The Drifters are one of the most important and long-lasting R&B groups in the history of popular music. Personnel changes over the decades were innumerable, but the group always had good lead singers, the most famous of which were Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King.
The Drifters were formed by Clyde McPhatter in 1953, after he had quit the Dominoes. Initially he recruited members from his former gospel group the Mount Lebanon Singers, but when this quintet entered the studio for its first session on June 29, 1953, Atlantic producers Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler told McPhatter that he needed a better group to back him up. A reformed group of Drifters returned on August 9 for a four-song session. “Money Honey” became the first Drifters single (Atlantic 1006) and topped the Billboard R&B charts for an amazing 11 weeks. It turned Clyde and company into overnight R&B sensations. Elvis Presley, who recorded “Money Honey” in early 1956, would later also cover the second Drifters single, “Such A Night”, which went to # 2. More big R&B hits followed in 1954-55 : “Honey Love” (# 1), “Bip Bam” (# 7), “White Christmas” (# 2, Clyde sharing the lead vocals with Bill Pinkney) and “What ‘Cha Gonna Do” (# 2). In mid-1954 McPhatter received his draft notice. He was stationed in Buffalo, New York, which meant that he could return for weekend gigs, but Clyde soon chose to start a solo career, which would turn into a great success.
The first Drifters single with their new lead singer, Johnny Moore, released in October 1955, was a double-sided smash. “Adorable” went to # 1 and “Steamboat” to # 5. Other hits with Moore on lead were “Ruby Baby” (# 10), “I Gotta Get Myself A Woman” (# 11) and “Fools Fall In Love” (# 10), after which personnel changes became more rapid and the attitude more laissez-faire. The last "original” Drifters session took place on April 28, 1958, with Bobby Hendricks on lead and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as producers. Before the group had had a chance to promote the resulting single, “Drip Drop”, all four members were fired by their manager, George Treadwell. He owned the rights to the name “The Drifters” and chose the Five Crowns to become the new Drifters. Their start was not without problems, but after nine months of touring and rehearsing, this new aggregation finally entered the Atlantic studio (March 6, 1959) for their first session, again produced by Leiber and Stoller. Charlie Thomas began as lead singer. He did well enough on the first number, “Baltimore”, but had trouble with “There Goes My Baby”, a song co-written by Ben E. King (real name Benjamin Nelson), another group member. The producers suggested that King would sing the lead vocals, backed by strings. The result was unlike any other record, replete with pounding kettle drums, out-of-tune timpani, a slow Latin rhythm and Ben E. King’s dramatic vocal. Jerry Wexler hated “There Goes My Baby”, but his Atlantic partner Ahmet Ertegun was willing to give it a release. By August 1959 it was # 2 on the pop charts and # 1 on the R&B lists.
Ben E. King sang lead on only eleven Drifters tracks, but of all their personnel he is the best known, particularly in Britain, where he toured on numerous occasions as a solo artist. Other Drifters hits with King on lead include “Dance With Me”, “This Magic Moment”, “Save the Last Dance For Me” (a # 1 pop hit, which lifted the Drifters to international star status) and “I Count the Tears”, all Top 20 pop hits. But before “Save the Last Dance” came out in August 1960, Ben E. King had already embarked upon a solo career. He was replaced as lead singer by Rudy Lewis, a man with a rich, soulful voice, but not as instantly recognizable as King. The 1961-63 period was a good one for the Drifters, both artistically and commercially, owing to the high production standards of Leiber and Stoller and the impressive quality of the material. All major New York publishers were eager to have their songs recorded by the Drifters and most of their recordings from these years stem from the pens of the ace Brill Building songwriters (Goffin/King, Mann/Weil, Pomus/Shuman, Bacharach/David). Hits include “Some Kind Of Wonderful”, “Please Stay”, “Sweets For My Sweet”, “When My Little Girl Is Smiling” (with Charlie Thomas on lead instead of Rudy Lewis), and “Up On the Roof”. Worth noting is the increasing social consciousness in the lyrics (“On Broadway”, “Rat Race”, “Only In America”).
Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic in mid-1963, after which the Drifters’ sessions were super- vised by Bert Berns. On the eve of the group’s ”Under the Boardwalk” session in May 1964, Rudy Lewis was found dead in his apartment (heart attack). Johnny Moore, who had rejoined the group in April 1963, took over as lead singer on the majority of their recordings until 1971. The hits continued through 1964-65, but reached ever lower peak positions. “Baby What I Mean” was the Drifters’ last entry into the pop charts (# 62, late 1966). The music scene had changed and the frequent personnel changes didn’t contribute to the group’s success.
From 1958 until 2007, there existed a competing group called The Original Drifters, led by Bill Pinkney and initially made up for 75% of the group that was fired by Treadwell in 1958. Other splinter Drifters groups would follow.
But the group was not yet past its sell-by date. After they left Atlantic in 1971 (ending an affiliation of 18 years!), Johnny Moore formed a new version of the Drifters. They moved to England and began scoring hits there (10 Top 40 entries, 1972-76), on the Bell label. These included “Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies” (# 2) and “There Goes My First Love” (# 3). However, this revival was not matched by success in the USA. Johnny Moore continued to front a group in the UK until his death in 1998. As far as I know, they made no new recordings after 1980, but there has been a tidal wave of reissues of older Drifters material since then.
During the 1980s, Ben E. King rejoined the group for appearances (until 1986). In 1988 the Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The inductees span the group’s history : Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Rudy Lewis, Johnny Moore, Bill Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher and Charlie Thomas.
For a conclusion, let me quote Marv Goldberg : "The Drifters weathered drastic changes in the music industry. They began as one of the greatest of the R&B groups, easily transformed themselves into a rock ’n’ roll group, switched to pop stars in the early 60s, and finished up as soul singers in the later 60s. The Drifters could do it all. The Drifters did it all."
More info : http://www.uncamarvy.com/Drifters/drifters.html http://www.uncamarvy.com/DriftersLate/drifterslate.html
CD recommendations :
Discography (singles only) :
Acknowledgements : Bill Millar, Marv Goldberg, Jay Warner, Cliff White.
Dik, March 2017
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