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Obituaries

Billy Mitchell, 71; Lead Singer With the Clovers, a Top 1950s R&B Group

November 08, 2002|From the Washington Post

Billy Mitchell, a former singer with the rhythm-and-blues group the Clovers, who was best known for his rollicking rendition of "Love Potion No. 9," died Tuesday at a hospital in Washington, D.C., after several strokes. He had colon cancer. He was 71.

The Clovers were one of the biggest acts in that early era of R&B and bridged the period between smoother pop groups such as the Ink Spots and the rise of rock-and-rollers, said Howell Begle, founder of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in Washington.

In the early 1950s, the Clovers were a powerhouse on rhythm-and-blues charts and helped transform Atlantic Records into one of the major R&B recording studios.

The group had more than a dozen top-10 recordings, including "Don't You Know I Love You," "One Mint Julep," "Fool, Fool, Fool" and "Ting-A-Ling."

With the noted Bill Harris on guitar, the Clovers' sound had a vibrant, bluesy harmony and a relaxed, shuffling rhythm.

In 1998, Times music critic Robert Hilburn, reviewing a reissue of the band's work, called the Clovers "one of the most appealing of all the early R&B groups."

Mitchell, a tenor, joined the Clovers in 1953 and soon was alternating lead vocals with John "Buddy" Bailey and Charles White.

With a more "gutbucket" blues feel than balladeer Bailey, Mitchell sang the lead on such songs as the sly, witty "Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash" and "Down in the Alley."

The Clovers continued making R&B hits throughout the decade, including "Devil or Angel," "Blue Velvet" and "Love, Love, Love."

The band appeared in such top-flight performance halls as the Apollo Theater in Harlem and on an Alan Freed television special in 1957.

The group's last hit was Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Love Potion No. 9," which was a crossover sensation on the pop and R&B charts. Mitchell sang lead.

The Clovers split up about a year later as individual members pursued recording opportunities and as the music labels cultivated younger doo-wop and rock groups.

Mitchell tried to extend his singing career, recording with Clovers member Harold "Hal" Lucas songs such as "The Bootie Green," which plugged into the twist dance craze.

Those efforts didn't equal his earlier successes, and Mitchell sought a more stable job in Washington, where he lived at his death.

He did stockroom work for St. Elizabeths Hospital until he retired in 1992.

"Once he stopped singing, he said that was it," Harold Winley, who sang bass in the group, said Wednesday. "He said he wouldn't do it anymore."

They reunited, however, in 1988 at a Rhythm and Blues Foundation benefit in Austin, Texas.

The Clovers said they never saw much money from their work in the 1950s, and several members said they thought that they had been mismanaged.

William Joseph Mitchell was a native Washingtonian. He left high school, with his mother's permission, at age 17 to sing professionally.

Among those he worked with was a blues band led by Joe Morris, a former trumpeter with Lionel Hampton.

By the time Mitchell joined the Clovers, the group was well-established.

Lucas had formed the group in 1946 with friends at Armstrong High School, and they sang at area clubs before Atlantic signed them.

The breakthrough recording was "Don't You Know I Love You" in 1951.

Mitchell served in the Army during the Korean War and was hired as a replacement for Bailey, who had been called away for military duty.

Fellow singer Matthew McQuater told a reporter in 1997 that it was obvious why Mitchell was kept in the band even after Bailey returned:

"Cause he was a singin' fool!"

Survivors include Mitchell's wife of 48 years, Helen Gibbs Mitchell, of Washington, D.C.; five children; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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