The Dominoes! – IN THE GROOVE with Cindy Annis

By: Cindy Annis – April, 2017

The Dominoes group of the 1950’s was not the same group as Derek and the Dominos. They would come a little later in time. This group, The Dominos, were formed by Billy Ward and Rose Marks. This group helped get the careers of two of its members off and flying. But, let’s talk a bit about Ward and Marks.

Billy Ward’s birth name was Robert L. Williams. He was born September 19, 1921 in Savanah, Georgia. He died 81 years later in Inglewood, California. He had a couple of brothers, and was a little musical prodigy, winning awards for writing at a young age of 14. He was in the military and sang with the Coast Guard Artillery Choir. He studied music in Chicago, and in New York at Julliard’s. He also did some writing and arranging on Broadway, and that’s where he met Rose Marks, who quickly became his business and songwriter partner.

They wanted to start a group including some of the students Ward coached in vocals. They hoped to get into the new type of music called Doo-Wop. The original membership included Clyde McPhatter, lead tenor;Charlie White, tenor; Joe Lamont, baritone; and Bill Brown singing bass. Billy Ward would be their pianist and arranger. They sounded good together and after hitting it big at the Apollo Theater, and on the Arthur Godfrey show in 1950, they were mentioned to Ralph Bass of Federal Records. At that point, they were called The Ques. Once they signed with Federal Records, they changed their name to The Dominoes.

Clyde McPhatter sang lead for the group. Billy Ward saw him win a talent show at the Apollo Theatre and asked him to join his start-up group.
Clyde was born, Clyde Lensley McPhatter in Durham, North Carolina, on November 15, 1932. He died about 39 years later. He sang with The Mount Lebanon Singers before he joined The Dominoes. Later, of course, he would start his own group, The Drifters.

The group’s career was off! “Do Something for Me,” was the group’s first single with Clyde on lead vocals. The song did very well, charting the R&B Charts at #6 in 1951. Their next song didn’t fare so well, but they came right back with “Sixty Minute Man.” The words to this song really pushed the limits of what was allowed on the radio. Maybe that’s why it hit #1 on the R&B charts, or maybe it appealed to as many whites as black listeners. It was also one of the first “crossover” songs. It would later be discussed in the argument about the first rock & roll song!

The group toured all over the country and was being touted as one of the best R&B groups of the times. But not all shines in the music world. Ward’s tough discipline and crediting threw waves throughout the group. Most in the music world knew that if Ward wanted something done a certain way, you’d better do it. He would financially penalize a group member if they failed to comply with one thing or another. McPhatter said when the group was at its height and everybody knew their songs, he could sometimes not even afford a Coca-Cola. Ward paid them $100 dollars a week, which wasn’t that bad, but then he would charge them taxes, food, and hotel bills, not to mention those little fines for not toeing the line. Many times, Ward would say the lead sing was Clyde Ward. People were thinking that Ward was doing the singing, or that Clyde was Ward’s little brother, or something.

The shockwaves continued, and White and Brown quit the group. All this in 1951. They left and formed the group, “The Checkers.” David McNeil and James Van Loan came on board to replace them. The newly added to group would have more success in 1952 with “Have Mercy Baby.” This song stayed on top of the R&B for ten weeks. After that, the group’s name was changed to Billy Ward and His Dominoes. The last straw?!!

In 1953, Clyde McPhatter left the group, and all its fines and penalties to form his own group, “The Drifters.” His replacement was not unfamiliar to the group as Jackie Wilson sang with the group while they were on tour to help out.

Jackie Leroy “Jackie” Wilson Jr. was born on June 9th in 1934 in Detroit, Michigan. He died young at only 49 years old, in New Jersey. He was also known as “Mr. Excitement!”

McNeil and Lamont quit the group soon after that, but were quickly replaced by Cliff Givens, and Milton Merle. Jackie Wilson was singing lead, and there were still some good songs to put out! “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down,” was their next song. This one charted at #8 on the R&B Charts, but there wasn’t much after that. Ward would move the group to a couple of different record labels like Jubilee Records and then to Decca. They would have one last hoo-rah with R&B with “St. Therese of the Roses.

In 1957, Jackie Wilson would leave the group and in comes Gene Mumford, formerly of “The Larks.” They had a good hit with Liberty Records with Mumford at the helm. “Star Dust” was a #13 Pop Hit and it was one of the earliest sound overs, or multi track songs of the Rock Era. They did the recordings on March 7, 1957. The different tapes were then put together into one of the earliest stereo songs in rock and roll. The UK also liked it at the tune of #13 on the Pop Charts. Being their only million it was also their last big hit. Members would continue to come and go. They would do some touring and even more recording into the early 1960’s.

They had 12 Top 10 R&B Hits in the United States, and 4 Top 20 Pop Hits, as well. Their songs have been covered by countless other singers in other times. They were inducted into the “Vocal Groups Hall of Fame” in 2006. Their music will forever live in us as we continue to turn on that radio and drop that needle to listen to the best music ever recorded with a needle!!

Tune into Cindy’s Vinyl Vault, Sunday nights 100pm to midnight, Monday nights, 11pm to midnight, and Wednesday nights, 10pm to midnight for the best music from, the 50’s to the 70’s, ever put on vinyl. And remember folks, “it’s not how old it is, but, how great it sounds!”