The Clovers, with Winley on the left, as the center of attention
Harold Winley interview
By Jason Gross
I've had this theory that one of the only styles of music that doesn't have a bad song is doo wop (maybe Western Swing and bop too). Of all of the groups from doo wop's hallowed heyday in the '50's, the one that particularly struck a chord with me were the Clovers. Sure, other Atlantic groups like the Drifters made beautiful music and the Coasters make raucous, hilarious songs but the ones that kept sticking with me and that I kept singing were such wonderful musical concoctions which managed to combine elegance and grit like "Fool, Fool, Fool," "Little Mama," "Devil Or Angel," "One Mint Julep," "Down in the Alley" and of course the one that any self-respecting oldies fan knows, "Love Potion Number Nine" (famously revived by the Searchers in 1964). I loved the songs so much that I sang them to kids who I was working with as a camp counselor and actually got quite a talking to when one of them sang "Fool Fool Fool" to his dad and named me as the source of it- I got over it as I felt glad that as least I taught the kid some culture (I also took pride in coaching the kids to act out the song "Bo Diddley" for a talent show, but that's another story). I'd long ago worn out multiple vinyl copies of Their Greatest Recordings- The Early Years and then proceed to lap up what I could from them on CD.
After hearing discouraging stories about all kinds of groups claiming the name of the wonderful old doo-wops combos but not having any of the members from the classic years, I heard about an interesting case last summer, involving the Clovers themselves. Jessica Gresko of AP reported on the case of bass singer Harold Winley, the last living member of the Clovers classic 50's line-up and a lawsuit that he settled with another group calling itself the Clovers. As she explains in the article:"Winley and another band mate, Harold Lucas, went on to perform with separate musical groups that called themselves The Clovers, and Harold Lucas' group eventually trademarked the name in the 1980s. Lucas died in 1994, but two of the men he trademarked the group's name with continue to use it when performing."Gresko went on to explain how the case was finally settled recently and fills you in on Winley's post-Clovers career and what led up to the case itself. I recommend that you read the article from AP to fill yourself in and hear about the intervening years when Winley hooked up as a singer for the later-day Ink Spots.
As a fan, I had to learn more about Winley, including all the details of the classic days of the group. After tracking him down, he kindly agreed to a pretty extensive interview to cover the whole period in detail, from the time that he joined them soon after they started up, until the time that they broke up in 1961- there were a series of reunions and revivals after that (including his brother Paul, who would later become part of hip hop history), part of which you can read about in the AP story. The reason was that our chat was extensive was because Winley is still blessed with a fine memory and eye for detail (which is lucky for all of us music fans) and is quite a raconteur to boot. He also had a particular way of emphasizing certain points (note all the bold items) and even breaking into a song now and then (trust me, he still has a fine voice). In between, he had some good stories about Atlantic Records, rivalries and friendships with other famous vocal groups, enviable encounters with Satchmo, Lady Day and Sir Duke and ugly run-in's with some racist lawmen among other things. As a side note, some of the discussion here ain't all grammar-perfect but that was purposely done to keep the original flavor of Winley's answers.
And so, we're proud to present the story and early history of the band (who need to be nominated to the Hall of Fame soon) from the last group member who was there for all of the great hits and a guy that Greil Marcus once called 'the most lugubrious bassman in history.'
PSF: Before your own musical career, what artists did you admire when you were growing up?
HW: I listened to the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, The Delta Rhythm Boys. All of the big bands back there. I'm going back into the '40's. Basie, Buddy Johnson, Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver, Charlie Barnett, Woody Herman. When I was growing up, all of the music was playing on all stations. We didn't have stuff like we do now. I could hear Charlie Barnett on a Black blues station, playing "Cherokee" or "Red Skin Rumba" or something like that. Most of the groups and a lot of the gospel groups back then I also listened to. The Deep River Boys... We had the Charioteers, we had the Five Blind Boys, the Dixie Hummingbirds, which is an institutional group. The Harmonizing Four, from Richmond. We just listened to everything then. We didn't have our music as compartmentalized as it is today.
