The Clovers helped popularize rock ‘n’ roll before it even had a name and set a high standard for 1950s R&B. Whether crooning cool, romantic doo-wop or panting the blues, they pioneered a style that would be copied and refined by all the groups that followed. More importantly, their sustained success, along with that of Ruth Brown’s, helped establish one of the music industry’s greatest labels, Atlantic Records.
The first version of the group formed at Armstrong High School in Washington, D.C., in 1946. Initially a trio featuring Harold Lucas, Thomas Woods, and Billy Shelton, the group’s sound took a leap forward when lead singer John “Buddy” Bailey joined a short time later. Drawing on a mix of secular and sacred influences such as the Ravens, the Charioteers, the Orioles, and the Swan Silvertones, they emulated the smooth stylings of the era’s most successful pop vocal group, the Ink Spots. Founding member Lucas hoped to invite good luck by naming his group the Four Clovers, yet the ouster of Woods and Shelton in favor of Matthew McQuarter, Harold Winley, and classically trained guitarist Bill Harris, dictated they become simply the Clovers.
The group honed their style at amateur talent shows, local clubs such as Washington’s Old Rose Social Club, and gained a measure of local fame when their rendition of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” won them first prize on Jackson Lowe’s WWDC amateur hour. They arrived professionally when Lou Krefetz, a well connected salesman for Gimble Brothers Record Distributors in Baltimore, saw the group’s possibilities and became their manager.
Krefetz got the Clovers signed to Eddie Heller’s Rainbow label in 1950. However, the company lacked promotional resources and was so small that it shared office space with a delicatessen. Their debut release, a reworking of their prize-winning “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” was neither a hit nor well received by Billboard, as quoted in Billboard’s American Rock ‘n’ Roll in Review. “Oldie is sung in a slow tempo on what sounds like an attempt to be different. It is, but not enough.”
Through Waxie Maxie’s Record Mart, New York’s main black music outlet, Krefetz lined up an audition for the Clovers at Atlantic Records. Cofounder Ahmet Ertegun didn’t particularly appreciate vocal groups or the Ink Spots, but felt the group could soften raw jump blues for a wider audience. In Billy Vera’s liner notes for Rhino Records’ compilation Very Best of the Clovers, Ertegun recalled how the group’s first hit was fashioned. “They wanted to record ‘Prisoner of Love,’ the Billy Eckstine hit, but I was sure they wouldn’t have a chance at selling many copies of it. So I wrote a song for them, ‘Don’t You Know I Love You.’” Although the record hit number one on the R&B charts, the label chief wasn’t immediately happy with the results. “I wrote it in a much blacker idiom than the way they sang it… But I must say they built the song into something; they contributed much more than I did.” The label chief, writing under the name “Nugetre” (Ertegun backwards), eventually wrote seven more hits for the group over the next three years.
Ertegun and songwriter/producer Jessie Stone toughened the Clovers’sound by supplying a leering saxophone and blusier material. The resultant style spawned such classic R&B tunes as the number-one hits “Fool, Fool, Fool” (1951) and “Ting-A-Ling” (1952), and the number-two charting “One Mint Julep” (1952), “Hey Miss Fanny” (1952), and “Good Lovin’” (1953). During the midst of this great string of hits, lead singer Bailey was drafted in to the Army. His replacement Charles White, a former member of the Dominoes and the Checkers, sang lead on the Clovers’ two-sided 1954 hit “Lovey Dovey” b/w “Little Mama.” When he left to join the Playboys (not the Gary Lewis group), solo artist Billy Mitchell came into sing lead and appeared on “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash,” which climbed to number six in 1954. When Bailey returned, Mitchell was kept on to sing alternate leads, an innovation that the Temptations adopted a decade later.
Although their greatest recordings were denied airplay on most white pop stations, the Clovers were a strong influence on such contemporaries as Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, the Moonglows, and the Dominoes. No less a figure than Ray Charles successfully revived “One Mint Julep” as an instrumental in 1961. The group made an enduring impact on white artists as well: Elvis Presley, a frustrated R&B singer at heart, included
Members include John “Buddy” Bailey (born on December 27, 1931, in Washington, D.C.; died in February 1994; group member 1946-53), lead tenor; Bill Harris (born on April 14, 1925, in Nashville, TN; died on December 10, 1988), guitar; Harold Lucas, Jr . (born in 1923; died on January 6, 1994), baritone; Matthew McQuater (born in 1924 in Washington, D.C.; died on November 6, 2002), second tenor; Billy Mitchell (died on December 19, 2002; group member, 1954-61), lead tenor, second tenor; Charlie White (born in 1930 in Washington, D.C.; group member 1953-54), vocals; Harold Winley (born on May, 13, 1933, in Washington, D.C.), bass.
