In 1950, McPhatter joined Billy Ward & the Dominoes, and was preset for the recording of "Sixty Minute Man", which was a huge hit in 1951 (see 1951 in music) and was one of the earliest rock and roll records. After several more hits, McPhatter quit the group in 1953 because he made little money and gained virtually no fame, in spite of his voice being the lead on most of the group's songs. McPhatter then signed to Atlantic Records after forming a group, The Drifters. "Money Honey", "Such a Night", "Honey Love", "White Christmas" and "Whatcha Gonna Do" became huge hits.
In 1954, McPhatter was drafted in 1954 but was assigned in the US, allowing him to continue recording. He soon left The Drifters and launched a solo career. His first solo hit occurred after being discharged from the country -- "Love Has Joined Us Together" (with Ruth Brown). He released several R&B hits in the next few years but was unable to make a serious dent in the pop charts, largely because white groups covered his best compositions and achieved widespread mainstream success. In spite of this, McPhatter became one of the most popular black musicians among white listeners.
McPhatter soon signed to MGM Records, and released several more hits. "I Told Myself a Lie" and "Think Me a Kiss" (1960) became minor pop hits, as was "Ta Ta", his first single for Mercury Records. "I Never Knew" and "Lover Please" (1962) became even bigger pop hits, but his career started suffering due to rampant alcoholism. Other black artists were following McPhatter's blueprint into pop audiences, including Rudy Lewis, Johnny Moore, Sam Cooke and an all-new line-up of The Drifters. McPhatter's unreliability kept him from maintaining his career in the face of this competition. As the 1960s wore on, McPhatter's career kept falling in spite of a few minor hits. In the 1970s, McPhatter spent some time living in England, where he still had a significant audience, but this was short-lived. He died of a heart attack in 1972.