The Dominoes have a special place in R&B history: if they had
done nothing else, they would be remembered for the wonderful music they
produced. Additionally, they gave the world Clyde McPhatter (whom, along
with Bill Kenny, Jimmy Ricks, Sonny Til, and Frankie Lymon, I rank as
one of the 5 most influential R&B group leads). If that weren't
enough, they also gave us Jackie Wilson and used the amazing talents of
The Dominoes were the creation of a man who went by the name of "Billy Ward." Ward, who was born Robert Williams in Savannah, Georgia in September 1921, moved to Philadelphia as a child. He sang in his church choir and eventually became its organist (this isn't surprising, since his father was a preacher and his mother a choir singer). He was a musical prodigy as a child, and, when he was 14, he won an award from famed composer Walter Damrosch for a piano piece he had written, called "Dejection." In the army, he rose to the rank of Captain, and directed the Coast Artillery Choir at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Upon his discharge, he came to New York and attended the Julliard School of Music, also becoming a vocal coach and arranger by the late 1940s (the time that he changed his name to "Billy Ward," for unknown reasons). He met Rose Ann Marks, who had a Broadway advertising agency, and ended up working for her as a composer and pianist. She became his manager and encouraged him to form a vocal group. Ward liked the Mariners, an integrated group that appeared on Arthur Godfrey's show, and he decided to form his own mixed group. Since the singers were black and white, he called them the "Dominoes." However, they met with no success and disbanded in early 1950. Ward decided to try again, this time with an all-black group.
The next aggregation that Ward formed, probably out of some of his students, was called the Ques. They didn't last long; he disbanded them when he found how undisciplined singers could be. Later that year (around September 1950), he formed another Ques group: Clyde McPhatter (lead tenor), Charlie White (tenor), William Joseph Lamont (baritone), and Bill Brown (bass). All the singers had gospel backgrounds: Clyde and Charlie had come from the Mount Lebanon Singers; Joe and Bill were from the 5 International Gospel Singers of South Carolina (and Joe had previously been with the North Bound Jubilee Singers). Billy was the pianist and arranger for the group, as well as an occasional lead singer. This time his army command training took over and he became very strict with the members.
The group's initial victory, within weeks of their formation, was taking first place in the Apollo Theater amateur show. On the strength of this, they appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show in October 1950, winning with the current pop hit "Goodnight Irene." Rene Hall, a black arranger working as a talent scout for King Records, saw their triumph and told King owner Syd Nathan, who gave the Ques a contract. They also received a new name: the "Dominoes." Either someone felt that "Ques" was a strange name, or Ward liked the name he had previously chosen, or possibly they were named for Ward and Marks (as he was black and she was white).
Ward and Marks became partners in managing the Dominoes, writing songs for them, and in the Ward-Marks Music Publishing Company. Some of the songs that they wrote for the Dominoes are: "Do Something For Me," "Chicken Blues," "I Can't Escape From You," "Heart To Heart," "The Deacon Moves In," "No, Says My Heart," "Weeping Willow Blues," "Sixty Minute Man," "I Am With You," "That's What You're Doing To Me," "Have Mercy Baby," "I'd Be Satisfied," "The Bells," "Pedal Pushin' Papa," "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down," and "Can't Do Sixty No More."
On November 14, 1950, the Dominoes recorded their first sides for King's new Federal subsidiary (the masters all have an "F" prefix): Bill Brown led the rollicking "Chicken Blues," and Clyde fronted the plaintive ballads: "No! Says My Heart," "Do Something For Me," and "Weeping Willow Blues." When "Chicken Blues" and "Do Something For Me" were released in late December (as the first release on Federal), it was the first time record buying audiences heard Clyde McPhatter; the results would shake the R&B world.
"Do Something For Me" started slowly, but by early February had entered the R&B charts, eventually climbing to #6. The Dominoes were on their way! However, even before the song reached the charts, the Dominoes had gone back to the studio for two more sessions. On December 30, they recorded "Sixty Minute Man" (led by Bill Brown), and Clyde's "Harbor Lights."
On January 27, 1951, they did a split session with Little Esther, teaming with her on two songs (remember, that a year earlier, she had had a monster hit with "Double Crossin' Blues," backed by the Robins; could lightning strike twice?). "Heart To Heart" is pretty much a duet between Little Esther and Clyde, but not a great one: it's keyed for Esther's voice, and Clyde sounds uncomfortable with how low he has to sing. (The same thing would happen again in 1955, when Clyde was paired with Ruth Brown on a couple of duets.) Note that the intro to "Heart To Heart" would be recycled, a few months later, into "These Foolish Things." The other pairing, "The Deacon Moves In" is a wonderful repartee between Little Esther and Charlie White. The other two tunes recorded that day featured only the Dominoes: "That's What You're Doing To Me" (the first version, which may or may not have made it to any singles - see the note after the write-up of the January 1952 session) and "I Can't Escape From You," both led by Clyde.
Their January 1951 release, "No! Says My Heart"/"Harbor Lights," (issued prior to "Do Something For Me" becoming a hit), failed to chart, even though both sides are strong Clyde-led ballads. In February, Federal released "The Deacon Moves In," backed with a Little Esther solo ("Other Lips, Other Arms"), which also went nowhere. But it was just a matter of time, and only a little time.
In March, on the strength of "Do Something For Me," Federal released Bill Brown's "Sixty Minute Man" and Clyde's "I Can't Escape From You." "Sixty Minute Man" wasn't even double-entendre; it was just plain raunchy! Entering the R&B charts in May, it remained for 30 weeks, including a staggering 14 of them at #1. It was such a monster hit that it crossed over onto the Pop charts, peaking at #17.
The history of "Sixty Minute Man" was the subject of an article by George Moonoogian in the November 1991 "Record Collector's Monthly." On record, the subject seems to go back to 1937, when both Georgia White and the 4 Southerners recorded "Dan, The Back Door Man." A "back-door man" was the lover of a married woman; he'd high-tail it out the back door (or window!) as the lady's husband was coming in the front. However, Dan had a longer history than this. There was also Eddie Cantor's "Dapper Dan, The Ladies Man From Dixie Land," which goes back to 1921.
John A. Jackson, in his biography of Alan Freed ("Big Beat Heat," Schirmer Books, 1981), said:
It was no accident that the first true rhythm and blues record to "cross over" from the black charts to the white-dominated national pop charts was the Dominoes' sex-laden novelty "Sixty-Minute Man," in the summer of 1951. The song featured bassman Bill Brown's deep-throated boasting ... of his sexual prowess, of being able to satisfy his "girls" with fifteen minutes each of "kissin'," "teasin'," and "squeezin'," before his climactic fifteen minutes of "blowin'" his "top."
The song had other, far-reaching effects. Chip Deffaa, jazz critic
for the NY Post, wrote in his 1989 liner notes for a Ruth Brown album
(talking about her hit "5-10-15 Hours"):
Herb Abramson, who played an important role in guiding Miss Brown's career during that period, recalls that Rudy Toombs originally wrote the song as "5-10-15 Minutes": "He came in and sang, 'Give me five-ten-fifteen minutes of your love.' I said that 'minutes' wasn't enough in this era of the '60 Minute Man' -- we better make it 'fifteen hours of your love'."
Of course, the song engendered some cover versions. There were two Country & Western covers in 1951, one by Hardrock Gunter and Roberta Lee on Decca, and the other by the unlistenable York Brothers on King (they just didn't get what they were singing about). The R&B cover was by the Jive Bombers on Citation, from January 1952. Over the years, there'd be other, more or less competent versions: the Untouchables (1960), Rufus Thomas (1970), the Trammps (1972), Dick Curless (1972), Jimmy Ricks & Ravens III (recorded 1973; released 1993), Clarence Carter (1973), Jerry Lee Lewis (1974), and Earl Gaines (1999). The first time I ever heard the song was when it was released (as "Dancin' Dan") by the Cadets in 1956.
