DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Today, rock historian Ed Ward tells us about Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Billy Ward made a career out of covering white hits for the black market and along the way, had some original rhythm and blues hits and discovered two of the greatest voices of the era.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARBOR LIGHTS")
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: (Singing) I saw the harbor lights. They only told me we were parting. The same, oh, the harbor lights that once brought you to me. I've watched the harbor lights...
ED WARD, BYLINE: Billy Ward was born Robert Williams and showed musical talent from an early age. He was initially inclined toward classical music, which he composed as a teenager and also during his studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. But there wasn't much chance for a black composer then, and as he coached young vocalists, he and his friend Rose Marks decide that a vocal group that could go back and forth between pop and rhythm and blues might work. They held auditions and The Dominoes were born. Billy did the arrangements and played piano and organ and Rose did the business end. Soon, they signed with King Records' subsidiary Federal and did their first recording session on November, 14, 1950.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO SOMETHING FOR ME")
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: (Singing) No greater need - and it is true - than the need I have for you. So, baby, can't you see you must do something for me. Something for me. I'll never sleep...
WARD: Their lead singer was Clyde McPhatter who'd sneaked out of his gospel group to try his luck at amateur night at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater where Ward may have seen him. McPhatter was only 17 when he recorded "Do Something For Me," although he turned 18 the next day. But the group's first smash had a different lead vocalist, their bass singer Bill Brown.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIXTY MINUTE MAN")
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: (Singing) Sixty-minute man, sixty-minute man. Look a here girls, I'm telling you now, they call me loving Dan. I'll rock them, roll them all night long. I'm a sixty-minute man. If you don't believe I'm all I say, come up and take my hand. When I let you go, you'll cry, oh, yes, he's a sixty-minute man. There'll be 15 minutes of kissing...
WARD: "Sixty Minute Man" raced up the rhythm and blues charts and stayed there for a couple of months. It was also probably the first off-color black hit to sell two white teenagers, and it's worth noting loving Dan's reference to rocking and rolling. If Billy Ward is remembered for anything, it's his strict rules for The Dominoes - not only fines for the usual showing up late, messy clothes and so on, but there would be no smoking or drinking and each member of the group was required to drink a glass of warm milk before bedtime. As a result, the group changed personnel fairly regularly. So by the time of the next smash in 1952, there was at least one new member, not, however, the lead singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE MERCY BABY")
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: (Singing) Have mercy, mercy, baby. I know I've done you wrong. Have mercy, mercy, baby. I know I've done you wrong. Now my heart is full of sorrow, so take me back where I belong. I've been good for nothing. I've lied and cheated too. I've been good for nothing. I've lied and cheated too. But I reaped it all my darling, and I don't know what to do. So have mercy, mercy, baby.
WARD: Apparently, people thought the group was Clyde McPhatters' because after "Have Mercy Baby," the records were by Billy Ward and His Dominoes. McPhatters' last hit with the group was one of the weirdest records ever, and it's hard to imagine people listening to it over and over, but they did.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BELLS")
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: (Singing) There are four black horses with eyes of flaming red. There are roses tied in ribbons all around my baby's head. The bells are ringing and they say all go and see. Well, I know why they're ringing. They're ringing out for me.
WARD: But soon after "The Bells," Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun went to see Billy Ward and the Dominoes at Birdland and McPhatter wasn't there. Ertegun went backstage and asked Ward why? And Ward growled that he'd fired him. Ertegun lost no time taking a cab to Harlem, and soon McPhatter had another group, The Drifters, on Atlantic. His replacement, Jackie Wilson, was a teenager from Detroit who'd been an amateur boxer whose mother begged Ward to take him into the group to get him out of Detroit. With an almost entirely new group of Dominoes, Ward went back into the studio with the new lead singer and hit the top 10 right away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T KEEP A GOOD MAN DOWN")
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: (Singing) Oh, you can't keep a good man down. No, you can't keep a good man down. You can beat him, mistreat him, 'till he bawls (unintelligible). No, you can't keep a good man down.
WARD: It was at this point that Ward and Marks came up with the idea of covering white pop records, the first of which was their version of Tony Bennett's hit "Rags To Riches." In 1954, Ward decided King wasn't promoting him enough and unilaterally signed with Jubilee Records. King took him to court and got the group back, and their first record under the new contract was a weak sequel to "Sixty Minute Man" with new bass singer Cliff Givens called "Can't Do Sixty Anymore." Neither could The Dominoes, despite a flood of covers, pop songs and occasional novelties. In 1956, they signed with Decca and started spending more time in the lounge of the Sahara hotel in Las Vegas where Elvis went to a show and was knocked out by Jackie Wilson's vocal on "Don't Be Cruel." Early the next year, Billy Ward fired Jackie Wilson, who went back to Detroit where a young songwriter named Berry Gordy started writing him hits for his solo career. Ward took what work he could get, and with the group doing polite pop material, it was always there, as were labels to record The Dominoes, but nobody remained a Domino for long. They made their last records in 1965, and Billy Ward died in Los Angeles in 2002.
BIANCULLI: Rock historian Ed Ward played music from two-CD set "Billy Ward and His Dominoes: The Complete Federal/King Singles." On Monday's show, Dr. Theodora Ross, an oncologist and cancer geneticist, tells us about her own cancer diagnosis and the search to understand the source of her family's genetic predisposition to cancer. Her new book is "A Cancer in The Family." Also, Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust, the co-stars of the Netflix series, "Love," which Rust co-created with Judd Apatow. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.