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Billy Ward

The Dominoes (also sometimes known as Billy Ward & the Dominoes) had one of the finest musical pedigrees of any R&B vocal group of the 1940s, at least based on its founder's training and experience. A lot of R&B acts came out of a gospel background, and Bo Diddley even studied violin as a boy, but rare is the R&B vocal group whose founder was trained at Juilliard. Billy Ward (born September 19, 1921, Los Angeles) had a minister father and a musician mother, and was a musical prodigy as a child, schooled in classical music theory and composition as well as performance. Before he was in his teens, Ward was good enough on the organ to play at his father's services and he won a composition award at age 14 from Walter Damrosch, the celebrated New York music educator, composer, and administrator. Following his military service during World War II, Ward studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he later became a voice coach; he also began working on Broadway during the late '40s. It was from the ranks of his ex-students that he recruited the original members of the Dominoes: Clyde McPhatter as lead singer, Charlie White (tenor), Joe Lamont (baritone), and Bill Brown (bass). The Dominoes won a series of talent contests, including a competition on the television show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which got them a lot of engagements and an audition with Ralph Bass, the head of the newly established Federal Records label, part of Syd Nathan's King Records, during the final months of 1950. The Dominoes, with McPhatter's high tenor lead, had a startlingly fresh sound and enjoyed a number six R&B hit in early 1951 with one song from their first session, "Do Something for Me." It was in May of that year that the group broke through to the top of the R&B charts with "Sixty Minute Man," which also established them as one of the leading crossover acts between gospel and blues. Riding the wave of demand for their performances off of that hit -- one of the first great double-entendre records of the '50s, and a very early example of what would be considered a "rock & roll" record -- the group spent the next seven months on the road, building up a lot of public good will and a reputation as one of the top R&B acts of the era.