This was probably the time that Billy Ward's army background really surfaced. He instituted rules for this and rules for that; fines for this and fines for that. According to later bass David McNeil, you couldn't wear a moustache (a new rule; Bill Brown and Charlie White had had them), you couldn't talk to the members of the band, you couldn't even talk to the chauffeur! If you left your room at night it was a $50 fine; if you knew someone else did and you didn't report it, it was a $100 fine. They weren't allowed to stay at the same hotel as other singers (when they played the Apollo Theater, they had to stay in Greenwich Village, which was miles away; Clyde's family was in Harlem and he wasn't allowed to go up and see them). Ward even made each of them drink a warm glass of milk at night! The singers were on salary; there was no sharing of the profits. And he constantly drilled them in singing; at least that paid off: the Dominoes looked good and sounded good and their fans couldn't get enough. Once they hit it big, Ward started billing Clyde McPhatter as his younger brother, "Clyde Ward." At first Clyde was proud to say that he was Billy's brother, but as time went on, he rebelled. (This was still going on as late as March, 1953.)
A few days before "Sixty Minute Man" entered the charts, it was back into the studio, and, on May 24, 1951, the Dominoes recorded: "That's What You're Doing To Me" (Clyde, with Charlie on the bridge), "I Am With You" (Clyde and Bill), "Love Love Love" (Bill), "Don't Leave Me This Way" (Clyde), and the unreleased version of "These Foolish Things" (Clyde).
July saw Federal release two Dominoes' records. The first was "Heart To Heart" with a Little Esther solo ("Lookin' For A Man") on the flip. The other was pure Dominoes: "Weeping Willow Blues" and "I Am With You." The latter made it to #8 (R&B), but it took about four months to enter the charts in the first place. No further recordings were issued in 1951.
In September, the Dominoes received an achievement award, onstage at the Apollo Theater, from the Independent Press Service.
The first of numerous personnel changes occurred when Charlie White left the group, probably in September 1951. There was a blurb in the September 24 Billboard that proclaimed:
Lou Krefetz [manager of the Clovers] has signed Charlie White, lead [sic] of the Dominoes, to a personal management contract. White will join the Clovers and will also record as a single for Atlantic.
While Charlie would end up with the Clovers, that wouldn't happen for a while; first he'd take a detour to the Checkers), whom we'll meet in a few paragraphs.
Charlie's place in the Dominoes was taken by tenor/baritone James Van Loan, brother of Joe Van Loan, who at this time was taking over tenor lead chores from Maithe Marshall in the Ravens. There's an undated photo that shows Clyde, Joe, Bill, and James on stage, indicating that Charlie really was the first to leave.
Joe Lamont's son, Yusuf, told me this story: On October 5, the Dominoes began a week at the Paradise Theater in Detroit, along with Arnett Cobb, Lewis & Allen, and Dinah Washington. Dinah was the headliner and, as such, performed last. The Dominoes appeared immediately before her and, by the time they'd left the stage, they'd whipped the crowd into such a frenzy that they weren't terribly appreciative of a rather tame act like Dinah's. She was furious and demanded that promoters never again put her on after an act like the Dominoes. From then on there was no love lost between the two acts.
The next to go was the Dominoes' booking agency. In December, after only a year, Ward and Marks broke with Ben Bart's Universal Attractions, switching over to Moe and Tim Gale's Gale Agency. Also, at this time, their initial one-year contract with Federal was up, and they signed another one for 2½ years, with an option to renew. That option, as we'll see later, would get them in a lot of trouble.
The next trip to the recording studio took place on January 28, 1952. This time they did "Deep Sea Blues" (Clyde), "Have Mercy Baby" (Clyde), "Pedal Pushin' Papa" (unreleased version), and "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano" (Clyde).
The song that gives us some trouble is "Pedal Pushin' Papa"; the bass voice on it isn't Bill Brown's (although he is, without question, on "Have Mercy Baby"). David McNeil listened to it and felt that it sounded like Billy Ward himself (singing in the same manner as he taught Dave to sing it several months later). However, some of the words have sloppy pronunciation, and Dave contended that Ward would never do that. This voice remains a mystery. Worse than that, Dave said that (1) the song was written for him, and (2) when the second (released) version was recorded (on September 17) the group, including Clyde and Joe Lamont, were all learning the song. This means that if it really was recorded earlier, the group had completely forgotten the arrangement in only eight months (which is certainly possible if they'd never performed it). The good news is that the tune brought back our old friend Dan ("Just ask for Dan, the lovin' man/A pedal pushin' papa am I").
In February, Federal released "That's What You're Doing To Me" and "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano."
NOTE: "That's What You're Doing To Me" had been recorded twice (once on January 27, 1951 and then again on May 24, 1951), and it's the latter version that was meant to be released. However, there are a small number of singles in existence (both 45s and 78s) which have a completely different version of the song, one which also shows up on the King R&B Box Set (as an "alternate version"), with a recording date of "5/14/51." There's no way to tell if this is the version from the first session or if it really is an alternate take from the second. Considering that the arrangement is so totally different, the former is probable. Presumably, King shipped the wrong tape to one of its pressing plants, and a run was done before someone realized the difference. Most of the "defective" records were probably recovered and destroyed, but some have survived. (Thanks to Carl Tancredi for this info.)
Also in February, Bill Brown quit, not being able to take any more of the discipline in the Dominoes. Bill hooked up with Charlie White and James "Buddy" Brewer, a baritone who had been with Bill (and Joe Lamont) in the 5 International Gospel Singers of South Carolina prior to the formation of the Dominoes. While looking around for more talent, Charlie, Bill, and Buddy met a second tenor named Irwin "Teddy" Williams at someone's house in Harlem. Teddy, who was around 18 or 19, and his good friend John Carnegie (a couple of years younger) were both in a group called the "Checkers" (so named, coincidentally, because they loved the Dominoes). Since the membership of the Checkers was pretty fluid, there was plenty of room for Bill, Charlie, and Buddy. Hired by King Records, the Checkers would be around for a couple of years, with Bill Brown as its guiding force. Charlie sang lead on two Checkers sides: his bluesy voice can be heard on "Flame In My Heart" and "Love Wasn't There." In 1953, he finally did get to sing with the Clovers, leading "Good Lovin'," "I Confess," "Lovey Dovey," "I've Got My Eyes On You," and "Little Mama." When he left the Clovers, he became a soloist for Atlantic (backed by the Playboys, who were, in reality, the Cues) and finally had a couple of solo releases for the Winley label.
Bill's place in the Dominoes was originally taken by Raymond Johnson, who had been with the Beavers, the Blenders, and Maithe Marshall's Marshall Brothers (with whom he's heard doing "Just A Poor Boy In Love"). The Marshall Brothers were only together for three or four months, after which Ray was hired by Billy Ward. When I interviewed Ray in 1975, he told me that he was only with the Dominoes for a short time and wasn't on any recordings with them. The only session he could have been on was the one at which they recorded "Have Mercy Baby," and it's a good bet that he would have remembered that!
On On March 21st, the Dominoes had a singular honor. They were chosen to be one of three acts (and the only vocal group) at Alan Freed's "Moondog Coronation Ball," the first large-scale show he ever put on. The other acts were Paul Williams and his Orchestra, Tiny Grimes and his Rockin' Highlanders, Danny Cobb, and femme singer Varetta Dillard (plus everyone's favorite: "many others"). Williams was onstage playing for the sold-out crowd of about 9000, when an additional 6000 disappointed fans literally crashed the show (breaking down the doors of the Cleveland Arena). None of the other acts ever got to perform, but already Freed showed that he knew who to book.
