The Drifters - Biography
By Lee Hildebrand
Few vocal groups scored as many hits over such a long period of time as The Drifters. From the years 1953 to 1974, the New York-based group sustained a remarkable 32 entries on Billboard’s R&B chart and another 36 entries on the trade publication’s pop chart between 1955 and 1966. Just when their US touring itinerary had been relegated to the oldies circuit, The Drifters had their career revitalized in England, where they had 11 hits between 1972 and 1976. The group’s biggest all-time hit was 1961’s “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which featured lead vocalist Ben E. King. It topped both the R&B and pop charts in the United States and climbed to #2 in the United Kingdom.
During their 23 years of chart success, The Drifters had even more members than they had hits, as personnel and musical concepts shifted constantly. The line-up that recorded between 1953 and 1958 was entirely different from the one that recorded from 1958 onwards, both in style and in membership. At least a dozen lead singers were featured over the long stretch, the notables being Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Moore, Ben E. King, and Rudy Lewis. Adding to the muddle, numerous groups have toured as The Drifters since the 1960s, featuring members that had “drifted” in and out of the line-up over time.
The Drifters’ began in early 1953 when McPhatter—whose soaring gospel tenor had led Billy Ward’s Dominoes through three years of success with such R&B hits as “Do Something for Me” and “Have Mercy Baby”—left the Dominoes and was signed to Atlantic Records with a mandate to build a new group around himself. He recruited four men from the Mount Lebanon Singers, a Harlem gospel group with which he had sung with in the late 1940s. Though the origins of the name are not entirely known, David Baldwin—baritone singer with the Mount Lebanon Singers and brother of novelist James Baldwin—is said to have come up with The Drifters.
The Mount Lebanon aggregation did one session for Atlantic, but the company deemed the results too raw, and decided to keep the tracks in the can for a period. McPhatter then hired four other former gospel singers—tenors Bill Pinkney and Andrew Thrasher, baritone Gerhart Thrasher, and basso Willie Ferbee. Ferbee soon dropped out and Pinkney took over the vocal bottom. This Drifters line-up topped the R&B chart in late 1953 with “Money Honey,” written by Jesse Stone and produced by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Six more McPhatter-led R&B hits followed: the #2 “Such a Night,” the #7 “Lucille” (a holdover from the Mount Lebanon session), the #1 “Honey Love,” and the #2 “White Christmas” (on which basso Pinkney split the lead with McPhatter), all in 1954. The other was the #2 “What’cha Gonna Do” in 1955.
By the time “What’cha Gonna Do” was issued, McPhatter had left The Drifters to begin a solo successful career and was temporarily replaced by David Baughan from the earlier Mount Lebanon edition. Baughan was joined in the new Drifters by Pinkney and brothers Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher. As McPhatter sold off The Drifters song and royalty rights to his manager, George Treadwell, subsequent members of group received salaries—salaries often perceived as unfair (as low as $100 per week). Baughan did only one session with the group and was replaced by Johnny Moore. The Cleveland vocalist led on many of The Drifters’ songs, including 1956’s #1 R&B “Adorable,” until he was drafted into the Army the next year. His place was taken by Bobby Hendricks, later of “Itchy Twitchy Feeling” fame.
While fixtures on the R&B charts, The Drifters’ records had seldom penetrated the pop market, a situation that changed radically in 1958. That’s when manager Treadwell fired the entire existing group just before an engagement at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and hired The Crowns—an obscure local act on the same bill. He rechristened them The Drifters. The decision, though uncomfortable for the new group and many fans, proved a key move in bridging The Drifters’ appeal to the pop audience.
Comprising tenor Charlie Thomas, baritones Doc Green and Ben E. King, and basso Elsbeary Hobbs, this edition worked at Atlantic with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to create a lavishly orchestrated, often Latin-tinged style that had instant pop and R&B appeal. This iteration of The Drifters would greatly influence the direction of soul music during the 1960s, especially the work of producers Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, and Bert Berns—all of whom worked on The Drifters sessions—and the Motown sound in general.
King helmed The Drifters until 1959, and contributed his soothing lead baritone to such mega-crossover hits as “There Goes My Baby,” which went to #1 on the R&B charts, 1959’s “Dance with Me,” 1960’s “This Magic Moment,” and the colossal hit “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which topped both the pop and R&B charts in 1960. He was also the lead on “I Count the Tears,” which came out in 1961. Upon leaving, King was replaced by the well-traveled Rudy Lewis, formerly of The Clara Ward Singers. Lewis’s emotive lead on 1961’s “Some Kind of Wonderful,” 1961’s “Sweets for My Sweet,” 1962’s #4 R&B #5 pop “Up on the Roof,” and 1963’s “On Broadway,” which hit #9 on the pop chart.
