The earliest recording of Gene are from around 1954, during his time with Soul group, The Sultans, when he was just 19 years old. The group consisted of Gene, Richard Beasley, Wesley Devreaux (son of famed blues shouter Wynonie Harris), Willie Barnes and James Farmer, all of whom (with possibly the exception of Richard Beasley) hailed from Omaha, NB. These recording can be heard on the 2013 compilation CD Point of No Return (Jasmine Recordings) which incorrectly states that "Gene does not feature as lead vocalist on any of these tracks” when indeed you can clearly hear his distinctive voice on two tracks.
In 1955, with three singles that failed to chart behind them, The Sultans changed their name to The Admirals. The group consisted of the same personnel, (Gene, Richard Beasley, Wesley Devreaux, Willie Barnes and James Farmer. The Admirals were contracted by King Records, working with famed A&R man Henry Glover (group member Devreaux's father Wynonie Harris had had great success almost a decade earlier working with Glover at King records).
Once again Gene was not the lead singer but he sang lead vocals on two songs, "Give Me Your Love" and "Something Blue". By the end of 1955 The Admirals split up.
Sometime soon after The Admirals split up Gene moved to Los Angeles, when he was around 20 years old. Shortly after arriving he sat in with Les McCann; they ended up with a regular gig together at a place called The Lamp. Jazz was Gene’s first love, musically speaking. He felt deeply connected to the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and other jazz greats of this era and even had opportunity to open for Miles Davis at one point, though the details around that are a bit vague at this time. Despite Gene’s love for jazz, when the opportunity presented itself through Sy Waronker, founder of Liberty Records, to sign on with him in 1959 as a solo artist, Gene took it. Of Si, Gene said, "Sy was the nicest guy I ever met. Very emotional, music was his life. When I sang for him he cried.” Besides, earning a living as a singer was not easy then (or now), add to that the fact that Gene was black in America in the 1950’s and the challenge was multiplied by a huge factor.
IN TIMES LIKE THESE
The first album Gene recorded as a Liberty artist, In Times Like These (1960), was a stunning ballad album, beautifully produced by violinist and orchestra leader Felix Slotkin; it showcased the breadth of Gene’s four octave range as well as the sensitivity and excellence that was his approach to music. In an 2011 interview with radio host and DJ Mark Copolov (88.3 Southern FM, Melbourne), Gene said of the record,
"(My) first recording (for Liberty) was not “100 Lbs. of Clay" it was In Times Like These, it was a beautiful ballad album, I loved it so much and it didn't sell. I was so disappointed."
The back of the album notes that "Gene’s background is an ideal one for an aspiring vocalist. The son of a minister, he was born in Omaha, in 1935 and was exposed to group and solo singing at an early age. While still in his teens he traveled around the country with a gospel quartet (Mississippi Piney Woods Singer), which was invariably well received. From gospel to jazz is an extremely short step and Gene found himself moving in that direction. Growing as he had from the roots of jazz, it is not surprising that Gene’s vocal style should show a jazz influence. Rather than limiting his approach, however, this influence merely provides a springboard for creative phrasing and experimentation.” Of course the liner notes here don’t take into consideration Gene's time in Los Angeles during the proceeding 5 years where he sang jazz with arguably some of the greatest players of that, and all, time.
SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY, SOMETIMES I’M BLUE
Gene's second Liberty release, also in 1960, Sometimes I’m Happy, Sometimes I’m Blue, was the second, and last, of his albums to be produced by Felix Slotkin. Although a collection of beautifully produced and executed songs it still did not garner the attention that Gene and Liberty had hoped.
100 LBS. OF CLAY
In 1961, after two Gene McDaniels records without any hits, Liberty brought in a non-musician, Snuff Garrett, to produce Gene's next album 100 Lbs. of Clay. Gene chafed under Snuff Garrett’s direction, he felt that the music was too simplistic and did not agree with the production of the title track. But as Garrett is quoted as saying, “I ran a totalitarian dictatorship. It was my way or no way,” he admits. “Our motto at Liberty was ‘If you’re not on the charts or headed up the charts, what the hell are you doing here?’ I learned early on that there are 100 records on the charts every week, and if you’re not one of them, it’s nobody’s fault but yours.” Garrett may not have had a musician’s background but he knew how to make a hit. “100 Lbs. of Clay” charted on Billboard at number 3 and launched Gene into the spotlight as a singer. It was just a few months before his death in 2011 that Gene finally seemed to make peace with Snuff Garrett and the song, in an interview with Australian radio host Mark Copolov (88.3 Southern FM, Melbourne) he talked about 100 Lbs. of Clay and Snuff Garrett.
Mark Copolov (Radio Host 88.3 Southern FM Melbourne): "What does the song "100 Lbs. of Clay" mean to you?"
Gene: "NOW it means a lot to me because it represents the acceptance of my meager talents by a vast amount of people. And I was impressed by the fact that just an ordinary guy like myself could have that kind of good fortune. On the other hand I had a terrible time in the studio with Snuff Garrett because he heard the song the way he heard the song and I heard the song the way I hear music...and so... never the twain shall meet. And I was young and foolish... it was a tough time, it wasn't easy. And he (Snuff) said 'you should staccato the words, you're singing too much' and so I over staccatoed the words and he told the boss that I messed it up…the boss said we're putting it out anyway. He put it out there, within two weeks it was on its way (to chart). The arrangers were amazing people and the players were amazing. I was a hayseed from Nebraska, what did I know? I only knew what I liked and what I liked was Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Sara Vaughan...that was my excitement and my era.”
"Going back in my mind I am so grateful to him (Snuff) because it changed my life, I mean it allowed me to make some money, yes, but more importantly, it got me known around the world. I will be forever indebted to Snuff. (15:30) Snuff and I had a couple of more successes and I'm grateful for that, I'm grateful to him, I mean if I could find him, I've been looking for him but I can't find him, I want to say thank you to him and apologize to him for my bad attitude, my artistictemperament as it were, but I haven't been able to find him so I hope somehow this message gets through to him that I appreciate and love him for what he has contributed to me and my family through his productions for me, and how foolish I was, young and foolish you know, how the song goes.”
TOWER OF STRENGTH
Gene’s second album release in 1961, again under the production of Snuff Garrett, Tower of Strength, yielded two charting tracks, “A Tear”, which reached #31 on the Billboard charts and the title track, “Tower of Strength”, co-written by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, which reached #5 on US Billboard and #5 on the R& B chart. "Tower of Strength" was used in the 1987 award winning Australian film, “The Year My Voice Broke” along with “100 Lbs. of Clay”.