He wasn’t as smooth as either Jackie Wilson (who emulated him) or Sam Cooke, and he was often shackled with syrupy, middle-of-the-road arrangements, but Clyde McPhatter was a radical vocalist, abundantly gifted with every conceivable cultural trick of the interpretive trade. His singing was subversive: He would use the cluttered treacle provided to him as a foil for his melismatic gymnastics. His resources were nearly limitless: If Wilson and Cooke were ultimately looking for acceptance among the supper club set (and, in a sense, this proved the artistic undoing of both), McPhatter knew that the success of his material was to be found in maintaining a purity of approach in the midst of the most unlikely settings.
He also waged a kind of ongoing guerilla war with his producers and songwriters. As Lover Please: The Complete MGM & Mercury Singles illustrates, it was a battle he nearly always won. The preposterousness of the material he was given turned out to be a strange kind of asset. Because his genius came from elevating kitsch to rock ‘n’ roll art, it was necessary that he work from a starting point of extreme disadvantage. If any reasonably endowed vocalist could find something of value in “I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over,” it would take someone of consummate artistry to deal with “Twice As Nice.” McPhatter makes light work of this hurdle. “Ta Ta,” with its inane strings and insipid vocal chorus, gives him even less to work with, but by the time Clyde gets to the bridge, he’s figured out how to save the song.
When he’s got material like “Lucille” to build from, he’s untouchable, digging into the fabric of the tune with astonishing depth. There’s enough substantial material on Lover Please to not require McPhatter to pull a rabbit out of his hat every time; “Love Please,” “Let’s Forget About the Past,” and “The Glory of Love” don’t need vocal sleight of hand to hold up. But part of the pleasure of listening to Clyde McPhatter is hearing the dazzling range of his talent, and to marvel at his ability to wrest valuable music of from what would be disaster in lesser hands.