Raymond Johnson was replaced, around May 1952, by David McNeil (who had been the bass of the Larks). At the time he was hired, Dave was singing with the remnants of the Larks: Gene Mumford, Thurman Ruth, and Orville Brooks. Billy Ward saw them on TV, and made him an offer. How could Dave refuse? "Sixty Minute Man" had only recently vacated the charts, and "That's What You're Doing To Me" was about to enter (it would rise to #7).
Dave was assigned to be Clyde's roommate, and trouble started immediately. Thurman Ruth (of the Larks) had been a good businessman, and had watched over the group's finances. Dave had picked up a lot from him. Now he asked Clyde about what kind of advances and royalties the Dominoes got; Clyde had no idea that they should be getting any of those things. Ward treated the members like sidemen. They received a small salary (out of which they had to pay for their uniforms), and the rest was held back and supposedly invested for them (although they never saw any of it). Dave was severely reprimanded for talking with Clyde about these verboten subjects.
The next Dominoes release was "Have Mercy Baby" and "Deep Sea Blues," in April 1952. "Mercy" was almost as big a hit as "Sixty Minute Man" had been, entering the charts in late May and staying for 20 weeks (10 of them at #1). This record signaled the end of "the Dominoes"; from now on, record labels would read "Billy Ward and His Dominoes."
On May 17/18, the Dominoes appeared at Alan Freed's "Moondog Maytime Ball" at the Cleveland Arena. Other acts on the bill were: Todd Rhodes and his Orchestra, H-Bomb Ferguson, Freddie Mitchell and his Orchestra, Little Jimmy Scott, Al "Fats" Thomas, Joan Shaw, the Kalvin Brothers, and Morris Lane and his Great Orchestra. Note that this was both a show and a dance, which explains why Freed had three bands. This time, there were three shows to handle the expected crowds, and the Dominoes got to perform.
At their next session, held on September 17, 1952, they recorded eight songs: "No Room" (led by Dominoes' valet and watchdog, Johnny Oliver, who was a protégé of Billy Ward), "I'd Be Satisfied" (Clyde), "The Bells" (Clyde and Billy, with Clyde laughing instead of crying in this tearjerker), "Pedal Pushin' Papa" (Dave McNeil), "I Ain't Gonna Cry For You" (Billy and Dave), "I'm Lonely" (Johnny Oliver), "Yours Forever" (Clyde), and "These Foolish Things" (Clyde and Billy). Note that while Billy Ward allowed Johnny Oliver to occasionally sing on recordings (other than the two he led, I have no idea which ones he sang on), he never sang at performances, except for leading the Dominoes' version of Arthur Godfrey's "Slow Poke." He's the same Johnny Oliver who had at least four singles on MGM, in 1954-56.
In October, this disclaimer was part of a Federal double ad for "I'm Lonely" (Popular) and "No Room" (Rhythm & Blues): "The Dominoes do not record under any other name and are under exclusive recording contract with Federal Records." The first part probably was meant to differentiate them from the Checkers. With Bill Brown in the lead, the Checkers could sound very much like the Dominoes. The following year, it would be further confused by the Checkers' use of Little David Baughan, a tenor whose voice sounded almost identical to Clyde's (he can be heard on "House With No Windows" and "I Promise You"). And, since both groups recorded for King/Federal, it's anybody's guess what the second part of the disclaimer means.
Things were getting out of hand with Billy Ward's discipline. Said Dave, "he tried to run his group like a squad in the army." While they weren't allowed to do anything during the day, Ward would sometimes let them go out at night (at 2 AM he'd tell them they could get a taxi and drive around whatever city they were in, but to be sure to be back by 5 AM). One night, in Los Angeles, after a show at the Club Oasis, they discovered some girls who had somehow sneaked up the fire escape of the hotel and were outside tapping on the window. At this point Clyde, Dave, and Van cracked and just walked out the door, past Johnny Oliver (who, they knew, would report them to Ward); they stayed away for about two weeks. Ward finally had them picked up by the police.
It wasn't the first time James Van Loan had gotten into trouble with Ward; he had run away in El Paso, and Ward had him arrested (for walking off with his uniform). On their next show (which was in Los Angeles), with Van in jail and Joe Lamont out sick, they picked up Grady Chapman (who had not yet joined the Robins) to sing lead. He was given Billy Ward's white uniform and Clyde was moved down to second tenor. I never realized this myself, but it seems that Grady was capable of sounding just like Clyde; Dave says that no one knew the difference (which infuriated Clyde, especially when Grady started signing autographs). Joe Lamont's place for the performance was taken by a relatively-unknown Jesse Belvin (whose "Dream Girl" duet with Marvin Phillips had yet to be released). This probably took place in September or October 1952.
After the September 17 session, Dave McNeil went into the army. (While there, he sang with a group called the Pyramids, which included Rudy West and Jesse Belvin). When he was discharged, he joined Charlie Fuqua's Ink Spots, staying with him until Charlie's death in 1971. Dave then took over Charlie's Ink Spots, which stayed together for several more years.
In October, "No Room" and "I'd Be Satisfied" were released. "I'd Be Satisfied" climbed to #8. A second October release was "I'm Lonely" and "Yours Forever," which failed to chart. The last record of the year was issued in December: "The Bells" and "Pedal Pushin' Papa." This one really took off, as a double-sided hit. "The Bells" entered the charts in January 1953, eventually peaking at #3, while "Pedal Pushin' Papa" entered in March, and climbed to #4.
Clyde was the next one to get sick of the way he was being treated, leaving around April of 1953. He always claimed he'd quit; Ward always maintained he was fired. Dave McNeil believed Clyde: Ward might try to keep the reins on his group, but he wouldn't fire the star who was bringing in all that money. Clyde, of course, went on to form the Drifters, and then had a successful solo career. Mention must be made of his enormous contribution to R&B music: literally hundreds of singers made him their idol and wanted to sound like him. It's actually amazing how many of them could come close: Little David Baughan (Harps and Checkers), Allen "Fat Man" Matthews (Hawks), Al Banks (Turbans), even Johnny Thunder (listen closely to "Loop De Loop").
Baritone Joe Lamont, the forgotten man in the Dominoes, seems to have left at the same time as Clyde. Considering that, with the prior session, Ward started featuring everybody's voice (including the valet!), it's surprising that Joe Lamont never got to sing lead. However, at shows, if Bill Brown wasn't feeling all that well, he and Joe would switch parts. Joe was capable of sounding a lot like Bill and for Bill, the baritone part was less demanding. I spoke with Yusuf Lamont, Joe's son, who shared some stories about his dad's days with the group. For example, Billy Ward would inspect their shoes and if one was more highly polished than the other, they both had to be re-done. One good thing about Ward was that he refused to let the group travel if they were exhausted. He was determined to avoid the automobile accidents that plagued other groups. Being the obsessive personality that he was, he went to great lengths to plan out their routes so that there was adequate rest between the legs of the trip. One of his mottos was: "You can't make money if you're dead."
