THE CLOVERS

The year was 1991, and I was headed to a record store with a friend of mine who happened to work for Atlantic Records. "There's this CD that just came out and I've got to get it," I told him. When we arrived, I went straight to the store's oldies section and pulled out The Best of the Clovers. At first, his connection to the label it was on didn't occur to us. He just looked at it and said, "Is this the stuff?" I mean, like, THE STUFF, is what he wanted to know. I replied, "...Well, now that you bring it up...it is!" As far as I knew at the time, this was the first CD release from a group whose records I'd collected for years, seeking out their early-'50s Atlantic singles on the yellow-and-black labels, the later United Artists 45s and a few albums of their hits, and I was still missing some songs, a few of which were on this just-released and several-years-overdue CD of hits.

The Clovers' history goes back further than I could have imagined when I was first exposed to them through their last major hit, "Love Potion No. 9." Around 1946, lead singer Harold Lucas, along with Billy Shelton, Thomas Woods and later John "Buddy" Bailey (who eventually took over as lead singer), got together as an Ink Spots-styled quartet while attending Armstrong High School in Washington, D.C. Using a catchy name, The Four Clovers, they aspired to be a smooth pop vocal group, little realizing the important role they would play in the as-yet-unhatched rock and roll movement. As the end of high school approached a couple of years later, personnel changes found Woods and Shelton replaced by Matthew McQuater and Harold Winley, as their heroes by that time were prevalent late-'40s acts like The Ravens and The Orioles.

By 1949 they had added a guitarist, Bill Harris, and were performing in D.C.-area clubs when Lou Krefetz discovered them. Krefetz was an entrepreneur out of Baltimore with connections to a few small-label owners and was looking to make a mark in the business with a hot music group, though connecting with some big bucks was likely his top priority. In short order he got the Clovers a one-record deal with tiny independent Rainbow Records. That 78 was "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," a traditional pop tune that offered nothing new to the music scene of the late-'40s. But Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun chanced onto the record and decided to pursue the group, thinking they might be what he needed to take the two-year-old Atlantic label to the next level.

Ertegun had a plan that only a forward-thinking, music-obsessed label owner with an urgent need to develop artists and keep his company afloat could come up with. He would get an already-polished act (but still young and eager enough to be molded to conform to his plan) into the studio with the best talent available, give them a song he composed with an unusual rhythm and vocal texture, and count on them, in fact, insist that they step up and make magic in the studio! Ertegun had actually been attempting various innovations since founding Atlantic with Herb Abramson in 1947, struggling for the first two years, then scoring welcome hits from "Stick" McGhee and his Buddies and Frank Culley, followed by several big ones by Ruth Brown. Now it was the Clovers' turn.

Jesse Stone was assigned producing duties. But at first the group wasn't having it. The song, "Don't You Know I Love You," had a prominent saxophone (supplied by Culley), but none of those smooth groups they'd grown up on had used this instrument! The rhythm was difficult to get a handle on, and there was no bass player...just what were these guys thinking? Ertegun has admitted some of the "innovations" were accidental...the bassist hired for the session didn't show up, so they improvised with the lead guitarist supplying the bass line. They were throwing things together as they went, and it was exciting for everyone except the singers. At first, anyway. The record rose to number one on the rhythm and blues charts in September 1951 and was an innovative musical step forward (though it surely would have been quickly swept under the rug had it failed). The Clovers were suddenly big stars and in sync with Ertegun's plan, as the first single was followed by another smash, "Fool, Fool, Fool." A ballad closer to what the group originally had in mind (temporarily giving them a false sense of security), it hit number one just two months after the first single had reached the top.

Everyone involved moved a step closer to decadence in 1952 with the third single, the Rudy Toombs composition "One Mint Julep," with lyrics not shy about the relationship between alcohol and sexual confidence. The flip, "Middle of the Night," delivered the message less cleverly, but more explicitly. Both sides were major hits. "Ting-A-Ling" came next, rising to the now-familiar number one spot. Charlie White (formerly with The Dominoes) joined as lead singer in 1953, replacing Bailey, who'd been drafted. The change didn't slow the momentum...hits kept coming, exploring the pitfalls of playin' with the ladies ("Hey, Miss Fannie," "Good Lovin'") or strong drink ("Crawlin'"). All were tight, solid and well-made - and were huge R&B hits. The songs were cleverly written by the likes of Toombs, Stone, "Memphis" Eddie Curtis and Ertegun himself, writing under the pseudonym Nugetre, his last name spelled backwards. The Curtis-Nugetre song "Lovey Dovey" contained a couple of lines "borrowed" by several artists over the years: 'Well you're the cutest thing that I did ever see, I really love your peaches, gonna shake your tree,' most famously used in The Steve Miller Band's 1974 hit "The Joker."

