The Drifters held their ground as a premier doo wop and R&B band from the early 1950s until the mid-1960s, recording such unforgettable hits as “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Under the Boardwalk.” “The Drifters are part of an… exclusive fraternity,” maintained Bruce Eder in All Music Guide, “as a group that Manáged to carve out a place for themselves in the R&B firmament and also define that music.” While lineup changes plagued the group throughout both decades, lead singers like Clyde McPhatter and Rudy Lewis, along with the production team at Atlantic Records, assured the Drifters’ continued success. Twenty-five of their 37 hits reached the top ten, and five topped the charts at number one. Innovations such as the string section the group used on “There Goes My Baby” influenced the soul sound developed by Phil Spector and Motown Records during the 1960s. Although hits stopped coming for the group after 1964, the Drifters continued to draw fans through performances in various combinations in England and the United States from the 1970s onward.
“The Drifters are an institution,” noted Bill Millar in The Marshall Cavendish History of Popular Music. “Very few vocal groups have remained popular for more than 30 years, and in an area notable for its lack of consistency the Drifters’ longevity is almost without parallel.” The complex history of the Drifters can best be divided into two separate phases: the first begins with McPhatter’s leadership in 1953, and the second six years later when Ben E. King took over lead vocals. In the first stage, the band performed as a classic doo wop unit, incorporating harmonies from groups such as the Mills Brothers as well as from gospel. In the second stage, they performed as an R&B band, recording a series of pop hits that can still be heard on oldies radio stations.
In 1953 Ahmet Ertegun attended a Dominoes concert at the Birdland in New York City, then asked to speak to the group’s lead singer, Clyde McPhatter, backstage. Ertegun wasn’t your typical fan; he was an avid music collector who, in the 1940s, had founded Atlantic Records. When he was told that McPhatter had just been fired, Ertegun went to the singer’s apartment in Harlem. He convinced McPhatter to sign a contract with Atlantic, under the stipulation that the singer form his own group. Although the inspiration for his new group’s name remains unclear, Billy Vera wrote in the liner notes to Rockin & Driftin’: “The usual explanation is that the members drifted from other groups.” Even in the beginning, the lineup shifted constantly as McPhatter searched for the right combination. The group’s second lineup, which included singers Gerhart Thrasher, Andrew Thrasher, and Willie Ferbee along with guitarist Walter Adams, became the first incarnation of the band to have its recordings released. The
For the Record…
Members include Willie Ferbee (left group, 1958), vocals; Bobby Hcndricks (born on February 22, 1938, in Columbus, OH; group member, 1957-58), lead vocals; Ben E. King (born on September 23, 1938, in Henderson, NC; group member, 1959-60), lead vocals; Rudy Lewis (born on August 23, 1936, in Philadelphia, PA; died on May 20, 1964, in New York, NY; joined group, 1961), lead vocals; Clyde McPhatter (born on November 15, 1932, in Durham, NC; died on June 13, 1972, in Teaneck, NJ; left group, 1954), lead vocals; Johnny Moore (born in 1934 in Selma, AL; died on December 30, 1998, in Los Angeles, CA; group member, 1955-57, 1963), lead vocals; Andrew Thrasher (left group, 1956), vocals; Ger-hart Thrasher (left group, 1958), vocals.
Group formed, 1953; “Money Honey” became numberone R&B single, 1953; released “Such a Night” and “Honey Love,” 1954; released Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, 1956; single “There Goes My Baby” reached number two on the pop charts, 1959; recorded “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof,” “Please Stay,” and “On Broadway,” 1960-64; recorded “Under the Boardwalk” with lead singer Johnny Moore, 1964; disbanded, late 1960s; various members have continued to regroup as the Original Drifters and under other names.
Awards: Induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1988.
Drifters’ recorded “Money Honey” in the summer of 1953 and by the fall, the song had reached number two on the R&B charts.
While lineup changes continued, McPhatter’s lead vocals gave the Drifters a distinct sound. When “Such a Night” also reached number two on the R&B charts, and “Honey Love” broke onto the pop charts in the fall of 1954, the band seemed on the verge of becoming a popular success. Unfortunately, their steady success became derailed after McPhatter found himself drafted into the U.S. Army. While he was stationed in Fort Dix, New Jersey—close enough to New York to attend recording sessions—McPhatter decided to break away from the Drifters and start a solo career.
