The Clovers were one of the biggest-selling acts of the 1950s, having scored numerous high-charting R&B singles, and a lone Top 40 hit single “Love Potion #9.” The R&B vocal group composed of Harold Lucas, Billy Shelton and Thomas Woods – all were Armstrong High School students in Washington, D.C. With the addition of John “Buddy” Bailey, they now called themselves as the Four Clovers and began to make rounds by performing in local amateur shows. First signed to Atlantic Records in 1951, the Clovers recorded and released their first single “Don’t You Know I Love You” that same year; it went to #1 on the R&B singles chart. Atlantic Records’ executive Ahmet Ertegun wrote it and many other following Clovers hits. When Bailey was drafted into the army, his replacements John Phillip, Charlie White, and then Billy Mitchell became the group’s lead vocalist for a time until Bailey was discharged from the Army and returned to the group. Mitchell though remained with the group and shared lead vocal duties with Bailey. When their contract with Atlantic expired, they moved to United Artists, but the recording released under that label didn’t chart, and so they eventually disbanded in 1961. The break-up also resulted into two groups formed by the former members of the group. When the British group The Searchers hit it big with their cover of “Love Potion #9,” it somehow revitalized interest in the group’s songs, especially the recordings made by the original members of the Clovers.
Formation and first chart hits
Considered as one of the legendary R&B groups that came out during the 50s music scene, the Clovers was formed in Washington D.C. during the mid-40s. The founding members consisted of Harold “Hal” Lucas (tenor/baritone), Billy Shelton (tenor) and Robert Woods met each other during their high school days. Naming themselves as the Clovers (or the Four Clovers), they began as a trio until John “Buddy” Bailey joined them and became their lead singer, leading Lucas to switch to the baritone position.
Woods left and was replaced by Matthew McQuater, while Shelton also left and Harold Winley took his place. Bill Harris joined as their guitarist. They started perform at local venues. Their initial repertoire consisted of covers of songs by the Orioles and the Ravens. However, by the beginning of the 1950s they began to take a much edgier take on R&B.
A Baltimore-based businessman Lou Krefetz discovered Clovers on one of their gigs in Washington, D.C. and led them to their first recording stint with a small label Rainbow Records, where they released their debut single “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” They were noticed by Ahmet Ertegun who got them signed to his newly-established label Atlantic Records. He encouraged the group to introduce more rhythm into their material, resulting into one of the Clovers’ first hits “Don’t You Know I Love You” in 1951. It went to #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart.
Under the guidance of songwriter and producer Jesse Stone (aka Charles Calhoun), the Clovers went on to have big R&B chart hits that include “Fool, Fool, Fool,” “Hey, Miss Fannie,” “I Played the Fool,” and “Middle of the Night” until Bailey was drafted into the army in the summer of 1952 (although some sources say that he was drafted towards the end of 1951). Bailey was replaced by John Philip, who himself was soon replaced by Charlie White. They continued to enjoy a string of big R&B smashes such as “One Mint Julep,” “Ting-A-Ling,” “Wonder Where My Baby’s Gone,” “Comin’ On,” “Crawlin'” and “Good Lovin’.” At the end of 1953 White was replaced by Billy Mitchell and remained the lead singer until Bailey was discharged from the Army and returned to the group in the spring of 1954. He and Mitchell became joint lead vocalists of the group.
In 1955 The Clovers switched to singing ballads with the release of their single “Blue Velvet,” which charted just modestly. They went on to have a few more big hits for Atlantic: “Nip Sip,” “Devil or Angel,” “Hey, Doll Baby,” and “Love, Love, Love.” By the mid-1950s rock and roll began to practically engulf the entire American music landscape, and since then the Clovers were struggling to achieve a decent hit.
Move to United Artists label, and their original version of “Love Potion #9”
Their manager Krefetz founded his own label Poplar Records, and had the group record an entire LP of original material, rather than compilations — a rare chance for a group who was struggling to have a big hit on the charts at that time. Krefetz was then offered the position as a head of sales for the United Artists label, which he accepted. He brought along the Clovers’ recordings on Poplar to the major-league label.
The more good news was that the Clovers had the famous songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who were responsible for Elvis Presley’s hits) on their side. They went to their first recording session for United Artists in the summer of 1959, resulting into a Leiber/Stoller-written single titled “Love Potion #9,” whose lead vocals were done by Mitchell. It became the biggest hit in the group’s career, landing its peak position at #23 on the Billboard pop chart the following November.
Later career and incarnations of the Clovers
However, “Love Potion #9” was also to be the group’s last hurrah at the major charts, and they failed to follow it up with another big hit. In 1961 the group was dropped by United Artists, and continued to record for smaller labels producing insignificant singles. McQuater quit, and the group split. Mitchell and Lucas tried to reorganize the group with the ex-Bachelors members James “Toy” Walton and Robert Russell. Despite a short return to Atlantic, the still weren’t able to make a cut. To complicate things, there was another group who also called themselves the Clovers (or the Fabu with Bailey as frontman.
Roosevelt “Tippie” Hubbard replaced Mitchell, therefore naming the group “Tippie and the Clovers.” This incarnation also recorded songs written by Leiber and Stoller.
By the 1960s and the 1970s, things got even more muddy for the Clovers, who experienced several incarnations. Several spin-off groups had been claiming themselves as the Clovers for their live gigs and recordings. Many member had also gone solo.
The Clovers was given with the Pioneer Award at the 1988 Rhythm-and-Blues Foundation to surviving members McQuater, Bailey, Lucas and Winley.
Bailey and Lucas died in 1994, and McQuater died in 2000. Another former Clovers member John Bowie passed away in 2002, while Mitchell died in 2002. King Raymond Green, a more recent member of the Clovers, filed an application seeking the trademark name The Original Clovers feat. Winley, who was granted a case suspension. It took about four years until an announcement made by Winley and Steve Charles (a member of the Lucas-founded Clovers) that they have reached a legal agreement that permitted both of them to use the Clovers name in their performances and their recordings.
The Searchers’ version of “Love Potion #9”
British pop/beat group the Searchers recorded their version of “Love Potion #9” which was turned into a huge hit in early 1965, reaching its peak position at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The success of the Searchers cover somewhat revitalized interest towards the original recording by the Clovers for a time.