby,” and “I Do.” It was that last song that secured the Marvelows a spot in music history. Ironically, “I Do” was written specifically to be used as a vocal warm-up for the group, but it turned out to be a #7 R&B hit and crossed over to the #37 spot on the Pop chart.

The following year, Smith left the Marvelows and was replaced by Andrew Thomas. At the time, there was a group on the west coast called the Marvellos. Seeking to avoid confusion, the Chicago group changed their name to the Mighty Marvelows, and released a second single, “In the Morning,” in 1968. It reached #24 on the R&B chart and was the only other charting single for the Mighty Marvelows. It wasn’t for lack of trying though. Other singles like “I’m Without a Girl,” “Fade Away,” “Your Little Sister,” “You’re Breaking My Heart,” and “Wait Be Cool” failed to chart.

ABC/Paramount released the group’s one album, The Mighty Marvelows, in 1968 but by the following year, the group was done, save for a brief reunion in 1974. The J. Geils Band covered “I Do” on their 1977 album Monkey Island, as well as on their 1982 live album Showtime!

Soul Serenade: Carla Thomas, “B-A-B-Y”

Stax ClassicsCarla Thomas was the first star in the Stax Records galaxy. I’ve written about her before, so today just a little about her hit single “B-A-B-Y.” The song was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter and released on the label in August 1966. The record ran up the R&B chart to #3 and had Pop success at #14. “B-A-B-Y” was the leadoff track on Thomas’ album Carla, itself a #7 R&B hit.

While it’s appropriate to begin the column with the first Stax artist to make an impact on the charts, the real focus this week is on the label’s 60th anniversary and a new set of budget-friendly compilations from Rhino Entertainment highlighting the work of a number of Stax stars. In addition to Thomas, there are new compilations for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Booker T & the MGs.

In addition to “B-A-B-Y”, the Thomas collection includes hits like “I Like What You’re Doing (To Me),” “Cause I Love You,” and “Tramp,” her 1966 smash with Redding. The Redding collection includes classics like “Try a Little Tenderness,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” “Respect,” and his posthumous smash “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

“Hold On! I’m a Comin’,” “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” and the #1 1967 smash “Soul Man” are included on the Sam & Dave compilation, and the Booker T and the MGs disc offers up “Hip Hug-Her,” “Time is Tight,” and the #1 hit “Green Onions” among other classics.

The best news of all is that each of these Stax Classics, as the series is known, can be had for less than seven dollars at Amazon, and you can download the MP3s for less than $10. And the release of these collections is hardly the end of the 60th-anniversary celebration. On June 23 there will be 180-gram vinyl releases that include the Booker T album Green Onions, Rufus Thomas’ Walking the Dog, Soul Men by Sam & Dave, the Otis Redding – Carla Thomas classic King & Queen.

There will be additional vinyl reissues from Redding, Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T and the Megs, and Albert King on July 7.

Soul Serenade: Shades of Blue, “Oh How Happy”

Shades of BlueIf you are a reader of this column, and you are a subscriber to satellite radio, you will probably be interested in a new, limited-time channel on SiriusXM called Carolina Shag (channel 13). The station features what’s known as “beach music,” that is the music that’s played, and danced to along the beaches of the Carolinas. The music is a wonderful blend of obscure and well-known soul and R&B records that are popular along the “Grand Strand,” and wherever people do the Shag. I’m not sure how long this channel will last, but it was great listening while traveling during Memorial Day weekend.

I don’t think of “Oh How Happy” as a typical beach music record, but it was heard on Carolina Shag this weekend, and it was kind of a forgotten favorite for me until I heard it again. What do we know about Shades of Blue, the vocal group that brought us “Oh How Happy”? Not much as it turns out. They came from Livonia, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. It was while the original members were in high school that they formed a group called the Domingos. The original lineup of the group included Nick Marinelli, Ernie Dernai, Linda Allen, and Bob Kerr.

Shades of Blue

In 1965, the Domingos signed a record deal with a label called Golden World, which was based in Detroit. A name change was suggested and the Domingos became Shades of Blue. It was while the group was recording at Golden World that they met Edwin Starr. He liked what he heard that day, and he had an unfinished song that he thought would be good for the group. Starr worked with the group to finish the song. Marinelli said that group members contributed to the music and lyrics, but Edwin Starr was the only writer ever credited for “Oh How Happy.”