PSF: What was the music scene like in D.C. when you were young?
HW: Our main source of entertainment as a child was the Howard Theater, which they recently restored about two years ago. I was fortunate enough to go up there for that. They had a couple of clubs around DC- Club Ballet, that's the most notable one I can remember right now because Billie Holliday worked there. During the summer, when they had artists there, they would open the door right at the stage- there wasn't a whole lot of air conditioning going on then. We'd go all the way up there to 14th Street and stand out there and hear her. And we could actually see her on stage.
PSF: How did you get involved in singing?
HW: I actually started singing when I was a kid. My mother sang around the house- she had a beautiful soprano voice. But I just floated into it, man. In school, I always tell this story... I blew my first gig in school because I was supposed to sing a song at assembly and on the way there... this is an old school that we had actually had to stand on the steps going down to the main floor. We didn't have an auditorium in this school, called Morse School. And our class was almost at the bottom of the steps, and I don't even remember who the boy was, but on the way down the steps we just started messing with each other, hitting each other or tussling. And the teacher, Mrs. Smith, said 'Harold Winley, you are not singing today.' (laughs) And whoa, he blew my song! And I remember the song very well. (singing in a child's rhyme) 'Little Polly Flanders, set among the senders, warming her pretty little toes. Her mother came and caught her and whipped her little daughter for spoiling her nice new clothes.' And there was a dress line that came out for little girls that used that name. That was a hit.
Then I had my older brother David who sang. Let me say this to you. You might walk down the street and hear a young man rapping. Well during those people, guys would be walking down the street, singing like Billy Eckstein or Bill Kenny or Bing Crosby. So we had the same type of thing but just different material with us. There's no way in the world that we could come down the streets singing what they do today! (laughs)
But all those types of things were influencing me. So there would be some big guys who would be saying that they could sing better than the others or sounded more like Eckstein or Sinatra. I remember Perry Como being on the scene that early and Arthur Prysock who was showing up in Buddy Johnson's band. And there was Sonny Parker, who was a blues singer in Lionel Hampton's band. Al Hibber, blind singer from Little Rock, Arkansas who was with Duke Ellington. And he would sing "Danny Boy" and it was like 'oh my goodness.' He had quite an unusual voice.
PSF: Were you in any groups before you joined the Clovers?
HW: I sang in an ensemble group. It was about eight or nine voices in that group. And the only other group that I sang in... for a period, I lived in North Carolina, I had a little gospel group and we tried to sing but my cousin said we had no harmony. But we would work our way into some church on Sunday evening and they'd let us sing. (laughs) We were just little boys and they'd let us sing. But I had a cousin who was a pianist and heard us sing and said 'y'all don't got no harmony!' (laughs)
PSF: How did you first join the Clovers?
HW: I heard them on an Amateur Show. There was a department store in Washington D.C. called Morton's and they're still around and they had one store, downtown 2nd street and they had this show on Sunday called the Morton Amateur Hour. It was hosted by one of the top DJ's in Washington at the time and his name was Jackson Lowe. At 10 o'clock Sunday morning, that was it.
I was actually working in a grocery store that would open half a day on Sundays and I would always turn that program on. We had a little radio and it's not like today's thing, you know? But I would see who was on (the show) and if you went on one Sunday and won, they'd let you come back next Sunday and sing another song. This process went on for thirteen weeks and then they'd have a final.
But one Sunday morning, I heard this group man... They started singing and I didn't pay no attention to the introduction so I didn't know who it was but they started singing "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." And that's an old tune but it was done up in tempo. I'd never heard it done like that before- it was an old Vaudeville tune. (sings fast) 'Yes sir! That's my baby Yes sir...' But I heard this beautiful harmony and this group singing this song, man and I said 'Whoa!' And I said 'I'm going down there.' And the guy at work said 'You're doing what?' I said 'I'm going down there! I'm going on THAT show 'cause I got to meet these men.'