Fortunately for Ward, he had Clyde's replacement waiting in the wings. Around September of 1952, Ward had been approached by Jackie "Sonny" Wilson, a former Golden Gloves fighter and possessor of a remarkable tenor voice: not the same as Clyde's but powerful and exciting also. Jackie had done a couple of tunes for Dizzy Gillespie's Dee Gee label in late 51 or early 52 ("Danny Boy" and "The Rainy Day Blues") and had been in a Detroit group called the 4 Falcons with some guys you may have heard of: Levi Stubbs (4 Tops), Lawson Smith (Royals, Midnighters), and Sonny Woods (Royals, Midnighters). But Jackie had bigger ambitions. Ward took him along on a Dominoes tour, so he learned the routines and was ready when Clyde left. (Just like Buck Ram worked Tony Williams' crude voice into something magnificent, Billy Ward must have made Jackie practice night and day; the Dee Gee cuts barely gave any indication at all of what Jackie was capable of. It pays to have a great vocal coach!)
Yusuf Lamont told me that his father said it was difficult to be in a studio with Jackie Wilson because he was basically a solo singer with a powerful voice that needed to be baffled. "Your ears would hurt after being around him in a studio." Whereas microphones were usually placed fairly close to the singers, in Jackie's case, it was located several feet away. None of this was a problem in live engagements, due to the acoustics of an open room. Billy had his work cut out for him teaching Jackie to do more with less.
The last Clyde-led release was in April 1953: "Don't Leave Me This Way" (an oldie recorded in 1951) and "These Foolish Things." In June it entered the charts, finally peaking at #5.
Thus, at their next session (June 27, 1953), James Van Loan was the only carryover. The new members were: lead tenor Jackie "Sonny" Wilson, second tenor Milton Murrill (who simplified the spelling to "Merle" professionally), and bass Cliff Givens (who had been in the Ink Spots, the Golden Gate Quartet, and the Melody Masters). This session produced "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down" (Jackie), "Where Now Little Heart" (probably Billy Ward), and "The Handwriting On The Wall" (Billy, the unreleased version). "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down" and "Where Now Little Heart" were released in June, with "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down" making it to #8. In spite of the personnel changes, they were still capable of making hits.
Another new "member," added in the summer of 1953, was chauffeur Ralph Hockster, an ex-GI, who had been working as a bellhop in a hotel in Detroit where the group was staying. Ward hired him on the spot, as the Dominoes' driver had quit a couple of days previously. While none of this sounds too exciting, Hockster was white, and Billy Ward was soundly criticized in the black community for it. He held his ground, however, and Hockster remained with them for a few years.
In August of 1953 the Dominoes (along with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope) performed for President Eisenhower in Denver. The group also performed at Alan Freed's "Second Annual Moondog Birthday Party" show.
Another big session was held on October 12, 1953. The following nine songs were recorded: "My Baby's 3-D" (Billy Ward, doing a tune based on the current 3-D movie craze), "Above Jacob's Ladder" (Jackie and Billy), "Cave Man" (Billy), "Rags To Riches" (Jackie), "The Handwriting On The Wall" (Billy), "Ringing In A Brand New Year" (probably Billy), "Christmas In Heaven" (Jackie), "Don't Thank Me" (Milton Merle, with Jackie joining him on the bridge), and "Lay It On The Line" (Billy).
In October, "Rags To Riches" and "Don't Thank Me" were released. This time, though, they weren't on Federal, but on the parent label, King. This is probably because the Dominoes' were covering the Tony Bennett Pop hit "Rags To Riches." While King had all kinds of music, Federal was known as a Rhythm 'n' Blues label. "Rags" made it to #2, which was good, but it was the last Dominoes record to chart for close to 4 years.
The next month, just in time for the holidays, another King release: "Ringing In A Brand New Year" and "Christmas In Heaven." Also in November, they began a disastrous tour with Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson, who'd been the welterweight and middleweight boxing champ, had retired from the ring to start a career as an entertainer. Since he was seen as one of the greatest boxers of the century at the time (if not the greatest [as Mohammed Ali called him]) and one of the most famous black personalities in the country, it was only natural that he'd get top billing. This didn't sit well with Billy Ward, and the two took to feuding (Robinson even refused to pose for photos with Ward). In January 1954, Ward would file charges to get out of his contract with Joe Glaser's booking agency, charging Glaser with mismanagement for allowing the Dominoes to receive "improper billing."
On December 3, 1953, there was a small session at which they recorded two Jackie-led ballads "Until The Real Thing Comes Along" and "One Moment With You." Federal released the former a couple of weeks later, backed with "My Baby's 3-D." On Christmas day, they once again appeared on an Alan Freed show, this time the "Holiday Ball" at the Akron Armory, with Little Walter and his Jukes and the Ralph Williams Orchestra.
In February 1954, it was reported that James Van Loan had "disappeared" after leaving a note saying that he was "sick and despondent." He actually seemed to have been putting down on paper how fed up he was with the Dominoes, before he went out on an errand. The rest of the story (another press agent's attempt at fiction) goes on to tell how the group searched frantically for him, believing that he was suicidal.
An article appearing in the February 5, 1954 Kansas City Call sounds like a press agent's ravings, but the photo that accompanied it seems to indicate that it's true: The Dominoes did a benefit performance at Denver's Englewood Arena for jazz trumpeter Billy Butterfield, who needed heart surgery. Then they played the exclusive Wolhurst Country Club, where their good deed so impressed William H. Teel, a Colorado oil millionaire, that he presented them with shares in one of his Texas oil wells. This was expected to give each of the Dominoes dividends of $100 per month for the next two years (not bad for 1954). Since there was a photo of Teel handing out the shares, I'll take it on faith that the story was true.
Another big session occurred on March 2, 1954. This time they recorded eight tunes: "Lonesome Road" (Cliff), "Love Me Now Or Let Me Go" (Jackie), "Little Black Train" (Billy), "Tenderly" (Jackie), "Tootsie Roll" (Billy), "St. Louis Blues" (Jackie), "I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town" (Jackie and Billy), and "A Little Lie" (Jackie).
Two records were released in April 1954, one on Federal (the R&B sides), and one on King (the ones management hoped would be crossover Pop). The Federal record was "Tootsie Roll"/"I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town" (this author's favorite Jackie Wilson song); the King offering was "Tenderly"/"A Little Lie." Neither charted. In May, there was a further Federal issue: "Handwriting On The Wall"/"One Moment With You." Also in May (on the 25th), they recorded a single song: the immensely popular Pop tune, "Three Coins In The Fountain." It was released, on King, in June, with "Lonesome Road" on the flip.
At a session on June 7, they recorded "Little Things Mean A Lot" (Jackie and Billy) and "I Really Don't Want To Know" (Billy), both of which were released, on King, that same month. Note how Billy Ward is attempting to make a Pop group out of them. This made good financial sense: there was a lot more money in playing Las Vegas and other "legitimate" venues than in schlepping around the "Chittlin' Circuit."
In the July 3, 1954 issue of Billboard, it was reported that Billy Ward was fighting with King Records. He wanted to get the Dominoes out of their contract, and thought that he had found the way. The contract expired on June 30, 1954 and King had forgotten to pick up the one-year option (remember that pesky old option from their December 1951 contract?).
But King wasn't to be foiled that easily. The contract was worded in such a way that the Dominoes still had to record 12 more sides for Federal before the relationship could be terminated. Therefore King had the Dominoes locked up until June of 1955, or however long it took them to record 12 sides.
In August 1954, Federal released "Above Jacob's Ladder"/"Little Black Train," which, unfortunately, chugged off into the sunset, without charting. In that same month they appeared in Alan Freed's "Moondog Jubilee Of Stars under the Stars" in Ebbet's Field (home, for a little while longer, of the Brooklyn Dodgers). Also on the bill were the Clovers, the Orioles, Fats Domino, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Count Basie's Orchestra, and Buddy Johnson's Ork.
