The Drifters

TrackSingle
Money HoneyAtlantic 45-1006
LucilleAtlantic 45-1019
Warm Your HeartAtlantic 45-1029
What'cha Gonna DoAtlantic 45-1055
Ruby BabyAtlantic 45-1089
There Goes My BabyAtlantic 45-2025
This Magic MomentAtlantic 45-2050
Save The Last Dance For MeAtlantic 45-2071
Please StayAtlantic 45-2105
On BroadwayAtlantic 45-2182
One Way LoveAtlantic 45-2225
I Don't Want To Go On Without YouAtlantic 45-2237

 

The Drifters photo 1

The Drifters 1953 (clockwise from top left): Bill Pinkney, Clyde McPhatter, Andrew Thrasher, Willie Ferbee, Gerhart Thrasher

 

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The Drifters photo 2

The Drifters 1958 (l to r): Charlie Thomas, Ben E. King, Dock Green, Elsbeary Hobbs

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

The vocal group the world fell in love with … and a love affair that lasted.

That line occurred to me on the day after Valentine’s Day so whether I can blame the subliminal effect of advertising within the day or weeks before, or whether someone said it about the Drifters and it was buried deep in my subconscious, I don’t know. Or maybe it was invention. It certainly smacks of the triteness and immediacy that you find such a lot of in the pop world. But those weren’t the qualities that characterised the Drifters.

To try and define those characteristics we need to listen to the music. But, in the light of what I can only describe as massive changes in membership over the years, a little bit of reading could be helpful prior to diving into the records.

 

THE DRIFTERS … IN BRIEF

What you’ll find below is a précis of the group’s history. I’ve made no attempt to document all the comings and goings but have included enough so that the reader will be able to understand broadly what happened when, and who was involved in which piece of music, particularly those really memorable ones. For something more detailed I’d recommend a look at Wiki or AllMusic. In addition, Marv Goldberg in his R&B Notebooks has not one but several pages devoted to the group(s) based on interviews with as many members as he could get hold of.

1932: Clyde Lensley McPhatter is born in North Carolina on November 15th. The family later move to New York where Clyde forms a gospel group, the Mount Lebanon Singers.

1938: Benjamin Earl Nelson, later to call himself Ben E. King, is born in North Carolina on September 28th. The family move to Harlem, New York, when Ben is nine. He starts singing in church choirs but joins a doo wop group, the Five Crowns, in 1958.

1950: McPhatter is recruited to a new group being formed by Billy Ward with the slightly cumbersome name of Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Clyde was the most frequent lead singer for the group.

1953: McPhatter leaves the Dominoes after dissatisfaction with the way the group was managed. His place is taken by Jackie Wilson. Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records signs Clyde to a contract and the two attempt to recruit a group to work with him. It takes a couple of goes but the outfit they settle on consists of Bill Pinkney and Andrew Thrasher (both tenors), Gerhart Thrasher (baritone), Willie Ferbee (bass) with Walter Adams (guitar). The guys’ background was predominantly gospel. The new group are given the name “The Drifters” with manager George Treadwell owning half share of the Drifters name and Clyde having the other half.

1953 to 1954: The Drifters smash their way into the nation’s R&B Chart, gaining the #1 spot in the second half of ’53 with their first release, Money Honey. Later records also give them high R&B Chart placings, and one, Honey Love almost making the pop Top Twenty. There are line-up changes including Bill Pinkney dropping to bass and Jimmy Oliver joining on guitar after Walter Adams dies of a heart attack.

1954: In March, McPhatter is drafted. On his return from military service he accepts a contract with Atlantic as a solo singer. He sells his half of the group name to Treadwell. Clyde is replaced by a young singer called David Baughan (sometimes written as Baughn) who had taken the lead role while Clyde was off doing his duty. However he doesn’t last and is soon replaced by Johnny Moore.

1955 to 1958: The group continue to show in the R&B Chart with lead vocal mainly shared between Johnny Moore and Gerhart Thrasher plus new member Bobby Hendricks. There’s more churn in membership. Bill Pinkney leaves and later forms a group he calls “The Original Drifters”. During ’57 and ’58, chart hits largely disappear and the group falls into disarray.

1958: George Treadwell fires the group and recruits an entirely new “Drifters”. He does this by renaming a group called the Crowns (who had until shortly before been performing as the Five Crowns) after agreement with their manager. The Crowns/Drifters consist of Ben E. Nelson who was not yet using Ben E. King as his stage name, Charlie Thomas who had been the main lead tenor, Doc Green (baritone) and Elsbeary Hobbs (bass). Although other names appear and disappear, it’s that grouping who appear on the first recording session held for the new Drifters in March, 1959.

1959 to 1960: History sort of repeats itself in that the first record from the new Drifters – and I’ll drop the “new” from now on – hits the #2 spot on the R&B Chart and the #1 spot in the Pop Chart. The record was There Goes My Baby. It was revolutionary for its time and was the start of what’s often viewed as the Drifters’ golden era.

