The most successful of the early 1950’s rock vocal groups and quite possibly the most successful rock artists, full stop, of the first half decade of the Fifties, yet in spite of their popularity they had such a unique style compared to the rest of the vocal groups of that era that their influence came more from peripheral elements of their work than their deliveries themselves.

The origins of the Clovers date back to 1946 when Harold Lucas put together a group in his Washington D.C. school with himself as lead tenor. Before long another tenor, Buddy Bailey, joined and was installed as lead with Lucas moving down to baritone. Over the next few years Matthew McQuater (tenor) and Harold Winley (bass) replaced two of the original members and through local record store owner Waxie Maxie Silverman they acquired a manager, Lew Krefetz who in late 1950 got them a session for tiny Rainbow Records in New York.

They’d been singing largely pop material but with a more prominent bass and their only release on Rainbow remains their only real evidence of this in their original formation, an uneasy mixture of the once popular but now out of date Ink Spots lead with backing that was more like The Ravens. Soon after the record was released they persuaded guitarist Bill Harris to join them and while he was rarely allowed to do much on record he was far more impressive on stage and he remained a vital part of their act until 1958.

With their single drawing no interest – and showing only faint rock compatibility – their recording career might’ve ended there but Silverman appealed to his friend Ahmet Ertegun, owner of Atlantic Records, who agreed to sign them but instigated a radical stylistic change, writing their first hit and getting them to sing in a far bluesier manner than they wanted.

Of all of the musical credit Ertegun has been given over the years, most of which was vastly overstated, his work with The Clovers would be enough to ensure him of some acclaim as the group’s new sound proved captivating to listeners as that first hit reached the top of the charts as well as introduced the tenor sax break to vocal group records, something unplanned going into the session but quickly added when Frank Culley who led the studio band insisted on being paid leader scale despite not being scheduled to play himself.

Over the next few years The Clovers could do no wrong, scoring 15 straight Top Ten hits and their sound was instantly identifiable: with uptempo songs far more prevalent The Clovers countered this trend by sticking to a much more languid pace with lyrics that were suggestive but focused more on creating a vivid story rather than shock value and featuring slinky sounding backing vocals that seemed to hint at menace. The distinctive vocal and musical arrangements by Jesse Stone ensured a consistency from one release to the next without ever falling into thinly veiled rip-offs of prior successes.

When lead singer Bailey was drafted they brought in Charlie White, formerly of The Dominoes and Checkers, and remarkably their sound remained the same and the hits continued unabated. White lasted only a few months before parting but their next replacement for that role, Billy Mitchell, who they knew from Washington D.C. and had sung with Joe Morris’s band, stayed for much longer as he too fit in perfectly with their sound which now was incorporating a few more faster paced songs. When Bailey was discharged in 1954 Mitchell remained in the group and the two alternated leads.

Ironically this was when The Clovers overwhelming popularity began to lag, in part because their material became less distinctive with weaker originals and the first pop standard since the flip-side of their initial release, as “Blue Velvet”, despite its quality only made it to #14 on the charts. They bounced back with four more big hits but by now rock ‘n’ roll was crossing over into the Pop listings and attracting far more white listeners than it ever had.

In a misguided attempt to appeal to that demographic Ertegun de-emphasized their signature style and their last hit with the label found them joined by a white female choir on a gimmicky uptempo song after which they were dismissed by both their core constituency as well as the white teens who’d ironically sought black rock ‘n’ roll out for its lurid qualities to begin with. The fact that Jesse Stone had left the company also shows with increasingly rote arrangements.

The Clovers best release in their last two years on Atlantic not surprisingly came from a re-worked version of one of their best songs recorded back in 1953, but inexplicably never released, but by 1957 it was far too suggestive to make any impact as The Clovers name no longer carried with it much credibility with the next generation of listeners. Soon after they were dropped from the label and first wound up on Poplar Records, a label started by their manager for a few releases before that got swallowed up by United Artists, a company once started by silent film legends which had since moved into music as well.

It was here they scored their most lasting hit when Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the hottest writer/producers in rock who’d taken much of their conceptual style from The Clovers circa 1951-1954, gave them “Love Potion #9” which just missed the Pop Top Twenty but has remained a rock standard ever since.

That proved impossible to follow up with anything as distinctive and by the early 1960’s they’d landed at the label owned by Harold Winley’s brother Paul – a successful songwriter in his own right – but they couldn’t revive their recording career here either and the group began to fracture.