And I did go down there the next week and I sang Frankie Lane's "Lucky Old Sun," it was one of his earlier hits. It was a very big record. So I ran down to the music store and I got the (sheet) music and went down there and presented it to the man and they let me sing. And the Clovers went back to the show to do another song and that's how I met them. And I said 'when do you rehearse,' and they said 'well, there's nothing definite... where do you live?' And they lived around LeDroit Park and I was around that area too- that's where Howard University is. And I was very familiar with that- the stadium where the Washington Senators used to play was there.
There was a group at the time called the Ravens. The Ravens were just the opposite of the Ink Spots. The Ink Spots had a soaring high tenor, Bill Kenny sang lead. And the Ravens lead singer was a bass singer. And they sang contemporary stuff- the only thing you might be familiar with that was like them was the Manhattan Transfer or the Four Freshman. They did stuff like that. And the Delta Rhythm Boys had already done that, 'cause their main man in that group was a bass singer. And I came to later find out that the bass singer in the Ravens was Jimmy Ricks and he became my idol.
But I asked them (the Clovers), 'do you know 'Ol' Man River'?' and I said 'Ravens style' and I sang it as a bass solo. And they said 'wow.' So then Harold Lucas, who had formed the group, was talking to me about rehearsing. So the next night, it was raining like I don't know what. I asked the gentleman I was working for to drove me off at 7th and Georgia Avenue. He said 'where are you going?' I said 'I gotta meet these man, they gonna sing tonight!' (laughs)
So the headquarters was a pool room, called the Diversion. So I sat around there and I asked one of the men in the pool room, did they know the guys and they said 'oh yeah, they come in every now and then.' I must have been sitting around there for an hour and eventually Lucas did come in through there. He said 'what are you doing here?' I said 'I thought y'all were rehearsing tonight.' And man, he fell down on the floor laughing. He said 'You got to be kidding' and I said, 'No man, I wanted to y'all rehearse and sing some more.'
So to make a long story short, they had a very good group- Harold Lucas, Billy Shelton and Tommy Woods was their bass singer and Buddy Bailey was the main lead. I just kept showing up. When I got out of work and I had a job and I worked every day and I had me a little room that I paid four dollars a week for and I'd go right up to Georgia Avenue every night. And I'd hang out there and we started hooking up. They'd sing in the neighborhood and during the day, we would meet and fool around school. Tommy Woods wouldn't do these type of things because he had a job and his girlfriend wanted him to keep that job. (laughs) So she wasn't too particular about him doing what we were doing. That was the way that I got in there- I just kept showing up. And eventually... I didn't have a job 'cause we were singing in places, clubs, after hours clubs and we finally dropped anchor, as they say, in a place called the Old Rose. This was an after-hour joint from the '20's that was still operating at the time. And it was in close proximity to the Howard Theater so the performers from there would come there when they finished their work at night.
And incidentally, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Louis Armstrong there when I was finished. But Louis had just came through, the place wasn't even open. He said 'I just wanted to look at the place.' He'd been in there many years ago and he and Lucille (Armstrong) came in, they sat down and had a soft drink. I introduced myself to him and I was cursing 'cause the group wasn't there. The group couldn't sing for him.