Also in August, in defiance of the King contract, Ward signed what was characterized as a "long-term" contract with Jerry Blaine's Jubilee label. In September, the Dominoes recorded a session there. At least five sides were cut: "Gimme Gimme Gimme" (all), "Come To Me Baby" (Billy), "Sweethearts On Parade" (all), "Take Me Back To Heaven" (Jackie), and "Stop!...You're Sending Me" (Jackie). In October, Jubilee released the first two sides, amidst a big advertising campaign.
As it turned out, the group was forced to record 12 additional songs for King. They did these in 3 more sessions, the last of which was, conveniently, in June 1955. They never again recorded for Jubilee.
In November of 1954, James Van Loan walked out just prior to an engagement at New York's Basin Street. The official Dominoes' story was that he was distraught over the death of his mother. While this was undoubtedly true to some extent, he himself later said that he was "tired and fed up with the outfit." His place was taken, for a few weeks, by brother Joe, who was the soaring tenor of the Mercury Ravens, although he could also sing baritone. James Van Loan would later sing with the Ravens on Argo. Just like Joe Lamont, James Van Loan never got to sing lead with the Dominoes (at least on record). I played all the Dominoes' sides that could possibly have been led by James for David "Boots" Bowers, who was also a member of the Argo Ravens; he confirmed that none of the voices belonged to Van Loan.
In late November, it was announced that there were two new members. The first was lyric tenor Prentice Moreland and the other was arranger, conductor, and guitarist Rene Hall.
Prentice Moreland was only a permanent member of the group for a couple of months. He had been with the Du Droppers in New York (and, since Joe Van Loan had also been with them, it's possible that Joe suggested Prentice). The group of Jackie Wilson, Prentice Moreland, Milton Merle, and Cliff Givens did a single session for Federal on January 6, 1955. It produced "Can't Do Sixty No More" (Cliff), "Give Me You" (Jackie), "If I Never Get To Heaven" (Prentice), and "Bobby Sox Baby" (Jackie).
In spite of the Dominoes' ties to the Du Droppers, "Can't Do Sixty No More," a belated answer to "Sixty Minute Man," was not the same song as the tune of the same title that the Du Droppers had done a couple of years earlier. In this installment, Dan's dissolute life has caught up with him and he's completely worn out by all the years of amorous interludes ("Now I guess I'll take a rest/'cause I can't do sixty no more"). It was issued (with "If I Never Get To Heaven" on the flip) in February 1955.
In the January 29, 1955 Billboard, Milt Gabler announced that Decca had signed the Dominoes. Gabler was the head A&R man at Decca; he'd overseen Louis Jordan's sessions and would soon do the same for Bill Haley and the Comets. I'm not sure exactly what this meant, since the Dominoes wouldn't record for Decca for over a year. (Of course, at this point, they were still contractually tied to Federal.) While the January Decca announcement said that they'd be recording both Pop and R&B for the label, in March, Gabler announced that they'd been signed to a "straight pop recording contract," leaving it up to Billy Ward if they'd ever record R&B again. Interviewed at the Sahara Hotel (Las Vegas), Ward said that he wouldn't turn down future R&B material. He wanted his group to be big in the Pop field, and felt that Decca was a label that could give them a good push in that direction. Note that by this time, the papers had taken to calling the group the "Wardmen." Also in March, Ward and Marks let it be known that they were dropping Joe Glaser's Associated Booking Corporation at the end of April (when their contract expired). They'd been on the outs with Glaser for over a year (since that disastrous tour with Sugar Ray Robinson), and Ward had been claiming mismanagement.
About this time, Rose Marks and Billy Ward decided to take the group off the Chittlin' Circuit and concentrate on the big time. To this end the Dominoes were booked into the Sahara in Las Vegas for 16 weeks, beginning February 4, 1955 (they played from 6 PM to midnight, when Louis Prima came on). At the same time, the Platters were at the Moulin Rouge, newly-opened to cater to black audiences. (The Platters hadn't yet hit it big and didn't even have matching suits.) Keeping to a grueling schedule when they played Las Vegas, the Dominoes worked six days on and one day off. On the off day they drove to Los Angeles to unwind. The rest of the time was spent in their trailer, since Las Vegas was a segregated city then. The Dominoes' opening number was the Billy Ward-led "When You're Smiling." Ward would stand with the group when he sang lead on something, but would then retreat to his piano when others sang lead; it was from there that he ran the show and directed the group.
In the midst of this, Prentice Moreland quit and lyric baritone Milton Grayson was hired to replace him(probably in March 1955). Grayson had been waiting tables at the Savoy Ballroom, where he met Major Robinson, the gossip columnist for Jet magazine. Robinson introduced him to Billy Ward and Rose Marks. Mrs. Marks was very impressed with Milton and hired him.
From the beginning, the Dominoes had had two managers: Rose Marks had the money and Billy Ward had the contacts, so it worked out quite well. According to Milton Grayson, while Billy Ward was the flamboyant one in the foreground, Mrs. Marks was the one who guided the group and made the decisions; she was as strict as Ward about the rules. While Ward was the focus of the Dominoes' discontent, the members respected Rose Marks. However, in June 1955, she died of cancer. At some point after this (certainly by the end of 1956), Ward got a new personal manager, Harry Stein.
It was rumored (by a press agent, of course) that Billy Ward was left at least $150,000 by Rose Marks. However, it turned out that she died without having made a will and with total assets only around $5000.
Grayson (unfortunately there are now two "Miltons" in the group) was alternated with Jackie Wilson as lead, giving dramatic readings, such as "Over The Rainbow." The members now were Jackie Wilson, Milton Merle, Milton Grayson, and Cliff Givens.
Prentice Moreland was in and out of the group after that, never staying for any length of time. He had an unusually high voice and is best remembered (although unheralded) for the six words he said on the Cadets' "Stranded In The Jungle": "Great googa mooga, lemme outta here!" (Yes, he stayed on the West Coast and joined the Cadets too. Prentice sang with the Du Droppers, Dominoes, Cadets, Crescendos [Dootone], Colts, Fortunes, Chanteclairs, and Hollywood Flames, as well as having several solo records. Still, his greatest contribution was those six words.)
In April, Federal issued "Cave Man"/"Love Me Now Or Let Me Go." Then, the Dominoes were back in the studio (on the 18th) to record "That's How You Know You're Growing Old" (Jackie), "I Need Someone In My Arms" (Grayson), "How Long, How Long Blues" (Grayson), and "Take Me To The Altar" (all).
On June 23, 1955 the Dominoes did their last session for Federal, turning out "Learnin' The Blues" (Jackie), "May I Never Love Again" (Grayson), "Deed I Do" (Billy), and "Over The Rainbow" (Grayson). It had been a profitable five years for both Federal and Billy Ward.
In July, having patiently waited for the Dominoes' Federal contract to finally expire, Jubilee issued the second and last Dominoes record: "Take Me Back To Heaven"/ "Sweethearts On Parade." Also in July, King put out "Learnin' The Blues"/"May I Never Love Again."
King's September 1955 release was "Give Me You"/"Over The Rainbow." There were three more releases, all on Federal, that might as well be dealt with here: "Bobby Sox Baby"/"How Long, How Long Blues" (April 1956); "One Moment With You"/"St. Louis Blues" (July 1957 - probably to compete with the Dominoes' current smash of "Stardust"); and the oldies "Love, Love, Love"/"Have Mercy Baby" (September 1957). In January 1960, King re-issued "Sixty Minute Man," using an alternate take (F108-X), with a slightly different intro by Clyde.
Now that the Dominoes' King/Federal contract had expired (on June 30, 1955), Ward was ready to record for Decca, but for some reason that didn't take place for nearly a year.