1960 to 1970 approx: In May 1960, King leaves to take up a solo career with Atlantic. Rudy Lewis from the Clara Ward (gospel) Singers is recruited to replace him as lead, though that role is later taken by Johnny Moore after return from military service and a failed solo career. The hits – including such numbers as Up On The Roof and Under The Boardwalk – largely continue and don’t fade away till the second half of the decade.

1972 and onwards: The Drifters leave Atlantic and move to the UK where they have several hits on the Bell label often authored by Roger Greenaway and/or Roger Cook. It’s also around this time that multiple “Drifters” start to appear, usually containing one or more members of one of the original groupings. Which, hardly surprisingly, leads to court cases.

Which is a somewhat sad way for it all to end up but, boy, have we been left with some legacy. Indeed it’s one that no other black vocal group could get close to. However, apart from a nod in the direction of a couple of Brits called Roger, I’ve made no mention of the songwriters, producers and arrangers the boys worked with including both Ertegun brothers, Jerry Wexler, Jesse Stone (a largely unheralded man who was behind a lot of quality R&B and early rock), Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller plus their sparring partners as writers, Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, Bert Berns, the cream of the Brill Building including a young Burt Bacharach. Oh, and an apprentice by the name of Phil Spector.

 

THE McPHATTER DRIFTERS

Money Honey stands proudly, first in the list, and first in order of release by the Drifters (but not the first track to be recorded, on which, more later). With a release date of August 1953, it’s one of those records that gets labelled ‘rock and roll before rock and roll’. Like 99 point something-or-other percent of UK record buyers, I didn’t get to know about this track till many years later. The first eight of the Drifters’ singles didn’t see release in the UK and the first time I even became aware of the song was via the Presley version which was recorded in January ’56 and got included in the first RCA album, released in the UK as Elvis Presley Rock ‘n’ Roll. I didn’t buy that but did buy a couple of the albums released while El was doing his thing for Uncle Sam which contained a simply marvellous repackaging of Sun and early RCA material. Money Honey stood out even amongst the Sun goodies but I didn’t get to hear the original until several years later. The LP Good Gravy from Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters on the UK Atlantic label might have been the first compilation released from the group in the UK. That was 1964 and I picked up a copy not long after. And there it was, at long last, Money Honey in all its glory!

Fabulous sax break from Sam “The Man” Taylor, interrupted by a hair-raising scream from Clyde, but the credit on this record was as much due to Jesse Stone the writer, as it was to Clyde and the boys. Dave Marsh put it like this (source: “The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made”):

“Three years before Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business”, six before Berry Gordy’s “Money”, Stone crafted a musical portrait of a guy whose troubles with everybody from the landlord to his girlfriend stem directly from lack of cash, and spelled it out in terms that were not so much black vernacular as basic American.”

You know, the landlord rang my front door bell
I let it ring for a long, long spell
I went through the window and peeked through the blind,
And asked him to tell me what was on his mind

He said, “Money, honey!”
etc.

In some respects, Lucille, a track that was recorded before Money Honey is a better illustration of Clyde’s vocal strengths than the debut single. Our man really launches himself at the song: scuttering and sliding, soaring and swooping, in between, round about, and very often, within the notes, usually in the high register but never staying still, pleading with his Lucille to come on home where she belongs. The boys do little more than echo the lady’s name or ooh away sadly. I say “sadly” but there’s still an element of bounce to the McPhatter voice as if he’s gonna get through this even if there will be tears before bedtime. There’s a more shrill sound to the Drifters than on later records and footnote #4 documents the conjecture, or maybe confirmation, that this was an earlier set of Drifters than the gang who recorded Money Honey and the later McPhatter/Drifters hits.

I’ve seen the word ‘haunting’ used about this performance and I wouldn’t disagree, but the song itself is little more than a medium tempo twelve bar blues with the tone set by the opening couplet: “I’m just staring into space / haven’t got a word to say”. But I can assure any fifties rock and roll fan reading this that she’s not the famous Lucille who wouldn’t do Little Richard’s will though the songs do share one very similar line. Compare “Lucille, come home where you belong” and “Lucille, please come back where you belong” so there might have been some creative synergy going on.

Lucille saw release as the flip to the boys second single with the A-side, Such A Night (also covered by Presley), seeing major action in the R&B Chart again. Sticking with the theme of flips, Warm Your Heart, the B-side to Honey Love (which was another good seller) would probably have been described as a blues ballad at the time but you know what? I’d call it sweet soul music. And if I were to ape the approach taken by Dave Marsh: Warm Your Heart came six months before Johnny Ace’s Pledging My Love, a year before Little Willie John’s Need Your Love So Bad, a year before Ray Charles’ A Fool For You (check it out if you don’t know it), the best part of two years before James Brown’s Please, Please, Please, three years before Sam Cooke’s You Send Me, and Otis Redding was only 12 years old at the time. Would there have been an Otis without Clyde? Far-fetched or perhaps not?