One group featuring Mitchell and Lucas wound up briefly back at Atlantic while Bailey remained on Winley. The Lucas version of The Clovers got a new lead in Tippie Hubbard when Mitchell quit – and in fact they became known as Tippie And The Clovers who released the first version of Leiber & Stoller’s “Bossa Nova Baby” that Elvis Presley cut for a movie later. Eventually the two groups sort of merged with Lucas, Bailey and Winley reuniting without any success before going their separate ways again with Lucas the one who continued recruiting new members to join him in carrying on the group’s name.

The last time the five primary members (Bailey, Lucas, Winley, McQuater and Mitchell) saw each other and sang together was at a Rhythm & Blues Foundation show in 1988, ironic in that the foundation was conceived to help pay the living expenses of older artists who were ripped off by labels such as Atlantic.

Despite their unprecedented success while recording for a high profile label The Clovers’ reputations have suffered from enjoying their greatest popularity when rock’s audience was almost entirely black. Consequently their unparalleled feats get all but ignored from most historians who gear their writing towards the later white fans who came along after the mid-1950’s and tend to think of them as a one hit wonder for their sole United Artists smash.

But while that record made a fitting coda to their career as hitmakers, their true legacy runs much deeper and was made nearly a decade earlier when they reigned as rock’s most impressive and consistent stars.
THE CLOVERS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date on Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Rainbow 11122; November, 1950)
Not yet having developed their signature bluesy style the group tries melding The Ink Spots with a touch of The Ravens but neither Buddy Bailey on lead or Harold Winley’s bass have the breath control to handle their parts and it can’t help but sound out of date. (3)

(Rainbow 11122; November, 1950)
Another shallow attempt at pop singing by the future stars of the lascivious rock approach… not only is the song lightweight, but Buddy Bailey is singing too far out of his range and can’t pull it off enough to work to even pass muster in the pop field. (3)

(Atlantic 934; March, 1951)
The #1 hit that completely changed The Clovers musical direction, established them as stars and solidified the label as one of the most progressive in the field, this is as atmospheric as it gets with ominous vocals and haunting sax creating an indelible mood. ★ 10 ★

(Atlantic 934; March, 1951)
The style the group wanted to pursue all along, a sweet pop sound a decade out of date and while Buddy Bailey tries selling this earnestly, it’s not 1942 and they’re not a pop act and so its failure was inevitable as well as necessary for them to move forward. (2)

(Atlantic 944; August, 1951)
Another atmospheric gem wherein Buddy Bailey is dejected over a doomed romance yet his true feelings – hurt, self-scorn or anger – are never quite known yet all remain in play and with the others adding a slightly chilling vibe you are transfixed trying to guess which it is. ★ 10 ★

(Atlantic 944; August, 1951)
Another attempt by the group to establish themselves in a pop vein, this time with an original composition of their own creation, but while it is sung with a hint of emotion, the entire concept is alien to rock and thus remains irrelevant to their legacy as a transformative act. (3)

(Atlantic 963; February, 1952)
Arguably their best and most influential record in a career full of classics, this may have fallen just short of the top of the charts but it brings their artistry to new heights with a humorous plot expertly sung with a discreet arrangement that never steps wrong. ★ 10 ★

(Atlantic 963; February, 1952)
Seduction as a psychological high art wherein Buddy Bailey’s soulful lead subtly shifts the focus to lure a girl to bed while his fellow Clovers provide a hypnotic backdrop all of which is capped off by a mesmerizing backing track and sultry sax solo. (8)

(Atlantic 969; June, 1952)
Though this isn’t much of an actual song – no plot, no characterizations, weak lyrics with a so-so lead vocal – the atmosphere they create, largely through shifting vocal harmonies in the arrangement, allow this to transcend the composition itself to become their third #1 hit. (8)

(Atlantic 969; June, 1952)
With an intoxicating lead-in and a premise that seems destined for a novel, this is shaping up to be the best they’ve done before it abruptly ends the story midway through, making it more of a hallucinogenic dream that still sounds great but is a mystery without a payoff. (8)

(Atlantic 977; September, 1952)
Their first uptempo cut of note proves to be just as good as their slow-burn classics, somehow retaining much of the same atmospheric vibe thanks to Buddy Bailey’s sly lead while providing a much more danceable beat at the same time. (9)

(Atlantic 977; September, 1952)
Rather obvious as an outside contribution to their catalog, this retains many of the distinctive qualities they’ve come to perfect, but gives it a more mainstream – less unique – feel in the process… still good, but not quite as vital in spite of its hit (#3) status. (6)