House of blues

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

There is, however, some potential help coming. The Washington, D.C.-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation, created in 1988 to help pioneer R&B artists, has offered to pay the debt BancPlus says it is owed. It will mark the second time the foundation has given money to the McQuaters, and they will not have to pay it back. As a recipient of the R&B Foundation's first Pioneer Award, along with his fellow Clovers, McQuater easily qualifies for assistance.

"Because of our mission to provide emergency financial assistance and public recognition for R&B artists of the '40s and '50s and '60s, [Matthew McQuater] is well within the limits for our assistance," says Suzan Jenkins, the foundation's executive director. "Recognizing his failing health and financial needs, we provided him assistance."

The problem is, when the R&B Foundation cut BancPlus a check in September for $2,260, it was returned to the McQuaters because it was insufficient to cover the outstanding debt. The mortgage company will only accept the full amount owed.

Jenkins says she was unaware the check was returned until contacted by the Observer last week, but she promises, "I will get in touch with them and see what we may be able to do."

For now, Neva and Matthew are waiting to see what happens. On September 28, they received a letter from BancPlus informing them an appraiser was coming to look at the house to decide for how much it should be sold.

"I'm getting a little bit nervous," says Neva, who handles most of the couple's financial business. "I know I have a headache every day."

Matthew McQuater bears little resemblance to the bright and shining young man whose smile radiates from old promotional photographs. Neva, who met Matthew in the early '70s when both sang in their church choir, says Matthew almost died in 1984. He suffered a rare allergic reaction to a medication. The reaction began as a sore throat and ended with him in a hospital bed, his flesh flaking off every part of his body.

Several of his front teeth are missing, lines run deep in his once-robust face, and his once thick head of hair recedes into old age. A stroke last year also rendered gaunt his once enormous frame, knocking 100 pounds from the 350 he carried not long ago. He also explains his memory isn't as good as it used to be, and he often gets dates confused. When he is shown several essays written about The Clovers from various music history books, he asks if he can keep them; he would like to study up on his own past, letting the words of other writers fill in the blanks.

When McQuater--who left Dallas to attend Morehouse University, then Howard University, in Washington, D.C.--joined The Clovers in 1949 as the group's second tenor, they had already been together for three years. Harold Lucas, a baritone singer, had formed the group with classmates from his high school--tenor Thomas Woods, bass Billy Shelton, lead singer John "Buddy" Bailey. When Harold Winley came in and replaced Shelton in 1949, and when guitarist Bill Harris joined, they officially became The Clovers.

"We were lookin' for ourselves, for something original," McQuater says of The Clovers' slick and soulful sound. "We were looking for our own form or style. It was just a natural blend, and it automatically came to us. It was something we did with ease. We'd just hear a song, everyone would pick out his part and just take off with it. It was in the head. When somebody came with a song, we'd go into the rehearsal hall, go through it a couple of times, and that was it."

From 1952 to 1959, The Clovers scored 21 hit singles--many of which topped the rhythm-and-blues charts, some of which were among the first to cross over to the white pop charts. The Clovers were a direct link between the vocal pop and gospel groups of the '40s and the R&B bands of the late '50s, and they were among the brightest stars on an Atlantic Records roster that also included Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, Big Joe Turner, and the Drifters.

But like so many of his fellow R&B musicians of the 1950s, McQuater does not receive a single cent from the sale of the two Clovers greatest-hits CDs--one on Atlantic Records, the other from United Artists--or any other song on which he sang. Back in the '50s, black artists were considered hired help by their record labels and given salaries on which to live--but never saw royalties.

It's one of the great historical ironies of the music business that Ahmet Ertegun--the legendary label owner who brought The Clovers to Atlantic and actuallly wrote many of their earliest and biggest singles, and who also kept so many of his legendary acts from ever seeing a penny in royalties--is one of the R&B Foundation's founding trustees, and sits on the board. McQuater hasn't spoken with Ertegun in more than 30 years.

"If we got royalties, I'd be in better shape now," McQuater says. "But on the meager amount we were getting, we were sufficing. We bought houses and everything. Each one of us bought homes. When I left the group, I didn't mind letting it go--the house and everything. I let the house go, turned it in."

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