What’cha Gonna Do, penned by Ahmet Ertegun under the alias of Nugetre, might have been seen as a revamp of the Dominoes’ Have Mercy Baby. There was the same up tempo thrust and the same call and response interplay between Clyde and backing vocalists. But the differences were there: the thumpy two-four on the Dominoes record had been replaced by the patented Atlantic shuffle with an understated riff going on in time with the beat; the exhortations in “Mercy” in line with gospel encouragement to a preacher/singer, had disappeared but in their place was a much stronger feeling of simpatico between Clyde and the guys, Clyde himself was much looser and freer on the later record. To summarise, “What’cha” was streamlined in comparison to “Mercy” but while the near live impression found on the earlier record had disappeared, all those elements of technical precision present on the Atlantic disc hadn’t had negative impact on the excitement/involvement level.

That relationship between a Dominoes track and one from the McPhatter Drifters might have been entirely spurious or coincidental or even imagined. However, the relationship between the Drifters’ White Christmas, released to attract seasonal sales in November 1954 and the one from the Ravens in November 1948 was anything but spurious. It’s highly unlikely that either would have happened without the original disc from Bing Crosby in 1942 plus later remakes. It was the Ravens who first came up with the idea of replacing Bing’s warm bass-baritone with leader Jimmy Ricks’ rather deeper bass voice and they threw in some jazzier bits of phrasing while they were about it. Not content with that, they also substituted high tenor Maithe Marshall for the chorale section (with higher voices than Bing) in the original. This was the result and it rewarded them with a #9 position in the R&B Chart. The Atlantic management team evidently felt that the world was ready for another White Christmas and it turned out that Bill Pinkney’s tone was closer to Der Bingle than Jimmy Ricks’ deep rumble. Clyde when he enters, which of course he does eventually, gives us his highest falsetto relishing the contrast with Pinkney and the others. But they’re all clearly enjoying the opportunity to show the doo wop groups what they can do with a whole raft of extra flourishes and vocal effects that put this record head and shoulders above the Ravens, even if it was Ricks and co. who had the idea. And it’s the Drifters’ version that still gets played (and Bing as well, of course, who even included one or two touches of mild melisma in his original; yup, they’re there if you listen carefully).

The Drifters’ White Christmas managed to get itself into the low end of the Hot 100 but it also picked up sales in the following two Christmases. More recently it was used in soundtrack of the 1990 film Home Alone.

I don’t feel I’ve done full justice to the McPhatter Drifters. Perfectly good records (and R&B Chart hits) like Such A Night and Honey Love have hardly had a look in and the influence of these guys, McPhatter in particular, was immense. However, they were but one part in the rich experience that we call The Drifters. So it’s on to …

 

THE POST McPHATTER BUT PRE-KING PERIOD

… usually seen as the least interesting of the Drifters’ phases but it had its moments. It was during this time frame that the boys started recording Leiber and Stoller songs and, in Bill Millar’s “The Drifters”, he quotes Jerry Wexler as recalling:

“One day Ahmet and I found ourselves with a very heavy schedule, We used to produce everything together, and I said to Ahmet or he said to me (I don’t remember exactly what happened) “Hey, the next Drifters record, let’s let Leiber and Stoller do it” which was like a horrendously hair-raising notion to let somebody else do The Drifters.”

For rock‘n’roll fans one of the most enduring records to come out of this period of Drifters’ existence was 1956’s Ruby Baby, an L&S written twelve bar affair without anything particularly great musically about it but a simple melody line that just sticks in the brain and a record that just seems to work. Black rock and roll, pitched somewhere on the line between Joe Turner and the jump blues guys at one end, and the fast doo-woppers at the other. Over the years the song has become a kind of rock standard. While the most famous version of it has to be the one from Dion there have been plenty more (see Footnotes).

Johnny Moore took the lead on Ruby Baby but on Suddenly There’s A Valley it was shared between Bill Pinkney and Bobby Hendricks, very much in the White Christmas vein with Bobby taking the Clyde role but missing some of the great man’s fluidity. The record didn’t see release at the time of recording but had to wait over eighteen months into the Ben E. King era when it slipped out on a flip side. This wasn’t unusual in the Drifters’ history. It took even longer for the only track recorded with “Little” David Baughan on lead to see the light of day. From all reports, Little Dave was the closest any of the guys had come to a Clyde soundalike, but Atlantic, it would seem, weren’t convinced. The track was Honey Bee which was broadly along the proto soul lines of Warm Your Heart. Maybe the Drifters’ career post-Clyde might have followed a different route if this had seen release when it was recorded (April 21st 1955).