Their first Decca session took place on April 18, 1956, when they recorded eight songs: "Will You Remember" (Jackie), "Come On, Snake, Let's Crawl" (Grayson; if the melody to this sounds familiar, it's simply that they recycled the tune from 1951's "The Deacon Moves In"), "Half A Love" (Billy), "Rock Plymouth Rock" (Billy), "'Til Kingdom Come" (Grayson), "St. Therese Of The Roses" (Jackie), "Evermore" (Jackie), and "Home Is Where You Hang Your Heart" (Billy). There must have been a break in the session, since the second four songs feature a full orchestra and the Dread Chorus that completely drowns out the Dominoes.
The first Decca single was released in June of 1956: "St. Therese Of The Roses"/"Home Is Where You Hang Your Heart." "St. Therese Of The Roses" made it to #13 on the Pop charts remaining for 15 weeks. It seemed like a great beginning. Decca followed it up with "Will You Remember"/"Come On Snake Let's Crawl" in October. When that failed to take off (as would all remaining Decca releases) it was followed by "Half A Love"/"Evermore" in December.
January 2, 1957 found them back in the studio to record eight more sides: "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance" (Grayson), "To Each His Own" (Milton Merle doing his best Jackie Wilson imitation, with Milton Grayson singing bass), "Oh, Lady Be Good" (Cliff), "When The Saints Go Marching In" (Grayson), "St. Louis Blues" (Jackie), "Am I Blue" (Cliff), "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (Jackie and Cliff), and "September Song" (Billy). Only "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance," "To Each His Own," "When The Saints Go Marching In" and "September Song" were released on singles (in August and December 1957). Note that each of these songs is a Pop standard (as were most of the ones done at the first session).
In early 1957, Jackie Wilson was fired after getting into a fight with Billy Ward. Wilson was a party animal, and you can imagine how much Billy Ward liked that! Ex-boxer Jackie "Sonny" Wilson went back to Detroit and hooked up with another ex-boxer, Berry Gordy, who wrote "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops" for him. He signed with Brunswick in the summer, producing a string of hits for them. (Milton Grayson said that Jackie was happy in the Dominoes and didn't particularly want to leave them, but his conduct was unacceptable to Ward.)
In the midst of this turmoil, Decca issued another record, in March 1957: "Rock Plymouth Rock"/"Til Kingdom Come." But with no chart hits for months, Ward switched companies again. I don't know how long their contract ran. It seems to have originally been signed in January 1955, which might have made it a two-year pact. Ward chose Liberty Records as the next home of the Dominoes.
Actually, Ward didn't even wait for the end of the Decca contract, signing with Liberty sometime in 1956 (even though there was the January 7, 1957 session with Decca). The Liberty contract was an interesting document. In return for not paying Ward a bonus for signing with them, Liberty gave him "reversion rights" to some of the material. Specifically, it seems that anything that was recorded after April 15, 1958 belonged to Ward, not Liberty. Unfortunately, there is either no existing session information at Liberty, or no one knows where it is (although some people I talked to there gave it a valiant effort). There's also a hint in the files that Ward did all the Liberty recordings on his own and then delivered them to Liberty (or possibly used their studios for the recordings, which he was then allowed to remove from the premises for mixing and editing, before returning the tapes to them). That might explain the lack of information in the Liberty files. (In a 1972 letter to United Artists, Billy Ward complained that Liberty files were "inaccurate and conflicting." In June 1968, United Artists and Liberty Records had merged. UA Records became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Liberty Records, which itself was a wholly-owned subsidiary of UA Pictures [and all now owned by Capitol Records]. Ward was trying to retrieve all the masters that he'd done for Liberty under the reversion agreement - anything that was recorded after April 15, 1958 belonged to Ward, not Liberty.)
Initially, Stanley Mitchell (of Detroit's Tornados) was recommended to Billy Ward as someone who both sounded like Clyde McPhatter and who had "legitimate" singing experience (having been with Lionel Hampton's Hamptones). Mitchell didn't last long, however, not being able to take Ward's rules. Then Prentice Moreland returned again. The group did a lot of rehearsing, but before they could make any appearances, Moreland was out and Gene Mumford, former lead of the Larks, was hired as the new lead singer. Milton Grayson said he "just seemed to appear." Joe Lamont called him "Singin' Mumford," and said that he was a great studio performer, but possibly due to nerves, wandered off pitch in concerts.
The Decca recordings were released slowly, so by the time Decca issued an album of their material (Billy Ward and the Dominoes) in November 1957, Gene Mumford's name appears in the liner notes, even though he isn't on any of the cuts! (Worse, Jackie Wilson's name is nowhere to be found in the notes.)
At this point, even though their biggest hit was ahead of them, the Dominoes had ceased to be an R&B group. Billy Ward wanted to have a respected black Pop group. He was about to get his wish.
The only Liberty session that can be dated is their first, which took place on March 7, 1957. At it, they cut four tunes: the old Hoagy Carmichael standard, "Stardust" (Gene), "Be Still, My Heart," "Lucinda" (Billy), and "Skid Row." Possibly this was the only session that was under Liberty's control.
Their first Liberty release, in April 1957, was "Stardust," backed with "Lucinda." Their style had changed radically, and "Stardust" was the hit that Billy had been hoping for. It peaked at #12 on the Pop charts, remaining for a respectable 24 weeks. This put them square into the big time: now the Dominoes spent six months a year in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Los Angeles. There were extensive Liberty recordings, but master numbers seem to have been assigned at pressing time, so they're meaningless. Also, most of the songs appear on albums, not singles, making it even harder to trace session data. Additionally, a lot was done after the master was initially recorded. For example, on May 21, 1957, three hours was spent in overdubbing (except that the sheet didn't bother to mention what was overdubbed).
Ward didn't go out of his way to publicize any of his personnel turnovers. I've heard a recording of a Jocko radio show, from June 10, 1957, on which he plays "Stardust" and credits it to Sonny Wilson and the Dominoes. Old friend Prentice Moreland returned for at least one session during this period, leading the Dominoes on "Alone In A Crowd" and "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," two unreleased Liberty cuts.
Around June 1957, Liberty released the "Sea Of Glass" album, containing religious and inspirational songs. This was an interesting album; many of the arrangements were unusual (to say the least). "Joshua" (led by Grayson) had an exciting arrangement, full of drums; somehow it manages to sound like a Hawaiian war chant. "Bye And Bye" (Billy and Gene) has kind of a Latin arrangement, and "Motherless Child" (Gene) is a cross between Middle Eastern and a cha cha. "Above Jacob's Ladder" is a re-recording of their Federal song, but Gene Mumford's voice doesn't have the power of Jackie Wilson's; even Billy Ward's preaching part is more restrained. George Moonoogian said of "Were You There?" (Cliff, with opening narration by Grayson), "this one makes 'The Bells' sound tame." He's right. Finally, "I Am The Resurrection" (Gene and Billy) begins and ends with thunder sound effects left over from "Were You There?"
That same month, Liberty announced that it had made Billy Ward a "talent director," responsible for scouting out new acts for the label. He would spend part of the year appearing with the Dominoes, and several months at Liberty's Hollywood headquarters.
Their next Liberty release, "Deep Purple" (Gene), backed with "Do It Again" (Billy), issued in August 1957, was also a hit, climbing to #20 on the Pop charts.
Although the Dominoes were gone, Decca was still releasing their records. They issued two more singles in 1957: "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance"/"To Each His Own" in August and "When The Saints Go Marching In"/"September Song" in December. These were, of course, released to capitalize on the success of "Stardust" and "Deep Purple."