Johnny Moore rejoined The Drifters in 1963, and after Lewis’s tragic death from an apparent heroin overdose the following year—those close to him believe that Lewis choked to death on food—he became the lead singer again. His debut was the Berns-produced, “Under the Boardwalk.” Written by Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick, the song reached #4 on Billboard’s pop chart during the summer of 1964. It would be the group’s last record to ever make the pop Top 10 in the States. The song was subsequently recorded by the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Billy Joe Royal, Bruce Willis, and Lynn Anderson, among others.
Moore led on “I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes” and the #18 pop charter, “Saturday Night at the Movies”—both in 1964. He also sang on 1965’s memorable “At the Club.” Moore remained with The Drifters as other members departed—and this time Atlantic was unable to keep The Drifters in the upper reaches of the charts. After trying several different producers—including Bob Gallo, Tom Dowd, Ronnie Savoy, Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams, and Paul Vance—Atlantic dropped the ever-evolving group in 1971.
In 1972, Atlantic’s English branch reissued “At the Club” (penned by Carole King and Gerry Goffin)” on a 45 RPM single with “Saturday Night at the Movies” (written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill) as the flip side. Together, the two songs reached #3 on England’s pop chart. Bell Records took notice and signed the group to a contract. At this time, The Drifters were comrpised of the freshly relocated Moore, Bill Fredericks, Grant Kitchings, and Butch Leake.
Bell placed the group with English pop producers Roger Cooke and Roger Greenway, and they put out “Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies,” which went to #7 on the UK charts in 1973, and “Down on the Beach Tonight” in 1974. They also hit big with “There Goes My First Love,” which climbed to #3. All of these songs borrowed themes from earlier Drifters hits, and of these only “Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies” made the US charts, which stalled at #83 on the R&B chart. The Drifters would record one final Top 10 hit in the UK— “You’re More Than a Number in My Little Red Book,” which went to #5 in 1976 on the Arista label. Other acts began performing as The Drifters during the 1970s. One of them, led by Charlie Thomas, also recorded in England for EMI International, but with far less luck than Moore’s version.
Faye Treadwell, the wife of the late George Treadwell who died in 1967, took over management of The Drifters. She and her daughter Tina—the “official” Drifters’ current manager—have waged legal battles over the years against various of these splinter groups and won several judgments in their favor.
The most prolific of the splinter groups was Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters, who recorded with limited success between 1961 and 1999 for such labels as Sue, Fontana, Veep, Christopher, Southern Charisma, S&J, Ripete, and Blackberry. Pinkney, who was born in South Carolina on August 15, 1925, died in Florida on July 4, 2007.
Johnny Moore, who sang with the Treadwell’s Drifters longer than any other member, died in England on December 30, 1998.
Clyde McPhatter, who was born In Durham, North Carolina, on November 15, 1933, had 18 singles on Billboard’s charts after leaving The Drifters, including 1956’s “Seven Days” and the #1 R&B hit, “Treasure of Love.” He was successful again in 1957 with the #1 R&B song “Long Lonely Nights,” and again in 1958 with “A Lover’s Question,” which was also a #1 R&B chart topper. He died in New York City on June 13, 1972.
Ben E. King—who was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, North Carolina, on September 28. 1938—is still active. His post-Drifters hits include the #10 pop charter, “Spanish Harlem” and 1961’s smash “Stand by Me.” He would revisit the charts in 1975 with “Supernatural Thing,” which topped the R&B chart and hit #5 on the pops.
The Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Charlie Thomas and Bill Pinkney accepted the award on behalf of themselves and Clyde McPhatter, Gerhart Thrasher, Johnny Moore, Ben E. King, and Rudy Lewis.
The most comprehensive of the various Drifters’ retrospectives on CD is Rockin’ & Driftin’: The Drifters Box (1996 Atlantic), a three-disc, 79-song set. The collection kicks off with the 1953 non-hit, “Let the Boogie-Woogie Roll,” and continues through 1976’s “You’re More Than a Number in My Little Red Book,” with several solo hits by both McPhatter and King added. Other noteworthy collections include the two-disc, 40-song All Time Greatest Hits & More: 1959-1965 (1990 Atlantic); the two-disc, 30-song The Definitive Soul Collection (2006 Atlantic); and the three-disc, 58-song The Definitive Drifters (2003 WEA, England).