We met a lot of performers there that... One in particular, Wynonie Harris was a blues singer. Whenever he would come in through there, during a short period of time, we met him a couple of times. Earl Bostic was there too. Lionel Hampton and his band would come in for after-hours drinking and so forth- we would sit down and sing for him. And there was a doctor from Howard University that used to come up with his wife and we'd sit down at the table with them and just sing and they would give us money. But some nights, we didn't make a dime. And then we became the hosts in the club- we became the janitors, the hat check person and everything else there. And we stayed there for about a year. And we were in close proximity to a big record store called Quality Music. This is where we met Ahmet Ertegun. We first met Eddie Heller (owner of Rainbow Records, their first label)- he was the man that recorded the song that I loved to this day, "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." That was the first record that we cut on the Rainbow label, backed by a song called "When You Come Back To Me." We met Eddie during this period. We ran up to New York and cut the song. It wasn't six months later that we met Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson from Atlantic Records through a mutual friend that knew this record salesman that used to play this card game like gin and they used to play that game together in the record store in the back. And he said 'Maybe I'll introduce you to this man,' so he introduced us to Lou Krefetz and he was a record salesman. He knew people and he sold National, that was the label that the Ravens were on and he also sold the label that Billy Eckstein was on, MGM, at that time. He came along... We met him and a couple of times we sang for him. We were rehearsing and I'll never forget he fell in love with the song "Peg of My Heart." He knew all those old songs but they were still being sung, performed if you will, during that period. We were rehearsing and so forth and he said 'I got somebody I want you guys to meet and I want you to be at the store at such-and-such a time.' So Max had a devilish look on his face when we walked in the store and he said 'Alright, y'all go in the back.' And we all went in the back. He brought us two men back there and that was Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson from Atlantic Records.
I skipped over a period where... The type of music we were singing at that time was standards.
PSF: Which songs do you mean?
HW: Any of the standard songs that you hear out there that the old bands played. Those are standard songs and they still be doing (them). "Ol' Black Magic," "Pennies From Heaven," any of the old show tunes. That's the kind of music that we did. Most of the little groups that were around were doing standard songs. We have an album... I'm gonna jump around for a minute, called The Clovers in Clover. It's out of print but this is exactly the type of music that we were doing when we met Ahmet Ertegun. That's what we were singing- "What Is This Thing Called Love" and these type of things and doing them... with the knowledge that we had a jazzy version, scatting like Ella (Fitzgerald) might do or something like that. And they listened. But we had a guitar player with us now. Buddy Bailey was playing the guitar before. But we now had a trained musician named Bill Harris with us when we met Ahmet Ertegun.
PSF: How did it make a difference with having a guitarist in the band?
HW: It made a difference because of Bill Harris. He was a teacher. He was the first person to have a Fender guitar on the East coast and he's also a classical guitar player and he was studying and teaching with one of Andres Segovia's closest friends, Sophocles Papas. He was a classical guitar and he scared me to death when I saw his fingers flying all over the guitar. I hear a bass line and all this other stuff going on up under it and I said 'what is this?'
But nevertheless, he was with us and he had started coaching (us) on singing the RIGHT... CHORD... CHANGES.... You know, when they say 'doo wop groups,' when they use that term, that is usually applied to... most of those guys who they put in that class were groups that sang what they heard, which didn't necessarily have to be the right chord change in that music. But they sang what they heard. And we were singing a lot of changes that weren't necessarily correct. And that's one thing that Bill Harris did with us. We met him and invited him into our group so he said OK. And we went to his house to rehearse and we sang everything that we had in our repertoire and he just sat there and looked at us. And when we finished, we got down to the song "That Ol' Black Magic" and we sang that and he said 'I think I can work with you.' Then he started tearing up all that stuff that we had, said 'don't sing that... don't sing that... this is what's supposed to be sung.'
But getting back to Ahmet Ertegun and the initial meeting... Ahmet did the same thing as Bill- he sat there and he and Herb listened to us 'cause they had a couple of groups at Atlantic, not as artists but they used the Delta Rhythm Boys and this is one of the baddest groups I've ever heard. And they used them as a back-up for a singer that they had named Ruth Brown.
Nevertheless, Ahmet said 'I have a song that I wrote and I want you to listen to this.' Ahmet starts singing this song and we're standing there looking at him, saying 'what in the world is he doing?' And we started laughing and the guys said 'what you have is a white man up here and he's talking about singing some blues.' But he wasn't white, he was Turkish. (laughs) And his father was the ambassador to the United States from Turkey and he's hanging on 7th Street, singing the blues! And that song that we laughed at man, that was the very first hit that we had on Atlantic Records, "Don't You Know I Love You." That completely changed the style of the group.