The best two-sided disc may have been "I've Got My Eyes on You" and "Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash" in 1954, featuring yet another new lead vocalist Billy Mitchell, replacing both White and his personal problems. The uptempo songs were a little more "fun" than what the Clovers had previously offered, possibly in reaction to the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller productions of as-yet unproven hitmakers The Robins, soon to be moved from Leiber and Stoller's Spark Records to the Atlantic roster and reconfigured as The Coasters.

The Clovers

The Clovers had been ahead of the rock and roll curve for some time, whether they realized it or not. Their early-'50s recordings were recycled into hits by a number of artists over the next several years. "One Mint Julep" emerged as an instrumental by Ray Charles. A couple of Buddys got in on the act: Buddy Holly did "Ting-A-Ling" and Buddy Knox put his stamp on "Lovey Dovey." Two more Clovers songs became major hits in the early '60s, "Devil or Angel" by Bobby Vee and "Blue Velvet" by Bobby Vinton. By 1957, the Clovers' hit streak, the most extensive of any '50s R&B group, had slowed to an apparent finish. But just before their tenure with Atlantic was up, they waxed a classic: Jesse Stone's "Down in the Alley," with its 'changity-changity-chang-chang' chant preceding suggestive lyrics and production reminscent of the group's earlier smashes. It wasn't a hit, but has stood the test of time and been recorded by many artists appreciative of the group's trailblazing contributions to rock.

But the story doesn't end there! Lou Krefetz, their manager through it all, set up his own label in '58, Poplar records, specifically to record and release what he considered a still-hot property. Shortly after, United Artists pictures started its own record label and Krefetz managed to get the group signed, then Leiber and Stoller came on board to produce their second UA single, the Coasters-styled "Love Potion No. 9," with lead vocals by Mitchell. It took off and was one of the bright spots of 1959, a heavily-played radio smash about a gypsy and her concoctions guaranteed to bring romance. The record was not without controversy, which probably helped it in the long run; the line at the end, '...I started kissing everything in sight, but when I kissed a cop at 34th and Vine, he broke my little bottle of love potion number 9,' was considered risque by some (assuming, of course, the "cop" was male, had two men ever kissed in a song before?), prompting the label to re-record an alternate version for the album release: "I had so much fun that I'm goin' back again, I wonder what'll happen with love potion number 10!" In 1965, The Searchers, who'd come in with the British Invasion, trumped the Clovers with a top ten hit version of "Love Potion No. 9," but despite its popularity the remake was weaker, lacking the energy and power of the original, as well as McQuater's booming bass on the line 'I took a drink,' key to the original's appeal.

After 1959 the chart action dried up, but the Clovers had built an impressive catalog of excellent music over eight years that could carry them far into the future doing live performances. It didn't quite happen that way, though...they continued on as several live and recording acts. While Mitchell continued with the group, they competed with The Fabulous Clovers, known alternately as The Clovers featuring Buddy Bailey. Mitchell left the group, succeeded by lead singer Roosevelt "Tippie" Hubbard, and as Tippie and the Clovers they released a strange but catchy curiosity in 1962 called "Bossa Nova Baby," a top ten hit for Elvis Presley a year later from the Fun in Acapulco soundtrack.

Confusion has grown over the decades, and though there have been touring versions of the Clovers in recent years, it's uncertain who's in which group, or if any of them were original members at all. But those 1950s hits, so beautifully recorded and preserved, live on. So hopefully this dissertation plus some time listening to one of rock and roll's pioneering acts has convinced you of the thing my friend from Atlantic Records discovered that day in '91: The Clovers are THE STUFF!

- Michael Jack Kirby

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Don't You Know I Love You The Clovers Love Potion No. 9