Gerhart Thrasher took the lead on several numbers. Both Your Promise To Be Mine (1956) and Drifting Away From You (1957) were pleasing sides if not earth shattering. The pair were written by guitarist Jimmy Oliver. Johnny Moore wasn’t exactly a slouch at the mike either. Adorable (1955) and Fools Fall In Love (1957) flirted with easy listening but certainly slipped down easily.

“Pleasing but not earth shattering” might sum up this period in the Drifters’ existence. There was a certain lack of sturm und drang without Clyde on board. But that was about to change.

 

THE NEW DRIFTERS aka THE KING ERA

There Goes My Baby was the highlight of this era for many, after which it was downhill albeit with the odd uplift along the way. But TGMB was so great that even some of the relatively minor tracks that came after were actually pretty good too.

The new Drifters handled the stage engagements for the group for the rest of ’58 and early ’59. Charlie Thomas mainly took the lead role, and on baritone there was this guy called Benjamin Earl Nelson. In March ’59, the group convened in the Atlantic studios for their first recording session as the Drifters. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were in control. A full orchestra had been booked which, at that juncture, was very rare in R&B, though in the rock field, Buddy Holly had used strings late in ’58. Jerry Leiber is quoted at length on the session in Bill Millar’s book and he uses the words “Caucasian take-off” to characterise the arrangement of There Goes My Baby (from Stan Applebaum rather than the usual Mike Stoller). Bill himself coins the phrase “There goes Tchaikovsky” about the whole thing.

Charlie Thomas was meant to sing lead but he got microphone fright so Nelson, who had co-written the song, took over. The arrangement wasn’t transposed to a key that was suitable for Ben’s voice so he ended up straining more than usual. Couple in the fact that the tympani kept going out of tune and you had quite some result. There are various stories about how Leiber and Stoller were singularly lacking in confidence as to whether this number with its crashing tympani and dramatic string flourishes would be a saleable single, and Jerry Wexler, in particular, was highly critical. Indeed, Leiber quotes him as saying “Man, get the f**k out of here with that – I hate it, you know – it’s out of tune and it’s phony.” Ahmet was also listening, “You know, I think . . . well maybe we ought to, you know, try and put it out.” They did and it hit #1 in the R&B Chart and #2 in the Hot 100.

I have to put my hand up at this juncture and admit I don’t remember this record being played at the time but there are some wonderful quotes in 45cat from correspondents listening to it “on Radio Luxembourg at night with the radio under the bedsheets” and being absolutely bowled over. Those guys were in the minority though; the rest of the UK didn’t wake up to the Drifters till a couple more records had been released. One young man who very likely would have woken up though was Phil Spector who was still one third of the Teddy Bears, so hadn’t yet become Jerry and Mike’s apprentice.

I’ve been somewhat sniffy about the King fronted Drifters’ later releases but you and I both know that that isn’t really fair. The sequence of tracks that followed There Goes My Baby didn’t resemble it all that much but what they did resemble was gorgeous pop. R&B had taken a back seat and the agony and heartburn of TGMB were nowhere in sight. Dance With Me (and its flip True Love, True Love), This Magic Moment, Lonely Winds, Save The Last Dance For Me and I Count The Tears all come into this category and I couldn’t possibly have included the lot!

This Magic Moment certainly appeared to share some attributes with There Goes My Baby: an intro that immediately caught your attention; strings (which were now definitely in) but these ones fizzed rather than tugged at your soul; the good old doo-wop progression which was in favour on successive singles but used with imagination; and a latin rhythm that was the second thing that hit you in the intro, rather than present but subordinate to several other features as in TGMB. They added a new feature too: a brief moment when the singer soars and the backing stops, something that got used with some regularity in the field of blues. Ben was operating in a key that allowed more of the natural warmth to show through and the whole thing had a certain elegance about it. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman were the writers and Mort captured the celebratory mode of the song in the first few phrases:

This magic moment
So different and so new
Was like any other
Until I kissed you

There’s no way I could ignore Save The Last Dance For Me. It’s the one that told me the Drifters – and specifically King – were something special (though I’d not totally ignored the preceding Dance With Me). Ben is very prominent; the rest of the boys don’t even appear until the second verse when they echo him in call and response mode just like the earlier Drifters did for Clyde. The latin rhythm hits you from the word go and never lets up, indeed it’s ingrained in Ben’s delivery of the lyrics wherein the spaces are often as important as the phrases. Baion was the new word we took away to describe that rhythm. Strings haven’t disappeared entirely but they’re used with considerably more subtlety than hitherto. While the song came, once again, from Pomus & Shuman and the production is listed as being by Leiber & Stoller, Bill Millar has a theory that the new young apprentice was in there overdubbing and adding who knows what including an unexpected female choir. He even goes as far as saying that this was the beginning of the wall of sound.

