In the Spotlight: Billy Ward and His Dominoes

1957 Billy Ward and his Dominoes
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Billy Ward and his Dominoes were an R&B powerhouse who dominated the charts in the early '50s. They opened up the path to rock and roll with the controversial "Sixty Minute Man" and spun off both Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson. They formed in 1949  in Manhattan, New York. Their style can be described as 1950s R&BDoo-wop, or Pop Vocal.

Billy Ward and His Dominoes: The Early Years

Rarely has any vocal group been more closely identified with its leader. Not only did Ward, a Julliard-trained vocal coach, write, arrange, and produce the group, they were hand-picked from a pool of his finest students after his manager, Rose Ann Parks, suggested it would be a lucrative way to capitalize on the booming "rhythm and blues" emerging in the postwar period. Indeed, several dozen Dominoes came and went during the group's three-decade career, including powerhouse singers Clyde McPhatter (later of the Drifters) and Jackie Wilson, but Ward remained the only constant. Originally known as the Ques, the original Dominoes -- McPhatter, White, Lamont, and Brown -- were re-named after an earlier, biracial group Ward had founded, and after winning first place on CBS-TV's Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts with an elegant version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," King Records soon snapped them up.


Clyde's tenor was a wonder, endlessly flexible and gorgeous to behold, and it helped propel their first single, "Do Something for Me," into the R&B Top Ten. Hot on its heels, however, was a funny, sexy song that broke all the rules of acceptable radio fare -- "Sixty Minute Man," an original based on the African-American storyteller tradition of "Lovin' Dan" (a/k/a "Jim Dandy") and his naughty exploits. A raw yet effortlessly executed boast of sexual prowess featuring Bill Brown's potent bass lead, it was a phenomenon unto itself, rocketing straight to #1 R&B and staying there for three and a half months. Even more importantly, it reached the lower levels of the pop Top 20, scandalizing the industry and almost singlehandedly introducing white America to rhythm and blues.

Later Years

Several hits followed, most notably another tenacious R&B #1 called "Have Mercy Baby." When McPhatter left for the Drifters in 1953, it was assumed the Dominoes would fold, but Ward had already begun training a young boxer named Jackie Wilson to take his place. Ward's intense  micromanagement of Dominoes' members lives and finances -- both learned from his stint as a corporal in the Army -- led to quite a revolving door within the group, but Ward kept his name out front, and kept scoring hits, choosing to move to a more sophisticated "pop vocal" sound and record ballads in order to conquer the "white" market. It worked at first, scoring the group a hit with "Stardust," but rock soon took over the airwaves, relegating the group to nightclub mainstays in Vegas. Ward died in 2002.

Contributions to Music

  • Their 1951 megahit "Sixty Minute Man" paved the way for the emergence of rock and roll on white radio
  • Spawned legendary singers Clyde McPhatter (The Drifters) and Jackie Wilson
  • A mainstay on the early '50s R&B charts
  • The only vocal group to be invited to play Alan Freed's 1952 "Moondog Coronation Ball," widely considered the first "rock and roll" concert
  • Equally adept at raunchy R&B and pop sophistication
  • Charted hits for a full decade despite numerous personnel and label changes
  • One of the most popular live attractions of the era

Complete List of Members

Clyde McPhatter (born Clyde Lensley McPhatter, November 15, 1932, Durham, NC; died June 13, 1972, New York, NY): lead vocals (tenor) (1949-1953)
Jackie Wilson (born Jack Leroy Wilson, June 9, 1934, Detroit, MI; died January 21st, 1984 (Mount Holly, NJ): lead vocals (tenor) (1953-1957)
Billy Ward (born Robert L. Williams, September 19, 1921, Savannah, GA; died February 16, 2002, Inglewood, CA): piano
Charlie White (died 2005): vocals (second tenor) (1949-1951)
Joe Lamont (born William Joseph Lamont, died 1998): vocals (baritone) (1949-1953)
Bill Brown (died 2004): vocals (bass) (1949-1951)
James Van Loan (born 1922, New York, NY; died 1976): vocals (second tenor) (1951-1956)
David McNeil (born 1932, New York, NY; died 2005): vocals (bass) (1952-1953)
Johnny Oliver: lead vocals (tenor) (1952)
Milton Merle (Murrill): lead vocals (second tenor, baritone) (1953-1965)
Cliff Givens: vocals (bass) (1953-1958)
Prentice Moreland: lead vocals (tenor) (1955, 1957)
Milton Grayson: lead vocals (tenor) (1955-1958)
Rene Hall: guitar (1955)
Gene Mumford: lead vocals (tenor) (1957-1958)
Rob Robinson: vocals (second tenor) (1958)
Monroe Powell: lead vocals (tenor) (1958-1962)
Bruce Cloud: vocals (second tenor) (1960-1962)

Facts and Trivia

  • All four original Dominoes members came from New York gospel groups
  • Ward was the son of a preacher and choir director who'd also tried his luck as a boxer for a while
  • The group was formed and had its initial rehearsals in the famed "Brill Building," where Ward worked as a vocal coach
  • Billy often billed Clyde McPhatter as "Clyde Ward," Bill's faux brother
  • The group recorded for Jubilee, King, Federal, and Decca, sometimes simultaneously
  • The Dominoes, straining against the strict regulations of Ward, once disappeared for two full weeks after finding some hospitable female fans
  • Were such a potent and popular live act that Dinah Washington, among others, refused to follow them on stage
  • They were inducted ​into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2006​

Billy Ward and his Dominoes Hit Singles

#1 R&B hits:

  • "Sixty Minute Man" (1951)
  • "Have Mercy Baby" (1952)

Top 10 R&B hits:

  • "Do Something for Me" (1950)
  • "Weeping Willow Blues" (1951)
  • "That's What You're Doing to Me" (1952)
  • "I'd Be Satisfied" (1952)
  • "The Bells" (1953)
  • "Pedal Pushin' Papa" (1953)
  • "Don't Leave Me This Way" (1953)
  • "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" (1953)
  • "Rags to Riches" (1953)

Other notable recordings: "Stardust," "St. Therese Of The Roses," "Deep Purple," "Chicken Blues," "No! Says My Heart," "Harbor Lights," "Above Jacob's Ladder," "Cave Man," "The Handwriting on the Wall," "Ringing In a Brand New Year," "Christmas in Heaven," "Lonesome Road," "Love Me Now or Let Me Go," "Little Black Train," "Tenderly," "Tootsie Roll," "St. Louis Blues," "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," "A Little Lie," "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Little Things Mean a Lot," "I Really Don't Want to Know," "Don't Thank Me," "Lay It on the Line," "The Deacon Moves In" (with Little Esther), "Heart to Heart," "I Am With You," "These Foolish Things," "Love Love Love," "Deep Sea Blues," "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," "Give Me You," "One Moment with You," "No Room," "I'm Lonely," "I Can't Escape from You," "Where Now Little Heart," "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano," "Can't Do Sixty No More"

TV appearances: "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (1955), "The Big Record" (1957), "The Ed Sullivan Show" (1957)

Covered by: James Brown, ​​Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, The Blasters, The Trammps, Dale Hawkins, The Persuasions, Huey Lewis and the News, Little Milton, Restless Heart, Hardrock Gunter & Roberta Lee, Earl Gaines, The Jelly Roll Kings, The Embers, Daddy Cool, Etta Mae Morse, Dick Curless, The York Brothers, The Untouchables, Titus Turner, Charles Tyler, Rockapella, Buddy Lamp, Ed Bradley