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A Tribute to a Talented Trio

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"

 

For me, three singers in the opening years of the Sixties stood out head and shoulders from the crowd. They were Clyde McPhatter, original frontman of the legendary Drifters, Jimmy Jones, the owner of the amazing voice that distinguished the Sparks of Rhythm group before he went solo, and the genial gentleman Gene McDaniels. All three were exceptional talents and, not surprisingly, influenced a whole raft of vocalists that followed in their wake.

They were categorised variously as soul, doo-wop and R&B, but the labels didn’t really mean much to me, or my school friends for that matter. We just loved the music. Our view was ‘If it sounded good, it was good!’.

I have a distant memory of McPhatter during his tour of Britain in early 1960. He shared the bill with Bobby Darin, another of my favourite singers, and Duane Eddy, again someone I really liked. A friend’s father was a Darin fan and as a special treat for his son’s 15th birthday he took us to see the three greats when they appeared at a London venue. From what I recall, it was a great evening. I was enthralled. Darin oozed style and showmanship, while Eddy lived up to his reputation as a guitar master. Like my friend, I wanted to play the guitar like Duane. He was something of a hero to us. The twang really was the thang! But it was McPhatter who made the biggest impression that night and consequentially became a firm favourite with me after that.  

I bought McPhatter’s 1960 hit Ta Ta (Just Like A Baby) and then in 1962 purchased his unforgettable Lover Please. I treasured both records for many years. His work with the original Drifters in the Fifties elevated him to star status, but it was as a solo artist that I fondly remember him. At the same time in those early years of the decade, McPhatter’s former group The Drifters were turning out a raft of superb sounds. Save The Last Dance For Me, Please Stay, Sweets For My Sweet and Up On the Roof were particularly memorable. McPhatter would I think have been proud of their contribution to the Drifters legacy.

When McPhatter returned to Britain in 1967 on a short tour, he was warmly received and had moderate chart success, but it wasn’t like the glory days of the early Sixties. He chose to take up residency in London the following year, staying a couple of years before going back to the States, where he fell foul of drink problems and suffered disillusionment before his untimely death just months short of his 40th birthday. A fellow journalist who’d met McPhatter at a London recording studio when he lived in the city told me at the time that the singer was ‘charming and a real gentleman’ but he added that he could see in his eyes that he was sad about not being a leading contender anymore. That said, it didn’t diminish his considerable achievements in those early years of fame.

Turning to Gene McDaniels, he released A Hundred Pounds Of Clay in 1961, then later the terrific Tower Of Strength. Both were instantly recognisable. Cover versions were bigger hits in Britain than McDaniels’ originals. In support of good music, my schoolmates and I resolutely stuck to those originals — which we agreed were the best by far anyway. I might be being somewhat hard on the cover artists, but despite their best efforts they were always going to be runners-up in the class stakes. I remember the Tower Of Strength copy particularly well. British singer Frankie Vaughan had the big hit in the UK, adding to his fast-growing popularity. He officially opened a record store near the school I attended and a group of us descended on the event during our lunch break. His version of Tower Of Strength was playing over a loudspeaker. We applauded politely and even cheered him on, but the musical magic wasn’t quite the same. Still, he did shake our hands and treated us his characteristic high-kick for the newspaper cameras.

McDaniels appeared in the British movie It’s Trad ,Dad! in 1962. It was a black and white oddity, released in the States as Ring-A-Ding Rhythm. McDaniels is seen through a cloud of wispy smoke that curls from the cigarette he has in his hand during an atmospheric performance. The song was the soulful Another Tear Falls. At the time we thought that smoking was the height of sophistication. Of course, that was long before we began to realise how much damage smoking could do to ones health.

I was so taken with the film and watched it three times in quick succession. The artists appearing were as varied as American rockers Gene Vincent, Chubby Checker, Del Shannon and Gary U.S. Bonds , alongside a host of home-grown singers and jazz bands.

When I think of Jimmy Jones, it’s always with affection. His 1960 opus Handy Man was ground breaking. His highly distinctive falsetto was something we hadn’t heard on disc before in Britain. He was sensational, beguiling us with a faster, so-very-different version of the song performed by Jones’ old outfit Sparks of Rhythm in the Fifties. It sold a million copies in Britain alone,

Later that year,  Good Timin’ hit the top of the British charts, selling another million copies. He also toured Britain at the height of his fame and garnered a small, but avid, following among soul fans, which is not surprising. He brought a breath of fresh air to the music charts. He sang as if he really was having fun doing so. When I first played his records at home, my parents used to tease me by asking whom the female singer was, but I paid no heed and after a while they too warmed to him. I felt good about that.

 

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.

 

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