Billy Ward (born Robert L. Williams, 19 September 1921, Savannah, Georgia—died 16 February 2002, Inglewood, California) grew up in Philadelphia, the second of three sons of Charles Williams and Cora Bates Williams, and was a child musical prodigy, winning an award for a piano composition at the age of 14. Following military service he studied music in Chicago, and at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. While working as a vocal coach and part-time arranger on Broadway, he met talent agent Rose Marks, who became his business and songwriting partner.
The pair set out to form a vocal group from the ranks of his students. The group was at first called the Ques, and comprised Clyde McPhatter (lead tenor), Charlie White (tenor), Joe Lamont (baritone), and Bill Brown (bass). Ward acted as their pianist and arranger. After the group made successful appearances on talent shows in the Apollo Theater and on the Arthur Godfrey show in 1950, Rene Hall recommended them to Ralph Bass of Federal Records, a subsidiary of King, where they were signed to a recording contract and renamed themselves the Dominoes. Their first single release, "Do Something For Me", with McPhatter’s lead vocal, reached the R&B charts in early 1951, climbing to #6.
After a less successful follow-up, the group released "Sixty Minute Man", on which Brown sang lead, and boasted of being able to satisfy his girls with fifteen minutes each of "kissin'" "teasin'" and "squeezin'", before "blowin'" his "top". It reached #1 on the R&B chart in May 1951 and stayed there for a 14 weeks. It was an important record in several respects—it crossed the boundaries between gospel singing and blues, its lyrics pushed the limits of what was deemed acceptable, and it appealed to many white as well as black listeners, peaking at #17 on the pop charts. In later years, it became a contender for the title of "the first rock and roll record".
The group toured widely, building up a reputation as one of the top R&B acts of the era, and an audience which crossed racial divides. However, Ward's strict disciplinarian approach, and failure to recompense the singers, caused internal problems. The name "The Dominoes" was owned by Ward and Marks, who had the power to hire and fire, and to pay the singers a salary. Clyde McPhatter was being paid barely enough to live on, and often found himself billed as "Clyde Ward" to fool fans into thinking he was Billy Ward's brother. White and Brown both left in 1951 to form The Checkers, and were replaced by James Van Loan and David McNeil (previously of The Larks).
In March 1952, the Dominoes were chosen to be the only vocal group at Alan Freed's "Moondog Coronation Ball". The hits continued, with "Have Mercy Baby" topping the R&B charts for 10 weeks in 1952. However, in early 1953, McPhatter also decided to leave, and soon formed a new group, The Drifters. His replacement in the Dominoes was Jackie Wilson, who had sung with the group on tour. Lamont and McNeil also left and were replaced by Milton Merle and Cliff Givens. With Wilson singing lead, singles such as "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down" continued to be successful.
In 1954, Ward moved the group to the Jubilee label and then to Decca, where they enjoyed a #27 pop hit with "St. Teresa of the Roses". However, the group were unable to follow that success in the charts, and there were a succession of personnel changes. They increasingly moved away from their R&B roots with appearances in Las Vegas and elsewhere. In late 1956, Wilson left for a solo career and was replaced by Gene Mumford of The Larks. The group then got a new contract with Liberty Records, and had a #13 pop hit with "Stardust". This proved to be their last major success, although various line-ups of the group continued recording and performing into the 1960s.
They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2006.
James Van Loan
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