In the autumn of 1965, Shades of Blue recorded “Oh How Happy” and took it to Impact Records. The label signed the group to a new contract on the strength of their record and released it in March 1966. The single, produced by John Rhys (the engineer who had suggested the group’s name change), was a #1 hit locally. It rose up the Pop chart to #12, and the R&B chart to #7. Starr himself recorded the song as a duet with Blinky a couple of years later, and it managed to crawl into the Billboard Hot 100. Other versions were recorded by Percy Sledge, and the Jackson Five.

Shades of Blue didn’t quit there, but follow-up records like “Lonely Summer” (also written by Starr), and “Happiness” didn’t do as well, reaching #72 and #78 on the Hot 100 respectively. Other singles failed to chart at all, and Shades of Blue called it a day in 1970. Marinelli revived the name when he joined a Motown group called the Valadiers in 2003. Together with one of the Valadiers, Stuart Avig, and new members Andy Alonzo and Donald Revels, Marinelli began touring with the group under the Shades of Blue name.

Marinelli, the last original member of Shades of Blue, finally left the group in 2009. There is still a group with that name out there touring, however.

 

Soul Serenade: The Commodores, “Brick House”

The CommodoresThe late 1970s were a good time indeed for funk. Given the fact that disco and punk were both ascendent in those days, it’s remarkable that funk could have gained a toehold, but that’s exactly what happened. Last week I wrote about the 1978 Parliament hit “Flash Light,” and this week I’m going to remain in that era and feature a 1977 smash by the Commodores called “Brick House.
In 1968 there were two groups, Mystics, and the Jays, that were made up of students at Tuskegee Institute. Lionel Richie was a Mystic, a group that leaned a little more toward jazz, as were Thomas McClary, and William King. The Jays membership included Andre Callahan, Michael Gilbert, and Milan Williams. Those six got together and chose the name Commodores at random from a dictionary.

“We lucked out, we almost became the Commodes,” William King told People Magazine with a laugh.

At the start, they had a singer named James Ingram (no, not that one) and played frat parties and local clubs. Ingram was a little older than the other guys, and when he was sent to Vietnam, the Commodores replaced him with William ‘Clyde’ Orange, who played drums. The new singer split the lead vocals with Richie and wrote or co-wrote a lot of the Commodores’ hits.

It was a gig opening for the Jackson 5 that got the Commodores noticed, and signed to Motown in 1972. Their first hit for the label was “Machine Gun” in 1974. The single reached #22 on the Pop chart and was Top 10 R&B. “Slippery When Wet” produced a second hit for the band the following year, getting to the top of the R&B chart, and crossing over to #19 on the Pop chart. Top 10 hits like “Just to be Close to You” (1976), and “Easy” (1977) followed.

The songwriting on “Brick House” is credited to Lionel Richie, Milan Williams, Walter Orange, Ronald La Pread, Thomas McClary, William King, and Shirley Hanna-King was an uncredited writer. As the story goes, there were equipment problems in the recording studio so the Commodores took a break. Bass player Ronald LaPread began playing a riff, and soon the rest of the band joined in. Before long, they had a track.

Producer James Carmichael liked what he heard, but knew that there was still work to do to make it a song. William King took the tapes home, and he was asleep when his wife, Shirley Hanna-King came up with the “brick house” lyrics for the riff. William King told the band that he had written the lyrics, and it was decided that Orange would be the right singer for the funky groove, instead of Richie, who was singing a lot of the lead vocals at that point. It took years for the band to learn of Hanna-King’s contribution, and although she remains uncredited, the band does acknowledge her part in the creation of the hit.

The Commodores

“Brick House” was released in August 1977. The single rose to #5 on the Pop chart, and #4 R&B. The Commodores still had bigger hits in their future.

“Three Times a Lady” was their biggest hit. The Richie-sung ballad was released in 1978 and became a #1 smash on the Pop and R&B charts. The following year “Sail On” hit the Top 10 on both charts, and that same year “Still” again rose to the top of both charts. In 1981 the band had two more Top 10 hits with “Oh No,” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

The success was more than enough to push Richie out of the nest in 1982 and on to a huge solo career. He was replaced by Skylar Jett. McClary left the following year, LaPread in 1986. Sheldon Reynolds (who joined in 1983) left to play with Earth, Wind & Fire the next year, and original member Milan Williams left in 1989, apparently because he would not play in South Africa.

