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Gene McDaniels was one of the more popular artists to emerge from the 1950s R&B scene just as "soul" began to establish itself as a distinct subcategory (and later the dominant sound) of the latter genre. Born Eugene Booker McDaniels in Kansas City, Kansas in 1935, and later raised in Omaha, Nebraska, he was the son of a minister, and gospel music, along with the words of the bible, filled his life early on — his early idols included the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones. Before his teens, he also discovered jazz just as bebop was sweeping the latter field, and he became an early admirer of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis; McDaniels always gravitated toward singing, not surprising given his four-octave range, but he also became proficient on the saxophone and the trumpet.
His first performing group, the Echoes of Joy (later the Sultans) — organized when he was 11 — specialized exclusively in gospel music, but McDaniels later started to work popular tunes into their repertoire. Following a citywide singing competition in which he managed to distinguish himself amid the best of all of his peers, he started looking toward music as a career. He later forsook traditional academics in favor of study at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and made his professional debut as a member of the Mississippi Piney Woods Singers, whose touring got him to the West Coast, where he began performing jazz as a solo singer in his spare time. Eventually he began singing with his idol, Les McCann, at a club called The Lamp, which didn't last long but built McDaniels a following sufficient to get him noticed by Liberty Records.
After being signed by Sy Waronker, McDaniels was first put into the hands of producer Felix Slatkin, but their first two singles and an accompanying album failed to sell in serious quantities. His break came when Snuff Garrett took over as producer — Slatkin was a phenomenal musician, as a violinist and conductor, but Garrett had an ear for sound and songs that was second to none, and was responsible for corraling the song that became McDaniels' first hit, "A Hundred Pounds of Clay." The singer himself hated the song, believing it too simplistic in the wake of the jazz he'd been singing for the previous decade, but Garrett's instincts proved correct, the single reaching number three in the spring of 1961 and earning a gold record award. His next record, "A Tear," was a minor chart hit. But the record after that, "Tower of Strength," co-written by Burt Bacharach, reached number five and earned McDaniels another gold record award in the process.
McDaniels saw regular chart action over the next three years, and even made it into one classic jukebox movie, It's Trad, Dad (1962) (directed by Richard Lester), where he was seen performing "Another Tear Falls." His brand of soul music gradually faded from popularity, however, in the face of competition from figures such as Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, with their more raw, less pop-oriented sound. He left Liberty in 1965 and passed through Columbia and a small group of other labels. And following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, he departed the United States. For the next three years, he lived in Denmark and Sweden and spent his time writing. When he returned to America in 1971, it was as "Eugene McDaniels" that he resumed recording, on Atlantic. After that time, he concentrated on songwriting and publishing, scoring successes in both departments: his song "Compared to What?" was recorded by McCann and also by Roberta Flack, for whom he then wrote "Reverend Lee" and the immensely successful "Feel Like Makin’ Love," which reached number one on the Billboard, Cash Box, and Record World charts in 1974. He also produced numerous other artists, including Jimmy Smith, Merry Clayton, and Nancy Wilson. Gene McDaniels died in his sleep at home in Maine on July 29, 2011.