One of the most overlooked of the 1950's acts that helped shape the coming Rock ‘n’ Roll explosion is The Clovers. Bill Lucas and friends--comprising of vocalists John "Buddy" Bailey, Matthew McQuater, Harold Winley, plus guitarist Bill Harris---would alter the entire R&B landscape. There were also delectable hints in their style of the Soul train that would eventually take flight.
Along with Ruth Brown, the Clovers helped keep the fledgling Atlantic Records afloat, at a time when its future was far from certain. The Clovers' formative period (1951-1954) anticipated profound changes in Rhythm and Blues, and it also incorporated Jazz and Blues elements into overall equation. It goes without saying that numerous vocal groups are forever in their debt.
The Clovers’ origins date back to 1948, when they were promising up-and-comers on the Washington DC club scene. Local music personality and part-time Atlantic scout "Waxie Maxie" Silverman recommended them to Ahmet Ertegun, who signed them up in 1951. Eertegun was determined to adapt their sound in a more blues-based direction, quite in line with what the label was trying to accomplish.
The Clovers meshed perfectly with this makeover and catapulted right out of the starting gate. Their debut "Don’t You Know I Love You" (written by A. Nugetre a.k.a Ahmet Ertegun) became a huge seller. It would establish the seductive pattern to follow: medium tempo rocker, backed by insistent guitar-bass-piano figure, and those rich, deep-bodied vocals. The use of sax breaks was also considered a radical departure, as Frank Culley’s inventive blowing wove its allure into their signature identity. Their maiden voyage would move an unheard of 300,000 units, but the follow-up "Fool Fool Fool" surpassed it by selling an astonishing 600,000 units.
A four-year run of hits ensued, including such classics as "Down In The Alley", "Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash", "Lovey Dovey", "One Mint Julep", "Middle Of The Night", "Miss Fannie", "Crawlin’", "Wonder Where My Baby’s Gone", "Nip Sip", and "Ting-A-Ling". Many out there will identify several above titles with artists who did eventual covers, such as Ray Charles with "One Mint Julep", Bobby Vee with "Lovey Dovey", and Huey Lewis with "Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash".
Often both sides of a Clover 45 tracked top 3 on the R&B charts, and that type of constant exposure dictated a non-stop touring schedule, with the guys often sharing bills with acts like Rosco Gordon, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Ruth Brown. At their 1954 peak, the Clovers were recognized as a top ten moneymaker by Billboard magazine and the Juke Box Operator’s Association-despite never having crossed over into the pop market. And it certainly didn’t hurt the cause that manager Lou Krefetz was given a national sales position with Atlantic.
When you factor in those sly lyrics, inventive harmonies, and access to fantastic tunesmiths like Rudy Toombs, Jesse Stone, and Ahmet Ertegun, plus brilliant instrumentation from luminaries like pianist Harry Van Walls and guitarist Bill Harris, it all seemed like an insurance policy designed to ensure endless popularity.
One particular high point occurred when they were featured at Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball, held May 1, 1954 which drew a sell out crowd of 10,000. It was a landmark occasion, made all the more important by 20 percent of the audience being white. Radio personalities, music business moguls, and promoters took copious notes. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Yet on the very cusp of the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Clovers’ hit-making days were starting to wind down. But not before several more gems unfolded, like "Devil Or Angel"--a jewel of a ballad that hit #3 R&B in Jan ’56 (teen idol Bobby Vee did a latter version for the bobbysox market). Another Bobby did another ballad, originally done in 1954 by the Clovers, specifically Mr. Vinton, who rode "Blue Velvet" to number 1 in 1962.
The Clovers first taste of true pop market success occurred with "Love Love Love", which broke into the top 40. By 1958, however, Atlantic began focusing their R&B division toward a more demonstrably pop direction, emphasizing the "new" Drifters and Bobby Darin, while relegating the Clovers to second fiddle status. That unique Clovers sound: sweet as a dream of seduction, nasty as an evil back-street breeze, was regarded as slightly salacious by censors seeking to sanitize Rock 'n' Roll for the masses.
They eventually switched over to United Artists and experienced their biggest Pop success in 1959--albeit their last taste of glory--when Leiber & Stoller’s "Love Potion #9" exploded into the top 20 pop charts. Predictably, the pattern of a white artist's version making the heaviest impact continued apace, with "Love Potion #9" providing the Searchers with one of the first major hits of the 1964 British invasion.
There’s an evocative song called, "I Love Beach Music" by the Embers, a tribute to the artists who paved the way for the Beach music scene that provides the enticing aural backdrop for countless recreational destinations stretching from the New Jersey shores down to the Carolina beaches. One of the first artists mentioned on this anthem is the Clovers.
It stands to reason. The entire Clovers’ repertoire has an enduring quality, with wonderful arrangements, enticing lyrics, and blues-based harmonies, and intoxicating vibes synonymous with sun, surf, romantic interludes, and swaying in the ocean breeze to the exotic rhythms of the shag.