As usual, there's a price to be paid for fame. Billy Ward had what he wanted: a black group that could make the pop charts and have prestigious Las Vegas bookings. But, because of the Dominoes' hits and drawing power, they were booked into a week-long show at the Apollo Theater (beginning October 10), which featured solid R&B and R&R singers: the Chantels, the 5 Satins, the Delroys, Little Joe Cook, and Charlie & Ray.
In October 1957, Liberty put out "My Proudest Possession" (Gene)/"Someone Greater Than I" (Grayson), and then "Sweeter As The Years Go By" (all)/"Solitude" (Gene) in February 1958. Neither charted. "Jennie Lee"/"Music Maestro Please," both led by Milton Merle, were released in April. "Jennie Lee" was the Dominoes' last chart hit, reaching #55. And then the upheavals started again.
Prior to joining the Dominoes, Gene Mumford had had a single recording for Whiz, a subsidiary of Old Town. "When You're Smiling"/"Please Give Me One More Chance." Now, with Gene's voice featured on two big hits, Old Town sued, in January 1958, to enjoin him from recording for anyone but Old Town. As usual in these kinds of things, they were settled out of court, so I don't know what the resolution was (other than that Mumford never again recorded for Old Town).
Milton Grayson left after an April 1958 session, also tired of the Dominoes. He first joined Keen records as a soloist (having at least four releases), became a vocalist for Duke Ellington from 1960 to 1964, and then went back to Las Vegas as a soloist. (Although he told me about the earlier involvement with Duke Ellington, Grayson also recorded with him in 1970 and 1985.) Grayson's replacement was second tenor Robbie Robinson, younger brother of singer Robin Robinson.
Robbie Robinson had been working with the Johnny Otis Show, when Johnny's main singer, Mel Williams, told him about the opening in the Dominoes caused by Milton Grayson leaving. Robbie auditioned for Billy Ward with "My Mother's Eyes" and Ward told him to "never sing over a whisper." Since they didn't need two second tenors, Milton Merle moved down to baritone.
Also in April, Gene Mumford left to pursue a solo career, first for Liberty and then for Columbia. Billy Ward sued Liberty, claiming that they enticed Mumford to leave the group.
The new first tenor for the Dominoes was Monroe Powell. Monroe hung around the famed Brill Building in Manhattan (the hub of the songwriting/recording industry in NY) after having gotten out of the service. There he met Johnny Oliver (remember him?) who told him that Billy Ward was looking for a tenor lead to replace Gene Mumford. Monroe quickly sent off a photo and a tape recording of his voice and about a week later he received a phone call from Ward, followed by an airline ticket to Reno, Nevada. (He was met at the airport by Robbie Robinson, who cautioned him not to say too much around Ward.) At the time that Monroe joined, the other members were: Billy Ward, Robbie Robinson, Milton Merle, Phil "Shoulders" Colbert (another baritone), and Cliff Givens. The mysterious Colbert, who was only with the group for a "hot minute," was fired after their Reno engagement at the Golden Hotel. According to Robbie, Ward felt that the group had too many members and someone had to go. Since Milton Merle had moved down, there was no need for two baritones.
At performances, Robbie sang the Gene Mumford leads (like "Stardust" and "Deep Purple") and Monroe Powell sang the operatic leads (like "O Sole Mio" and "Return To Sorrento"). "Shoulders" Colbert had a powerful baritone and did things like "Ebb Tide."
Robbie did some recording with the Dominoes for the "Pagan Love Songs" LP, but only in the background. He stayed through the spring of 1959, when he was replaced by Eddie Herring, from Dayton, Ohio. Herring, heard on only two sides, has a beautiful clear tenor voice, which sometimes verges on the soprano. He could easily be compared to the Ink Spots' Bill Kenny.
They kept on recording for Liberty, while Billy Ward worked up to the "Pagan Love Song" album, with confusing results. For example, Milton Grayson had sung lead on "Hawaiian Wedding Song," then, when the album came out (after he had left the group), he found that the voice on the song wasn't his! Actually, he couldn't recognize any of the voices on the whole album, other than Billy Ward's. (The album itself doesn't even mention the Dominoes; it's credited to "The Billy Ward Orchestra And Chorus.") According to Monroe, Billy made extensive use of the Jack Halloran Singers, a white Los Angeles studio group. They, and not the members of the Dominoes, are featured on most of the tunes heard on "Pagan Love Song." Fortunately, Monroe was able to pick out some voices on a few of the songs. Monroe himself is the Tony Williams-type lead on "Magic Island," Billy Ward does the talking part on "Bird Of Paradise," Milton Merle fronts "I'll Weave A Lei Of Stars For You," and Eddie Herring does a beautiful job on "Moonlight And Shadows." Otherwise, don't look for any familiar voices here! Actually, "Pagan Love Song" is a very pleasant pop concept album, as long as you don't expect Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, or Bill Brown.
In January 1959, it was announced that Billy Ward had formed Billy Ward Enterprises, with the stated purpose of producing music and managing artists. In July, when an article said that he was branching out into movie and other production work, Milton Merle was listed as vice president of the organization. This was probably a formalization of the independent production work that he'd been doing for several years.
The final Liberty single was released in February 1959: "Please Don't Say No" (Monroe)/"Behave Hula Girl" (led by a Jack Halloran singer). Most of the Dominoes' Liberty recordings were issued on three albums: "Yours Forever," "Sea Of Glass," and "Pagan Love Song" (see discography).
By that time, the Dominoes weren't working much, so Monroe Powell, Cliff Givens, and former Dominoes Robbie Robinson and Prentice Moreland joined with Beverly Harris (of the Harris Sisters) and Charles Gray to become "Charles Gray and the Hollywood Highlanders." They performed standards for several months, at which time Cliff Givens and Monroe Powell returned to the Dominoes. In September 1959, Robbie and Beverly Harris were recruited by Buck Ram to join the re-vamped Flairs group (now called the Flares).
In January of 1960, King re-issued "Sixty Minute Man" and "Have Mercy Baby," using alternate takes from the early 50s sessions. Given new master numbers, these tracks were overdubbed with the Dread Chorus.
Then, in the spring of 1960, another new label: ABC Paramount. The group was now: Billy Ward, Monroe Powell (tenor), Bruce Cloud (second tenor), and Milton Merle (tenor/baritone). Both Eddie Herring and Cliff Givens had departed, probably earlier in the year. There were 4 songs done at a single session, held on May 6: "The Gypsy" (Bruce), "You're Mine" (Merle), "You" (Monroe), and "The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise" (Monroe).
The first of two releases came out in June 1960: "The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise"/"You're Mine." When this didn't chart, ABC released "The Gypsy"/"You" in October. At this point, the group was just staggering on. In March of 1962, for some reason, Liberty dipped into its vaults and re-released "Stardust," backed with "Deep Purple."
Sometime in the early 60s, Ward did four additional tunes for Liberty at United Recording (although documentation isn't clear whether it's supposed to be the Dominoes or something else). The titles are: "Because," "Cucurucu Coo Paloma," "Kathleen," and "Japanese Girl." Orchestration was done by Ernie Freeman. They're included in the discography, on the chance that they're the Dominoes (or at least that there are some Dominoes voices on them).
In 1962, Bruce Cloud left to make it on his own, although it didn't work out for him. He had at least two singles on Era (1962 and 1963), two on Motif (ca. 1963), and an LP on Capitol (California Soul in 1969). Around 1970, he killed his wife and child, before committing suicide.
This left just a trio: Billy Ward, Monroe Powell, and Milton Merle, although Monroe didn't last much longer, leaving by the end of 1962. In 1970, Monroe would replace Sonny Turner in the Buck Ram Platters, with whom he appeared until 1994 (when he started his own Platters group). From this point on, the history of the group becomes nearly impenetrable.
