One of rock’s greatest and most influential vocal groups featuring three acclaimed lead singers over their run who produced a dozen Top Ten hits between them.

Formed in 1950 by vocal coach and songwriter Billy Ward as The Ques at the suggestion of his manager, Rose Marks, a white woman who ran a talent agency and would be his credited co-writer on most of their hits. The lineup consisted of Clyde McPhatter (lead tenor), Charlie White (second tenor), Joe Lamont (baritone) and Bill Brown (bass), all migrating from gospel groups which would be crucial in how they adapted their approach to secular recordings. Ward initially conceived them as a pop-styled group but when they were signed to King Records’ subsidiary Federal under the auspices of producer Ralph Bass he insisted they cut rock ‘n’ roll and Ward responded to the challenge with entirely credible material.

As good as the songs were however, what set them apart was McPhatter who deviated from the written melody as the best gospel leads had done, adding an emotional component that was unprecedented in secular music to that point. The others were hardly innocuous however with Bill Brown getting the lead on some of their biggest hits including their smash “Sixty Minute Man” which despite an unambiguous sexual theme managed to cross over into the pop listings.

The next year Clyde’s lead on the monster hit “Have Mercy Baby” confirmed their stature as rock’s top vocal group but their relationship with the dictatorial Ward had become untenable. He ran the group like they were in a Catholic boarding school for girls, instituting fines for each offense ranging from wardrobe violations and missing curfew to merely speaking to outsiders.

The constant drilling did lead them to have one of the most dynamic stage shows in rock, but his discipline nearly led to mutiny on several occasions and made what should’ve been a stable situation into one that was in constant flux. Charlie White was the first to leave in late 1951, heading to The Checkers – a Dominoes imitator with some brief but notable success of their own – before landing with The Clovers, the one rock vocal group at the time who were just as popular as The Dominoes. Brown was next to leave a few months later, joining The Checkers with White and leading them on their biggest records.

Their replacements in The Dominoes were James Van Loan and David McNeil, the latter formerly of The Larks and the group were now billed as Billy Ward & His Dominoes, though Ward mostly did not appear on record other than on piano (he’d occasionally fill out their sound singing).

In the spring of 1953 McPhatter finally had enough. He was tired of being billed as Clyde Ward, supposedly Billy’s younger brother, and earning a small salary – no advances, no royalties, no pay for their sessions or their appearances – with money taken out to pay for their uniforms, as well as the litany of fines for each behavioral infraction. Within weeks McPhatter had formed The Drifters, a group that would leave just as big of a mark on rock history in its original incarnation as The Dominoes had.

But Ward was prepared for this defection having taken a young Jackie Wilson under his wing, teaching him to control that spectacular voice while McPhatter tutored him as well, essentially grooming his own replacement. With Wilson on lead the hits continued, but by now it was an entirely new group than the one who’d first made such a splash in the waning days of 1950.

Though much of their material was still firmly in the rock vein, Ward had been angling to get them into the pop realm for some time, seeking the higher paying bookings for classier nightclubs and the professional admiration he felt would go with those jobs. With Wilson on lead they’d release far more pop standards in an attempt to reach a white middle-aged audience. This naturally cut into his profits since he didn’t write them, but as he began booking them regularly in Las Vegas as a result of this he presumably made up for it on that end. By the mid-1950’s Ward was also inserting himself more and more into the records, singing lead on a number of songs, though none of his performances were hits.

Seeing the limits of their association with a pure rock label The Dominoes sought to break away from King/Federal and jumped to major label Decca who signed them as a pop group. Once again Ward got them off to a good start as the Wilson-led “St. Therese Of The Roses” nearly cracked the Top Ten on the Pop Charts, but that would be their only hit for the label. During that period Rose Marks passed away marking the end of what was truly an equitable partnership between a white behind the scenes figure and a black bandleader.

In early 1957 Wilson was fired after a dust-up with Ward and began his own massively successful solo career almost immediately. But The Dominoes were about to have their biggest pop hit themselves after leaving Decca for Liberty Records and bringing former Larks lead Eugene Mumford on board to replace Wilson. Their first release for the label, the enduring pop chestnut “Star Dust” went to #12 on the Pop Charts which was soon followed by a second Top Twenty hit “Deep Purple”.

Though well sung and arranged, they were now a pop act as Ward had always wanted, and their recording career now became secondary to their live appearances and with personnel coming and going The Dominoes were essentially Ward and whoever could take his strict rules. The group’s name though remained surprisingly potent even though it’s doubtful any of the venues or their patrons were familiar with the music that had launched them at the start of the 1950’s.

Ward kept some form of the group intact well into the 1960’s but he still was such a strict disciplinarian that he couldn’t retain quality singers for more than a few months – or weeks! – and by the end of the decade he was focused on preserving the group’s legacy. Ironically the later success of both Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson made The Dominoes something of a footnote in their careers, ensuring the group wouldn’t be forgotten even if the impact of their achievements began to fade in time. Both of those singers died far too young, McPhatter in 1972, Wilson in 1985 after being comatose for a decade.

Ward himself passed away in 2002 at 81. His brilliance as a writer and arranger as well as a vocal coach can’t be questioned, but his domineering personality and his misguided desire to transcend rock ‘n’ roll and excel in a field that had perpetually looked down on them undercut his legacy. The original Dominoes however, as well as much of their work with Wilson through about 1954, contain some of the biggest hits, greatest performances and most influential records of their era.

THE DOMINOES DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Federal 12001; December, 1950)
A startling debut which signals the sea-change in rock vocal performances as Clyde McPhatter deconstructs the song and rebuilds it in dynamic fashion, adding untold emotion in his melodic variations while the others add sublime support. (9)

(Federal 12001; December, 1950)
A totally different style performance with bass Bill Brown taking the lead on this racy sex-themed song that features tremendous instrumental and vocal layering behind him, proving right out of the gate that they weren’t confining themselves to one approach. (8)

(Federal 12010; January, 1950)
Brilliant and radical re-interpretation of a pop song that Clyde McPhatter injects untold emotional anguish into backed by a stark but dramatically effective arrangement until it scarcely seems like the same composition. (8)

(Federal 12010; January, 1951)
Despite the song’s brevity and lack of support the others are asked to supply, Clyde McPhatter renders those shortcomings virtually irrelevant with another emotional performance, his voice soaring at times to deliver the anguished conflict required. (7)