Group formed in Washington, D.C., 1946; recorded first record for the Rainbow label, 1950; signed with Atlantic Records, where they stayed for the next seven years, 1951; appeared in two movies, Rhythm-and-Blues Revue and Harlem Jazz Festival, 1955; signed with Poplar label, 1958; signed with United Artists, 1959; returned to Atlantic for one single, 1961; original lineup disbanded, 1961.
Awards: Rhythm and Blues Foundation, Pioneer Award, 1988; induction, Vocal Group Hall of Fame, 2002; induction, United in Group Harmony (UGHA) Hall of Fame, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104, phone: (212) 707-2000, fax: (212) 405-5507; Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-4900, phone: (310) 474-4778, website: http://www.rhino.com.
“Fool, Fool, Fool” in his early repertoire and later recorded a faithful version of “Down in the Alley.” Buddy Holly cut a seductive version of “Ting-A-Ling” during his first Nashville sessions. Bobby Vee’s first hit was a white teen version of “Devil or Angel” in 1960 and crooner Bobby Vinton cemented his stardom with a lachrymose version of “Blue Velvet,” which went to the top of the charts in 1963.
The Clovers’ best records were always a little raunchy; that’s why 1950s-era teenagers—both white and black—loved them. Yet as a reaction to the heavy criticism leveled at rock ‘n’ roll, the group was allowed to return to their softer, more romantic style with such dream fare “Blue Velvet” (1955) and “Devil or Angel” (1956). Initially, the ploy worked. The old-timey “Love, Love, Love” (1956) became a substantial crossover success. Yet the softer their sound became, the less they stood out from competing groups. Subsequently, their chart momentum had sputtered to a halt by the time they left Atlantic in 1957.
After cutting an album of mild standards for Poplar Records, the Clovers signed on with United Artists. Several singles stiffed until they scored big with a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller Coasters sound-a-like ditty, the cartoonish “Love Potion No. 9,” which hit number 23 on both the pop and R&B charts in 1959. It proved to be their last taste of success. Just a few years later, the British group the Searchers recorded the definitive version, which went to number three in 1964. By then the Clovers were just another fading oldies act.
With 21 hit records to their credit, the Clovers were the most successful R&B group of the 1950s, yet their fall from grace was shockingly fast. They returned to Atlantic for the recording of one single before splitting into competing groups led by Bailey and Lucas. Bailey’s version of the Clovers recorded a few singles for the Winley label, while Lucas recorded as Tippie and the Clovers and Tippie and the Clovermen for Tiger and Stenton, During the late 1960s, Lucas reclaimed the Clovers name on singles issued by Port and Josie records. Since then, many different lineups of the Clovers (usually featuring only one original member) have toured as part of oldies revivals, though none have come close to matching the soulful style or winking bravado of the original lineup.
The Clovers, Atlantic, 1956; reissued, Collectables, 1998.
In Clover, Poplar, 1958.
Dance Party, Atlantic, 1959; reissued, Collectables, 1998.
Love Potion No. 9, United Artists, 1959.
Down in the Alley: The Best of the Clovers, Atlantic, 1991.
Very Best of the Clovers, Rhino, 1998.
Cotton, Lee, Shake Rattle & Roll—The Golden Age of American Rock’n Roll: 1952-1955, Popular Culture Ink, 1989.
Graff, Gary, Josh Freedon du Loc, and Jim McFarli, Musi-cHound R&B—The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998 .
Helander, Brock, The Rockin’ 50s—the People Who Made the Music, Schirmer Books, 1998.
Hildebrand, Lee, Stars of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, Billboard Books, 1994.
Tosches, Nick, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll—The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years before Elvis, revised edition, 1991.
Warner, Jay, The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups—A History: 1940-1990, Billboard Books, 1992.
Warner, Jay, Billboard’s American Rock ‘n’ Roll in Review, Schirmer Books, 1997.
Whitbum, Joel, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, seventh edition, Billboard Books, 2000.
“The Clovers,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (April 14, 2003).
“The Clovers,” History of Rock, http://www.history-of-rock.com/vocal_groups.htm (February 7, 2003.)
Additional information was obtained from the liner notes by Billy Vera to The Very Best of the Clovers, Rhino, 1998.
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