House of blues

A forgotten rock and roll pioneer fights to keep his Oak Cliff home

Matthew McQuater has lived in quiet obscurity for more than two decades in a modest, slightly run-down home in a modest, slightly run-down section of Oak Cliff. It's a quiet enough neighborhood, sandwiched in between beautiful homes and a golf course to one side and shotgun shacks on the other. Most of the homes have bars covering all the windows and dead cars rusting on blocks in the driveways.

The interior of McQuater's otherwise nondescript house, which he shares with his wife of 17 years, seems to have been decorated according to some bizarre color-blind scheme--in the living room, off-green chairs sit against blindingly bright yellow walls, and the whole room is sandwiched between a white ceiling and a shag carpet the color of dying grass. The living room itself is a mess, cluttered with McQuater's daughter's belongings. "She's got everything messed up," he shrugs. "She's trying to move out. At least, that's the idea."

The walls are decorated with old art-exhibit posters made fancy in silver frames. On one wall hangs a self-portrait painted by the McQuaters' daughter when she was a child; on another, there's a lone small photo of Matthew's stately looking mother, the woman he came home to take care of in 1972.

This house has twice been filled by flooding rains over the past few years. The damage is still obvious, indicated by the water lines on the fading hallway walls and the tiles on the floor that are coming up.

In all, it is not the sort of home in which one expects to find a bona fide rock and roll legend. But here he sits nonetheless--a weary man addled by a stroke, illness, encroaching old age, and, most recently, a battle to keep the home in which he has lived for so many years. From 1952 to 1959, Matthew McQuater was one-fifth of the Washington, D.C.-based Clovers, among the greatest and most influential vocal groups of the 1950s--one of the first black acts to cross over to the white pop charts, a group whose sound and popularity wasn't bound by the segregationist color line.

Forty years ago, the Oak Cliff native and Lincoln High School graduate was a rhythm-and-blues star.

But, 40 years later, McQuater has little to show for his accomplishments--just the handful of singles he keeps under the living room coffee table and the album sleeve propped up against the turntable, and the many history books that document The Clovers' achievements and hit songs, such as "One Mint Julep," "Fool, Fool, Fool," "Love Potion No. 9," "Devil or Angel," "Your Cash Ain't Nothing But Trash," "Blue Velvet."

He also has his small home, where the 68-year-old retired singer spends his days watching television and waiting for his wife to return from work. Though come the first Tuesday of November, he may not even have that.

Through what he and his wife Neva blame on a screw-up on the part of a San Antonio-based mortgage company, the rock and roll pioneer may have his house sold out from under him. The "unsung hero of rock and roll," as writer Nick Tosches once referred to McQuater and The Clovers, is now struggling just to keep his modest little home, frightened that a couple thousand dollars is all that separates comfort and homelessness.

"Everything was nice till this came up," Matthew says. "We'll beat it, though," he insists, sounding unsure.

According to notices BancPlus, the company holding the loan on the house, sent the McQuaters, the couple is a little more than $2,500 behind on house payments--payments Matthew and Neva McQuater insist they made. And BancPlus says if it doesn't receive a check for $3,125.43--$395.30 of which is attorneys' fees--they will take the McQuaters' house next month, for good.

In May, the McQuaters received a notice from BancPlus indicating the couple had failed to make their payments for March and April, which totaled $881.72. As a result, BancPlus refused to accept their subsequent payments--not until they had taken care of the payments for March and April.

But Neva and Matthew insist they paid the $429.32 in March and $452.40 in April. To prove it, Neva provides copies of the money order stubs sent to BancPlus. She has put traces on the money orders to find out who cashed them, hoping she can prove they were sent to the mortgage company.

"I'm just hoping the money order traces would hurry up and come in here," says Neva, who is 14 years younger than her husband. "If those money orders were cashed, they put us through this for no reason at all."

BancPlus officials refuse to discuss the matter, citing disclosure laws that keep the files confidential. But in August, BancPlus turned the McQuaters' case over to the Houston-based law firm of Kodelis and Stowiarski. Mary Spidell, the firm's managing attorney, also will not comment on the McQuaters' situation, but does confirm that, right now, the mortgage company is scheduled to take back the house on November 2.

Until he retired three years ago, McQuater made a modest living selling insurance and chauffeuring. Now, he draws about $400 a month in Social Security, which he adds to Neva's small salary as a nurse's aide. He says he and his wife are not starving, but they're struggling to pay the bills each month.

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