PSF: How so?
HW: I mean, this was a blues. This was not "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." (sings) 'Don't you know, don't you know, I LOVVVVVVE you so!' You know? And wow... And it completely changed us.
And what happened there in that record... we put a saxophone solo in there and that's the first time that had been done. And that's what sold and kicked that record off. The guys said 'what they doing, what they doing?' And that was the first hit that we had with Atlantic and Ahmet maybe wrote another six or seven hits for us. And once he got Ray Charles, he started writing that stuff, the songs that Ray did.
PSF: There's the old story that many doo wop groups sang on the street corner. Did you and the group do that?
HW: We did! We used to stand behind Griffith Stadium as I mentioned earlier. That's on 5th Street and that's the neighborhood that we hung out in. So there was a gate where they parked the bus and picked up the players from the game. We'd go there and wait and find out who won the game and stand there waiting for the guys to come out and we'd play. We used to go around to Howard University and all the high schools, we'd go there during the day and recess time and walk through singing. But there were other groups around and they didn't necessarily do that but that's what they did. They walked the street. We used to get on the street car and sing but nobody ever asked us to shut up. Our stuff was together, you know? And we weren't loud or nothing like that- we used to get in back of the car and ride from one side of Washington to the other.
PSF: Were you singing for money when you did that?
HW: No. We just sang. We weren't famous yet so we never got no money then from what I remember. (laughs) They applauded us but we didn't get a dime though.
PSF: When you joined the group, did it seem like the group had some sort of dynamic and that someone was an obvious leader?
HW: Buddy Bailey was the leader. We could all sing lead. Harold Lucas sang a couple of songs. I sang a couple of songs. Matthew McQuater, the tenor, sang. We all sang but Buddy Bailey was the main lead singer.
PSF: How would you describe Lucas and Buddy?
HW: Well, Harold started the group. We had a relationship that was pretty close. It was so close that I sang baritone and McQuarter sang second tenor. If there was a note that Harold couldn't sing or wasn't comfortable singing, he would look at this man- they had a signal thing. And they'd switch notes. We lived in the same house. He had a cousin who had house with just these two gentleman and the dog and at one time, that's where we ended up. And I was the last one to leave there 'cause Harold Lucas got married and Buddy went on where he went and McQuarter actually was married and he went on back to his wife. That's what happened when you're married. But we had a relationship that was something else. We did have, I tell the guys today, anybody in that group that told another man what to do. We did not have one of those so-called 'leaders...' When we wanted to do something, we'd say 'OK, what do you say?... What do you say? What do you say?' That's the way we did it. Democratically, if you will. We just decided but voted on it. We stayed together many years just like that and got to an understanding. That's what we did.
Buddy Bailey was congenial and he was the ears of the group. He listened closer to singers like Dinah Washington. He came up singing a song like that and we'd say 'Aw yeah!' 'cause we all liked Dinah. And Dinah Washington had an affinity for groups. She liked groups.
McQuarter (laughs), he was from Dallas Texas. He was a World War II veteran and so was our guitarist Bill Harris. McQuarter had gone to Morehouse in Atlanta and he transferred to Howard University School of Business for business law. As it turned out, his mother was quite into business. She had a farm, animals, cows and a lot of property around Dallas. And this guy is supposed to be doing business law to take care of her business. And he called his mother and said 'I'm singing with the Clovers.' And she said 'You're doing what with who?' (laughs) Mrs. Smith was something else but she went along with it- she came up and she heard us. And we came to Dallas with Joe Louis and Billy Eckstein and we came to her house and all of this stuff. And she eased up on us a little bit. But she always wanted her son to do that business course.
See Part II of the Clovers interview
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