However, Ward was determined to keep the Dominoes going. To that end, he placed an ad in several black newspapers in order to recruit singers. Al Anderson, former singer for the Fabians, read the ad in a Pittsburgh paper. It requested a picture and an audition tape, and that's what Al sent off. The Dominoes (whoever they were at that time) were off on a tour of the Far East, but one day Al got a telegram saying that they were returning; he was told to meet them in Bakersfield, California.
Al auditioned in person and Ward hired him as part of the Dominoes (Al couldn't remember the names of the others). By that time, Ward was occupied with all his wheelings and dealings, and Milton Merle was in charge of most of the rehearsals. The group practiced for a few months and were getting ready for a tour (there hadn't been any appearances up till then). It turned out, however, that Al had to return to Pittsburgh in order to get out of a contract. He spent three days on a bus, conducted his business, and returned with another three-day bus ride. But in that short space of time, Ward had found someone else and had left on the tour. Al waited around for a while and then went back east. In spite of the disappointment, Al stayed in touch with Billy Ward. Don't forget Al Anderson; we'll meet him again later.
In November 1962, there was a release on Ro-Zan, which was distributed by King, but a division of Billy Ward Enterprises (that's "Ro-Zan" as in "Rose Ann" Marks). These were old Liberty masters, mostly featuring the inevitable Jack Halloran Singers. Of the two released sides, "Man In The Stained Glass Window" was the whole group singing in unison, and "My Fair Weather Friend" was led by the long-departed Eddie Herring. The recordings on Liberty were so confused that Monroe couldn't even remember if his own voice was on the record (he did practice the songs with the group, which leads to the confusion).
In either late 1964 or early 1965, Milton Merle, a mainstay of the Dominoes for almost a dozen years finally left. While he could have shed a beacon on much of the later activity of the group, by the time I located him, in 2006, he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's and couldn't remember all that much.
In 1965, Billy Ward decided to re-form the Dominoes. As lead singer, he chose Lou Ragland. Here's what Lou remembered:
In 1965, I was a solo artist with my very own band, Lou Ragland and the Band Masters. We recorded for a local Cleveland, Ohio label, "Way Out Records," owned by Lester Johnson of the Hornets. My first recording [in 1962] was "Never Let Me Go"/"Party At Lester's." [Later on, football great Jim Brown, Walter Roberts, and several others became part owners of the label.]
In the summer of 1965, I was 23 years old and performing at the Music Box in Cleveland. One of the owners heard that Billy Ward was reorganizing the Dominoes and sent him my recording and photo. Billy Ward called me and sent me a train ticket to Los Angeles (because at that time I would not fly).
I arrived in Los Angeles on the very first day of the Watts riots [which would make it August 11, 1965] and moved into a small apartment right over a Fred Astaire dance studio. Billy Ward lived in a suite on the floor above.
"Mr. Ward," as he wanted all of us to call him, had the [instrumental] tracks for the songs already recorded and I was selected to sing lead. I told him about one of my band members, a second tenor named Benny Butcher, and he sent for him. The other two guys I did not know and don't remember their names. [The years hadn't mellowed Ward; Benny was fired, for tardiness, only two weeks after he'd started.]
It was just about one month after I got there that we started to go to the studio and over-dub voices. We recorded ["I'm Walking Behind You" and "This Love Of Mine"] at Mystic Sound studio in Hollywood. [Actually, these two were recorded in late August.] The other two songs ["What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" and "O Holy Night"] were done a couple of weeks later. Because I sounded so much like Gene Mumford, Billy Ward taught me the lead for "This Love Of Mine."
I was on salary. I left Billy Ward and the Dominoes after making the recordings because of friction over label credit. Billy was already taking most of my pay back for "expenses" (as he called it), but all I wanted was to have my name out front on the songs I sang: "Billy Ward and His Dominoes, featuring Lou Ragland," but he said no.
I was only in the Dominoes for about 4 months. [Actually, it must have been more like a month.] We did not perform anywhere. Billy Ward had us in the rehearsal and recording studio during all that time.
I was fortunate enough to have enough of my own cash with me to be able to leave California whenever I wanted. Billy told me that I could not leave, and if I did I would have to make it back to Cleveland on my own.
I told him it would not be a problem for me to do that, as I had $500.00 in cash in my pocket when I arrived. My pay from him was $400.00 per week, from which he took back room and board of $300.00 per week. This I didn't really mind; all I wanted was to be recognized for my voice on records.
I drove Billy Ward's new lady friend's car back to Sloan, Iowa and took a train home from there. After I was home for just 12 hours, Billy Ward flew in to talk to my mother. He asked her to persuade me to return to the group, but we had the same problem with the label credit. As far as I know the Dominoes ended then, but the records got released.
For the last twelve years [almost 20, as of 2008], I have been the lead singer for "The World Famous Ink Spots" (third generation, of course). Before that, I was the guitarist and baritone voice with "George Holmes' Ink Spots" for 8 years. [In the late 1970s, both Sonny Til and George Grant had been part of Holmes' unit.]
At this point, Al Anderson re-enters our story. Billy Ward sent for him in the summer of 1965. He joined up with them again in late August, possibly to replace the abovementioned Benny Butcher. By the time he got to Los Angeles, the "I'm Walking Behind You" session had already taken place, and Al started practicing "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" and "O Holy Night." At the session, Lou Ragland polished off "O Holy Night," but then, according to Al, he couldn't get
"What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" right. The session dragged on and on, and finally Ward asked Al to try it; he nailed it in two tries.
And then, fate stepped in again: after never having appeared with the Dominoes at all, Al got a call from his brother that their father was very ill back in West Virginia. That was the end of Al's tenure with the Dominoes.
The final releases by the Dominoes were once again on King. "I'm Walking Behind You" and "This Love Of Mine" came out in September 1965; "O Holy Night" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" were issued in October. While all leads were originally done by Lou Ragland (with assist from Billy Ward on "I'm Walking Behind You"), after Lou listened to all the sides, he concluded that, when Ward was sure that Lou wasn't coming back, he had someone else re-record the lead vocals to "I'm Walking Behind You" and "This Love Of Mine." Lou Ragland is thus heard only on "O Holy Night" and Al Anderson does "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve." Interestingly, the style on these was seven or eight years out of date (with "I'm Walking Behind You" harking back to the arrangement of 1954's "Above Jacob's Ladder").
Most of the Dominoes are gone now: Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, Gene Mumford, Bill Brown, Joe Lamont, Charlie White, David McNeil, Milton Grayson, and even Billy Ward himself (on February 16, 2002). Milton Merle died, aged 87 in January 2012.
As an R&B group, the Dominoes had few peers. Imagine a group that had both Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson as leads! Once Gene Mumford joined, however, the R&B days were buried for good. Billy Ward led them on into a new era, transcending their R&B roots. However, while Gene's voice on "Stardust" is beautiful, it can't even begin to compete with what he sounded like with the Larks (my opinion, of course). This is not meant to be a criticism of Gene; of course he sang what and how Billy Ward told him to. It's not even a criticism of Billy Ward; the group was obviously much more successful as a Pop group than they could ever hope to be as an R&B group. And as a Pop group, they had legions of new fans, becoming "legitimate" as Las Vegas performers.
Special thanks to Ferdie Gonzalez (for discographical information), George Moonoogian, Terry Shorr, and Cord Coslor.
The "Sixty Minute Man" drawing is by Bill Young, and was originally published in It Will Stand, Volume 3, #20 (1981). Used by permission of Chris Beachley.
The ads appeared in various volumes of First Pressings, and are used by permission of Galen Gart.