Despite all the changes, the Commodores were not yet done. They did, however, become less funky, opting for a more easygoing sound. J.D. Nicholas, formerly of Heatwave, came aboard in 1984 and shared vocal duties with Orange. They hadn’t had a hit for awhile when “Nightshift,” with Orange singing lead, shot up to the #1 spot on the R&B chart, and #3 on the Pop chart. The song was a lovely tribute to two icons who had died the previous year, Jackie Wilson, and Marvin Gaye. “Nightshift” won the Commodores their first Grammy in 1985.

That hit marked the end of the Commodores stint with Motown Records. In 1990, they formed their own label, Commodores Records, and re-recorded their biggest hits for a two-volume compilation. There was also a live album and DVD, and a Christmas album. These days the Commodores are still out there, and Orange, King, and Nicholas are still part of the group, along with a five-piece band.

Soul Serenade: Parliament, “Flash Light”

ParliamentThree years ago in this column, I wrote about a group called the Parliaments. My story spoke about how they got their start in the back room of George Clinton’s barbershop in Plainfield, N.J. in the late 1950s, and how they scored a big hit in 1967 with a record called “(I Wanna) Testify,” which was released on Revilot Records.
The success of “Testify” meant that Clinton could expand the Parliaments vocal group to include five musicians and five backup singers. But there was trouble with Revilot, and the label enjoined Clinton from using the name Parliaments. In response, Clinton took the personnel he had and created a funk rock band called Funkadelic.

Revilot went out of business, which allowed to use the name Parliaments again, and he relaunched the group (with the same members as Funkadelic) and called it, simply, Parliament. The two bands were signed to different labels and played slightly different styles, but it was all funky. The first Parliament album, Osmium, was released in 1970. “Breakdown” managed to hit the Top 30 on the R&B singles chart the following year, but contractual problems continued and Clinton retired the Parliament name again.

New members continued to join the family during this period including keyboard player Bernie Worrell, guitarist Gary Shider, and bass player Bootsy Collins, who had been playing with James Brown. In 1974, Clinton brought Parliament back and signed the group to Casablanca Records. At that point, there was a definite stylistic difference between Parliament and Funkadelic. While the former found an R&B funk style that featured horns and complex vocal arrangements, the latter was pure guitar-driven funk. For touring purposes, the two groups became a juggernaut known as Parliament-Funkadelic.

Parliament

Parliament found chart success with the albums Up for the Down Stroke in 1974, and Chocolate City the following year. The group’s most successful era in 1975 with the release of Mothership Connection. It was that album that began the lyric mythology that continued through Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976), Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome (1977), and Motor Booty Affair (1978). All of the albums found lofty positions on both the R&B and Pop charts and “Flash Light,” a song from the Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, became a #1 R&B hit for the group in 1978.

“Flash Light” was written by Clinton, Worrell, and Collins, and found crossover success in the Top 20 on the Pop chart. In addition to being the first #1 hit for any group in the Clinton stable, it was the second million-seller for Parliament, following “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” Bernie Worrell was the star of the “Flash Light” show, crafting the song’s distinctive bass line on a set of synthesizers, and playing all of the keyboard parts. Collins, who ceded the bass parts to Worrell for the song, played drums instead, and his brother Catfish was the rhythm guitarist. Clinton sang lead and recorded something like 50 vocal tracks for the song’s distinctive “Da da da dee da da da” refrain. And by featuring Sir Nose D’VoidofFunk, “Flash Light” continued the lyric mythology that began on Bootsy’s “The Pinocchio Theory.” “Flash Light” was and is one of the most influential records in the history of funk and hip-hop music.

The empire kept growing but Clinton’s management style was somewhat questionable and by the end of the ’70s original members of the Parliaments were jumping ship. Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, and Grady Thomas, all of whom had been with Clinton in that barbershop in Plainfield, left in 1977, and it wasn’t a pleasant parting of the ways. Glenn Goins (guitar) and Jerome Brailey (drums) left around this time too. Gloryhallastoopid (1979) and Trombipulation (1980) failed to achieve the kind of success that Parliament had in their prime period. In the early part of the 1980s, Casablanca Records was having problems, and legal difficulties were looming as Clinton opted to disband both Parliament and Funkadelic as touring and recording acts.

Clinton didn’t quit, however, recording solo albums with a number of the musicians who had played in later versions of the two bands. The P-Funk All-Stars continue to tour with Clinton to this day, performing Parliament and Funkadelic songs.