Maybe. What I do know is that those lyrics are still readily accessible from my grey cells:

You can dance
Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight
You can smile
Every smile at the man who held your hand ‘neath the pale moonlight
But don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be
So darling, save the last dance for me

Ben E. King only sang lead on eleven tracks with the Drifters but to many, many people he was their greatest lead singer. Perhaps the least known of those tracks was Sometimes I Wonder which didn’t get the nod from Atlantic in terms of release but which eventually snuck out a couple of years later. Okay it might have had some claim to be There Goes My Baby Part 2 but still had plenty of quality about it.

 

THE POST-BEN E. KING ERA

… or the period which most of us know best since it contains tracks like Sweets For My Sweet (the original), When My Little Girl Is Smiling, Up On The Roof, On Broadway, Under The Boardwalk, Saturday Night At The Movies and so on, or, to put it another way, all those tracks we get on oldies radio.

The first single without King as lead – Gerry Goffin & Carole King’s Some Kind Of Wonderful – followed the style Atlantic had adopted for most of the King singles, with focus very much on the new lead singer, Rudy Lewis. The second, though, Please Stay, was more adventurous. Utilising a melody from Burt Bacharach which was almost in the land of exoticism compared with the doo-wop progressions they’d been used to, plus words from Bob Hilliard, there were elements of freshness about the record even if the approach was largely multi-voice doo-wop, with the “don’t go’s” coming from bass man Elsbeary Hobbs and the “please stay’s” from the ensemble. The strings this time were spritely and contributed well to the overall atmosphere which had a curious mix of the plaintive and the sweet.

Both Some Kind Of Wonderful and Please Stay came from the first post-King Drifters session held in New York in September 1960. Also recorded at that session was Sweets For My Sweet which didn’t get a sniff of the charts in the UK at the time of release but the Pomus/Shuman song (and largely arrangement) provided a debut hit for the UK’s Searchers via their later cover version in early ’63. The Drifters’ September 1960 session was also notable for the presence of female backing singers Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, Cissy Houston and Doris Troy. The practice of using such vocalists would become a regular from this point onwards. Also present at that session was male vocalist Jimmy Radcliffe who, like the ladies, would achieve a level of later solo fame, in his case with songs like Long After Tonight Is All Over.

Skipping forward several years –to April 1964, if 45cat is to be fully trusted – there was another Drifters’ song which provided a vehicle for a UK artist to clamber onto and motor his way up into the UK chart. The number was One Way Love and the artist was Cliff Bennett (and the Rebel Rousers). The Drifters’ lead singer this time was Johnny Moore and both he and the boys (and the arrangement) provided a level of stateliness that was entirely missing from the Bennett/Rebel Rousers more muscular version. I happen to love both takes but it is true that the Drifters original was almost completely ignored in 1964 when it was released and that situation hasn’t improved over time judging by the low level of YouTube ‘Likes’. Here are the Drifters:

Producer for One Way Love was Bert Berns who’d come on board the previous year after achieving chart success with Solomon Burke (also on Atlantic). He co-wrote the song along with Jerry Ragavoy. This wasn’t the first Bert Berns produced track to see release. The splendid pairing of Vaya Con Dios, and In The Land Of Make Believe came from sessions held in the second half of 1963. Both very nearly made my selections though they fit in that bag labelled ‘obscure Drifters tracks’. The title of Vaya Con Dios is almost a con (if I can be allowed the occasional pun). You’re expecting mex or at least latin and what you get is an opening that smacks of southern soul (with Robert Ward style vibrato guitar) to the extent that you’re almost anticipating the entrance of King Solomon or Wilson Pickett. Instead you get Rudy Lewis who does a mighty fine job as substitute. In The Land Of Make Believe is, if anything, even better. Totally different, the song is from Bacharach and David and features one of those complex and unusual melody lines that we’d already learned to expect and love when coming via the lips of Dionne Warwick.

On May 21st 1964, the Drifters were scheduled for an evening recording session but the news spread during the day that Rudy Lewis had suddenly died. The cause of death has never been fully confirmed but has been reported as being due to a heart attack, asphyxiation – he was known to eat heavy meals late at night – or a drug overdose. The session went ahead but the boys were in tears (source: Marv Goldberg on The Later Drifters). One of the songs due to be recorded was I Don’t Want To Go On Without You written by Berns and Jerry Wexler. It was sung by Charlie Thomas as a tribute to Rudy. And, as it happened, it was a very fine record. Broadly in the smooth soul idiom, as exemplified by people like Jerry Butler, but with an excellent arrangement and much greater depth than you’d have expected from someone who usually took a background role. It saw release as B-side to Under The Boardwalk from the same session.

