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.

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."

McQuater left The Clovers in 1962, two years after Harold Lucas and Buddy Bailey splintered The Clovers into two groups--neither of which went anywhere. He went to work for the United States Postal Service, then returned to Dallas in 1972 to care for his ailing mother, who requested her son come home so they could spend her few remaining years together.

The last time the original Clovers performed on the same stage was in 1988, at the first Rhythm and Blues Foundation concert in Austin that also featured the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sam Moore, Ruth Brown, Bonnie Raitt, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. It was a bittersweet event for the R&B greats who attended: They were there to celebrate the creation of a foundation whose sole purpose was to provide financial assistance to performers who were ripped off by their record companies.

McQuater insists he doesn't miss the spotlight, doesn't begrudge anyone the money he should have been paid then and now. He's content to sing in the Warren United Methodist church choir every Sunday, alongside his wife, while the two wait to see if they will have a house come Thanksgiving.

"You never lose the feeling for contact with an audience, but I don't long for it because I sing in the choir in church," McQuater says, "and they put me in right with the rest of the tenors and I sing along with 'em. I even get to sing a solo sometime, which I never got to do in The Clovers.

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