McPhatter’s radiant, gospel-trained tenor exploded onto the R&B scene in the early Fifties on “Do Something for Me,” “Have Mercy Baby,” “The Bells” and other of the Dominoes’ dozen R&B hits. On “Have Mercy Baby,” which topped the R&B charts for ten weeks in 1952, McPhatter worked himself to the brink of tears. By recasting gospel’s fervid emotionality - a style known as “sanctified” singing - in a rhythm & blues setting, he presaged what would come to be known as soul music.
Chafing under Ward’s discipline, McPhatter left the Dominoes in 1953 and was quickly offered a recording contract and star billing with his own group by Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters cut a string of hugely popular R&B hits, including “Such a Night,” “Money Honey” (the biggest R&B hit of 1953), “Honey Love” and a timeless doo-wop version of “White Christmas.”
A stint in the army cut short his tenure with the Drifters, but he resumed his career as a solo artist upon his discharge, enjoying another successful run at Atlantic during the latter half of the Fifties. (The Drifters continued without him, recruiting a succession of lead singers.) In 1958, McPhatter scored the biggest hit of his career, “A Lover’s Question,” a doo-wop/R&B classic that captured his voice at a peak of ripeness. He had a dozen more R&B and pop hits during the later Fifties at Atlantic, including such highlights as “Treasure of Love” (his first Number One as a solo artist) and the sublime “Without Love (There Is Nothing).” His last Atlantic hit, “You Went Back On Your Word,” came late in 1959, at which point his contract expired.
While Clyde McPhatter’s groundbreaking contributions as a soul and R&B vocalist have gone generally undernoticed outside of music circles, his fervent voice and passionate delivery influenced such artists as Smokey Robinson, Ben E. King (one of his heirs in the Drifters), Aaron Neville and Jackie Wilson (his successor in the Dominoes).