Which brings me back to those big records from the Drifters which I’ve conspicuously ignored over the last few paras (see also Footnotes). I’m including one and it’s 1963’s On Broadway recorded while Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller were still in the production booth. It’s a very slick effort, originating with Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil but given some added touches by Jerry and Mike. According to a couple of sources (Wiki and Songfacts) it was Phil Spector who played the rather bluesy sounding guitar which appears about two minutes in (as an aural taste of the immediately preceding lyrics).

But they’re wrong, I know they are
I can play this here guitar
And I won’t quit till I’m a star
On Broadway (on Broadway)

I was going to close on that note but felt that as an antidote to too much late period smoothness a recall of the first Drifters was in order. So, from the session held on June 29th 1953 but not released until it appeared on the flipside of a McPhatter solo track in 1960, here is Let The Boogie Woogie Roll, with Clyde and the boys still soaked in gospel and blues:

I don’t know whether I’ve got anywhere even remotely close to identifying just what it was about the Drifters that made them so special. Maybe I should just direct the reader to the lyrics of a Drifters song from 1963 which was penned by Bacharach & David, with the record produced by Leiber & Stoller:

Let the music play
Just a little longer

 

The Drifters poster

FOOTNOTES

1. Billy Ward was something of a child musical prodigy and studied music at the Art Institute in Chicago and the Juilliard in New York after completing his military service. He picked up jobs as part-time arranger and vocal coach, and came up with the idea of recruiting students to form a vocal group. He found Clyde McPhatter after the latter had won an amateur talent night at the Harlem Apollo. The first group that Ward put together started playing talent contests and got themselves a recording contract with Federal Records, part of King Records of Cincinnati. The group were originally called the Ques, then the Dominoes, then Billy Ward and His Dominoes.

Ward played no role in the actual singing, but would accompany the group on keyboards and produce the guys in the studio. He also wrote many of their songs along with talent agent Rose Marks who also worked on the group’s management. One of their most famous numbers was Sixty Minute Man, a title that wasn’t designed for white radio airing but in spite of that it was one of the earliest R&B records to cross over to the Pop Chart (it made #17).

The range of the group plus the musical creativeness that Clyde McPhatter brought to the table is illustrated by the ballad Harbor Lights. This has the mild, almost soporific, approach not unlike that of some of the ‘bird groups’ like the Orioles that were around in the early fifties, but Clyde was much more in your face than Sonny Til, leader of the Orioles.

I’ve mentioned Have Mercy Baby from 1952 in the main text. It has the call and response pattern that could have come directly from a gospel record with the group singing “Have mercy Jesus”, though the snorting tenor sax puts this record firmly in R&B territory. It was the sort of thing that Ray Charles would include in his repertoire several years later.

Billy Ward paid his singers a salary each rather than giving a part share of royalties, concert monies etc. According to Wiki, “Allegedly, Ward paid his singers $100 a week minus deductions for taxes, food and hotel bills.“ He also fined a member if he stepped out of line in any way.

2. There‘s a splendid paragraph in Bill Millar’s “The Drifters” where he traces the origins of several R&B and early soul numbers to gospel songs. Such numbers include Ray Charles’ I Got A Woman, Hank Ballard’s What Is This I See, Etta James’ Something’s Got A Hold On Me and Theola Kilgore’s The Love Of My Man. Millar retains balance though, stating “Much of today’s gospel tends to be reheated versions of old R&B tunes …”

3. The story goes that Ahmet Ertegun attended a gig by the Dominoes and, when he saw that Clyde McPhatter wasn’t on stage as the lead singer, asked about his whereabouts. On being told he was no longer with the group, Ahmet sought out Clyde immediately and signed him to Atlantic.

4. I state in the main text that “It took a couple of goes” to recruit a group to back Clyde at Atlantic. I was aiming at concision but that statement could do with some amplification. The first set of singers that Clyde identified were several of the same guys who’d worked with him in the Mount Lebanon Singers. In Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebook headed The Drifters (The Early Years) he states that it was this grouping who accompanied Clyde in the first Atlantic session held on June 29th 1953. Four numbers were recorded, only one of which, Lucille, saw release at the time. Goldberg goes on to say that the Atlantic management team didn’t see much commercial potential with the recordings and that the fault lay with the vocal blend. I’m paraphrasing Goldberg’s words and those of Bill Pinkney who he quotes. Clyde then spoke to Gerhart Thrasher who he knew via another gospel group called the Thrasher Wonders and, via him, recruited a second “Drifters” (with quotation marks present because the probability is that the group wasn’t named when the June session took place).

I’m going with the Goldberg version of events in this instance due to the degree of research involved. Bill Millar differs but he’s brilliant in plenty of other respects.

5. George Treadwell was an ex-jazz trumpet player who quit playing in order to manage the career of his first wife, Sarah Vaughan. He also managed Atlantic soul diva Ruth Brown.