 

Soul Serenade: The Del-Vikings, “Come Go With Me”

The Del-VikingsThere’s a lot of talk these about returning America to a better, more peaceful and prosperous time. The problem is that not everyone enjoyed those times as much as the people wishing to return to them did. Still, if we’re talking about returning to those days musically, well, that’s really not such a bad idea after all.
The Del-Vikings were serving the nation in the Air Force when they got together in 1955, all stationed in Pittsburgh. The original lineup consisted of Clarence Quick, Kripp Johnson, Don Jackson, Samuel Paterson, Bernard Robertson, and Clarence Harvey Ringo. The problem is that being a group made up exclusively of members of the military, transfers were likely to disrupt the lineup. And that’s exactly what happened when Paterson and Robertson were sent to Germany.

Suitable replacements were found in tenor singer Norman Wright and baritone David Lerchey. It was Lerchey’s inclusion the Del-Vikings that began to make things interesting, because Lerchey, unlike the rest of the group, was white. Remember, this was 1955, that beautiful bygone era when things weren’t so beautiful for everyone.

Just how they got their name is not certain. Clarence Harvey Ringo always insisted that he and Clarence Quick had been at the base library reading about Vikings and that the Del got stuck on the front to provide a little mystery. There are other claims about how the name came to be, but we’ll stick with Ringo’s version for our purposes.

In 1956, the Del-Vikings got a deal with a little label called Fee-Bee, and in December of that year, they released their debut single, “Come Go With Me.” The song was written by Quick, and Wright sang the lead vocal. As often happened in those days, a larger company, in this case Dot Records, noticed the action that the single was getting locally, and made a deal with Fee-Bee to distribute it nationally. The Dot re-release shot the single into Billboard’s Top 10, peaking at #4, and helped the record to become a million-selling gold disc winner.

Soon after that, Jackson left the group and was replaced by Gus Backus, further integrating the lineup. As it turned out, all of the Del-Vikings, except Johnson, had been under 21 when they signed the Fee-Bee contract, which gave them the right to bail on it. They quickly decamped to Mercury Records, leaving Johnson behind as he was still under contract to Fee-Bee. The problem was that Johnson laid claim to the name, and suddenly there were two groups of Del-Vikings.

The Del-Vikings

The original lineup replaced Johnson with William Blakely and released the single “Cool Shake” with Backus singing lead. The single almost reached the Top 10, peaking at #12. Meanwhile, Johnson added Don Jackson, Chuck Jackson (yes, that Chuck Jackson), Arthur Budd, and Ed Everette. That group was cleverly called the Dell Vikings, and they released a single called “I’m Spinning.” Their follow-up single, “Whispering Bells” reached #9 on the Pop chart.

Interestingly, Johnson’s group recorded for Dot, the label that had so much success with the original Del-Vikings lineup. The advantage that Johnson’s group had was that he was no longer in the Air Force and could tour at will, while the original lineup, still in the military, had to get special permission. Eventually, Mercury Records sued Johnson, et. al. over the name, and suddenly the Dell Vikings were forced to become the Versatiles. But the Versatiles didn’t last long, and the Del-Vikings weren’t faring much better. Backus was transferred, leaving them a quartet. They broke up, but Quick put together a new lineup with Pittsburgh guys Billie Woodruff, Willie Green, Douglass White, and Ritzy Lee.

After the Versatiles called it a day, Johnson came back to the Del-Vikings, and the sextet signed to ABC-Paramount Records. Despite having the core of the original group back in the fold, no more chart hits were forthcoming, and by 1965 the Del-Vikings were history, or so it seemed. Five years later, they were back with a lineup that looked very much like the original, with Quick, Johnson, Wright, Lerchey, and Blakely. Their work in that era consisted mainly of re-recording their old hits for Scepter Records, including a new version of “Come Go With Me.”

If you think the story of the Del-Vikings has been complicated to this point, it got even more complicated after that. Members came and went through the ’70s, with Quick being the only original member at one point. In 1980, Johnson even restarted his Dell Vikings again, this time with Lerchey in the lineup. When Johnson died in 1990, Lerchey carried on with Wright, Lee, and John Byas, playing mostly casinos and cruise ships.

Wright eventually left, and Lerchey retired for awhile but put together another Del-Vikings lineup in the mid-’90s, and that lasted until Lerchey died in 2005. If you guessed that there are still Del-Vikings out there touring, you’d be right, but there are no members whose names you would recognize from the group’s earlier history. Louis Velez, who joined the group in the ’80s, and passed away in 2008, was probably the last member who had been associated with anyone from the original lineup.

What is the legacy of the Del-Vikings? Musically they gave us one of the most indelible records in the history of rock and roll, “Come Go With Me,” was well as several other hits. More importantly, they achieved success with an integrated lineup at a time when something like that was far from the norm.