6. The range of artists who’ve covered Ruby Baby runs from Björk to Donald Fagen with the Beach Boys somewhere in between. My own favourite comes from good old Ronnie Hawkins which might well be the one that served as a model for the Gene Vincent effort on his attempted comeback album I’m Back And I’m Proud. For further reading there’s a list in Wiki but it’s by no means complete.

7. There’s more on Leiber & Stoller at Atlantic Records in the Coasters Toppermost but for a fuller write-up I’d direct the reader to Wiki.

8. By May 1958, both Bobby Hendricks and Jimmy Oliver had quit prior to that iteration of the Drifters being wound up by George Treadwell (source: Wiki). Hendricks went solo and got himself a moderate size hit – it reached #23 in the Hot 100 – with Itchy Twitchy Feeling. Chart entries didn’t continue though and from 1961 on and off, Hendricks worked in the lead tenor role with Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters.

9. I comment in the main text on the fact that Atlantic would sometimes ‘backfill’ a Drifters single by including a B-side from an earlier manifestation of the group with an A-side that was recently recorded e.g. coupling a King era A with a B from material that was ‘in the can’ from the post McPhatter, pre King period, say. In addition to this confusing practice, they also backfilled McPhatter solo tracks with previously unreleased McPhatter/Drifters tracks.

10. The Five Crowns date back to the very early fifties and New York’s Harlem where they were seen as stars, albeit locally owned ones. They don’t appear in all that many record books but AllMusic and the trusty Marv Goldberg provide biographies. Their first record to see release was A Star on Rainbow Records in 1952. Circa 1958, after several changes in record label and membership, they gained a new recruit in Benjamin Earl Nelson. Under the new name of “The Crowns” they recorded Kiss And Make Up written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman with lead vocal from Charlie Thomas. The flip was I’ll Forget About You written by two other group members, James “Papa” Clark and Walter Coleman, on which Clark took the lead. Nelson/King was in the backing chorus for both. The coupling of a jumper and a ballad was a good illustration of the guys’ range and competence. On the strength of this record the Crowns picked up a week long engagement at the Apollo which is where George Treadwell saw them. Timewise this just happened to coincide with the Drifters going through something of an implosion. Hence the “New Drifters”. The Crowns manager, Lover Patterson, became the Drifters road manager and James Clark got fired due to a known drink habit.

11. The King version of the Drifters toured with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and acted as pallbearers bringing Jay in his coffin from which he would make his entrance onto the stage. (Source: Marv Goldberg R&B NotebooksThe Later Drifters)

12. I’ve always wondered whether Pomus and Shuman’s usage of the title This Magic Moment was some form of hommage to the early Bacharach/David song, Magic Moments which was a big hit for Perry Como in 1958.

13. There’s a version of This Magic Moment from Lou Reed on which those mannerisms are well to the fore not to mention the crunching chords.

14. Phil Spector may or may not have had involvement with the Drifters’ Save The Last Dance For Me but what he definitely did do was record a version of the song with Ike and Tina Turner which appeared on the album River Deep – Mountain High. It included elements of the famous wall of sound.

15. The Drifters’ Save The Last Dance For Me received the compliment of an answer disc, I’ll Save The Last Dance For You, from a lady called Damita Jo which got to #22 in the US. Damita must have had something of a ‘thing’ for Ben E. King since she also responded to his solo Stand By Me with her own I’ll Be There.

16. Bob Hilliard collaborated on several songs with Burt Bacharach in ’61/’62. Other notable numbers from the pairing included Tower Of Strength from Gene McDaniels and Any Day Now from Chuck Jackson.

17. Given the possibility of some songs, or merely song titles, “prompting” others, it’s noticeable that Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ Stay had been a big crossover hit in the second half of 1960. The Drifters’ Please Stay was released in May 1961 in the US.

18. For a reference to Please Stay and the inclusion of a cover of the song on Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band – As & Bs Scrap Book, see Peter Viney’s excellent Toppermost on Zoot Money. Perhaps the best known cover version of Please Stay is the Joe Meek production for the Cryin’ Shames, a UK #26:

19. For info on singer, guitarist and songwriter Robert Ward, see the Falcons Toppermost.

20. My reluctance to include no more than one of the late period Drifters’ records is that they’ve been so done to death on the radio that I can’t raise too much enthusiasm for them myself, though I’d hasten to add that’s not a comment on musical excellence or otherwise. Given also, the overall quality of Drifters’ singles, I wanted to use the generous 12 slots the editor had given me to display some of the lesser known but still superb material.

21. Both Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King went on to solo success though McPhatter’s name isn’t known by the average record buyer. His biggest pop chart success came with A Lover’s Question in 1958. Both are deserving of Toppermosts in their own right so I’ll say no more here.

22. Rather to my surprise, in looking back I see that I’ve only used the word ‘melisma’ once and that was in relation to Bing Crosby of all people. Quite how I managed not to say that Clyde McPhatter was one of the greatest masters of this technique, which was common in gospel music, I don’t know. He was also one of the earliest artists to introduce it to a mass audience via his records with Billy Ward’s Dominoes.

23. I have been guilty of tossing around terms like ‘R&B vocal group’ and ‘Doo-Wop’ with abandon. The former was originally used to characterise all black vocal groups, though when ‘doo-wop’ started to find favour as a term for those groups with more inventive vocal backing and multiple member vocal interplay, the prefix ‘R&B’ in front of ‘vocal group’ started to be restricted to only those with more explicit usage of gospel and blues techniques; or, since so many groups came from a gospel background, those singers/groups who didn’t play down this musical inheritance. James Brown and Hank Ballard emerged from just such groups. Any attempt to refine such definitions is almost inevitably doomed to failure when a group like the Drifters could switch from doo-wop to R&B on successive records, or even sides of a record.

24. Another apology: finding clips of the Drifters on YouTube (see below) that had (a) decent sound and (b) the right Drifters in the picture(s) accompanying the music proved impossible in many cases so I have to say that (b) took strictly second priority. In some cases uploaders have even appended names to individuals in group pictures to compound a mistaken impression. But maybe it didn’t matter; you knew you were going to be listening to some fine music whichever grouping of Drifters happened to be singing.

Whoever they were, the Drifters will never be forgotten.

 

The Drifters photo 3

 

 

Clyde McPhatter (1932-1972)

Bill Pinkney (1925-2007)

Johnny Moore (1934–1998)

Elsbeary Hobbs (1936-1996)

Ben E. King (1938–2015)

Rudy Lewis (1936–1964)

 

 

The Drifters official website

Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters official website

The Drifters at Discogs

The Drifters biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Johnny Ace, Cliff Bennett, Solomon Burke, The Coasters, Sam Cooke, Bing Crosby, The Falcons, Ronnie Hawkins, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Willie John, Zoot Money, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Radcliffe, Otis Redding

TopperPost #705

7 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Mar 19, 2018

    Dave, thanks for this great piece, brilliantly researched as always. Might put in a word for ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful’ which is so magnificently sung by Rudy Lewis. And I might have to find a way to get “Under The Boardwalk’ into my top ten. Will also mention Marvin Gaye’s brilliant covers of both ‘This Magic Moment’ and ”Some Kind Of Wonderful’.

  2. Alex Lifson
    Mar 25, 2018

    Unbelievable piece. Great group with so many songs. Thank you.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Mar 25, 2018

    Many thanks for your comments guys. I set out to show that the Drifters were one heck of a lot more than easy listening radio pap. Indeed they were quite cutting edge at times as well as having two lead singers who deserve to be called soul legends.

  4. Steve Paine
    Mar 26, 2018

    Those of a certain age remember all of the Drifters’ greatest hits and can still summon the lyrics to sing along when one of these gems is played. I’m a charter member of this aging fan-club, but never knew more than a sliver of the background until I read your piece. Thanks, Dave!

  5. Peter Viney
    Mar 27, 2018

    Another great one, which was particular informative on the earlier incarnations. Bert Berns also preferred the B-side of Under The Boardwalk, but the radio play does not lie: this song, cut after the death of Rudy Lewis, is their greatest achievement. The much-played trio, Under The Boardwalk with On Broadway and Up on the Roof deserves its heavy rotation. I’d have to add Up On The Roof AND its B-side Another Night With The Boys. I wore my original 45 out equally on both sides. Joel Selvin in his Bert Berns biography points out that by the early 60s Drifters were simply employees of manager George Treadwell. They did not participate in performance fees or royalties, and earned a flat wage. Nevertheless, the essential song is Only in America. Leiber & Stoller wrote it as irony, which is how The Drifters sing it in 1963, but Wexler at Atlantic refused to release it and replaced the vocals with Jay & The Americans (not ironic) and had a hit. The Drifters original version crept out in 1971 on a UK compilation and has grown in reputation. An oddity in their early 60s catalogue is their vocal version of Acker Bilk’s Stranger On The Shore, which I can’t help liking.

  6. Peter Viney
    Mar 27, 2018

    Correction: Mann & Weill wrote Only In America, and Leiber & Stiller were brought in to whiten the lyrics eradicating “Only in America, land of opportunity, can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me.” etc. However, Leiber & Stoller chose to retain the irony by having The Drifters record it. The hit version by Jay & The Americans is the same instrumental track. The Drifters version is on the Ace CD “Change Is Gonna Come: The Voice of Black America 1963-73.”

  7. Dave Stephens
    Mar 28, 2018

    Thank you Peter and Steve for those comments. I’ve just had a listen to Only In America. Very prescient song. After the lines “Only in America can a kid without a cent get a break and maybe grow up to be president”, the Mariachi trumpets appear, obviously an allusion to The Wall! And yes the “without a cent” just had to be a bit of artistic bending of the truth.

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