McPhatter’s departure resulted in more than just the loss of a popular singer. He also owned a half interest in the band, and when he left he sold his share to his Manáger, George Treadwell. As the new co-owner of the Drifters, Treadwell took over the responsibility for filling the band’s openings. He also paid each member a salary, an arrangement that created an ever-shifting lineup and a great deal of resentment, according to Vera, causing Treadwell to be referred to as “a pimp” by several band members. If a band member complained that his salary was too low, he was fired. Likewise, talented singers who were offered no financial incentives soon departed. Despite the awkwardness of this arrangement, Ertegun and Jerry Wexler had invested 18 months in the Drifters; they decided to keep the group going.
While lead singers came and went over the next several years, the Drifters continued to sing in the doo wop style defined by McPhatter. Ironically, while David Baughn filled the lead position, his voice sounded so like the band’s former lead vocalist that Atlantic declined to release any new singles, fearing they would interfere with McPhatter’s popular solo releases also out on the Atlantic label. Because of this—and because Baughn also proved erratic—he was replaced by Johnny Moore after six months. Moore and the band recorded “Adorable” with producers Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Leiber, and the song went to the very top of the R&B chart. As Eder noted of the group, the song “went a long way toward establishing their post-Clyde McPhatter reputation.”
Despite such successful singles, real success remained elusive for the Drifters. “Adorable” and “Ruby Baby” failed to earn the band real money through positions high on the pop charts, a situation that translated into the fact that the group was failing to catch on with white audiences. Meanwhile, African American fans preferred McPhatter-era recordings. Compounding this was another setback for the group in early 1957 when lead vocalist Moore was drafted. Bobby Hendricks filled the position through the end of 1958, at which point he and guitarist Jimmy Olivier both quit the group. When the remaining members asked for more money, Treadwell decided to fire the entire band.
Treadwell was a savvy businessman; before firing the remaining members of the Drifters, he realized he needed replacements. He approached Lover Patter son, Manáger of a group called the Five Crowns, with a proposition: the Crowns would simply become the Drifters. Treadwell bought several of the band members’ contracts and hired Patterson on as road Manáger. The newly reconstituted Drifters toured for ten months, fulfilling contract obligations and learning the material. By March of 1959 they were ready to go into the studio and record, but lead singer Charlie Thomas developed “microphone fright”: when the red light came on signaling the beginning of the session, he froze. Ben E. King was called upon to sing lead on “There Goes My Baby,” “Hey Senorita,” and “Oh My Love.” While “There Goes My Baby” helped define the new Drifters’ sound, the use of strings was novel at the time, and Wexler thought the song “sounded like a radio caught between two stations, neither one totally tuned.” Still, radio audiences loved it. As Miller explained, “The combination of Ben E. King’s plaintive, gospel-rooted lead voice, a Latin rhythm section and symphonic strings sold a million copies and gave the popular music industry entirely new ideas.”
King sang lead through 1960, recording classics like “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” “After McPhatter,” wrote Vera, “Nelson’s is the voice most often associated with the Drifters, although he sang on relatively few sides.” Nelson, like a number of talented band members before him, soon wanted to be paid more for his efforts; when Treadwell turned him down, he left the group.
Johnny Williams served a short stint as lead with the Drifters, but was replaced by Rudy Lewis for the next four years. “Between 1960 and 1964,” Eder noted, “the Drifters achieved a level of stability that was unprecedented in their history, and it was matched by their success.” Consecutive hits like “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof,” “Please Stay,” and “On Broadway” climbed the charts. “As the Drifters changed and dramatically broadened their popular audience in the early ‘60s,” explained Lee Cooper in Popular Music and Society, “their repertoire expanded to undisputed popular music classics that compare favorably with the best releases of the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Four Seasons.” The band’s success, however, was brought to a sudden halt in May of 1964 when Lewis was found dead in his hotel room of a drug overdose.
After Lewis’s death Moore returned to sing lead on “Under the Boardwalk,” which became the Drifters’ last top-ten hit in the United States. While the band continued to record, they were eclipsed by new soul performers like Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding in the mid-to-late 1960s. The Drifters continued to record for Atlantic until 1972, then moved to Bell Records in England. When the group’s songs became popular again in the 1970s, a number of splinter groups, including the Original Drifters, attempted to cash in on the trend, resulting in multiple lawsuits.
“The Drifters are the key black vocal harmony group in rock history,” wrote Cooper in a statement that can be backed by the group’s legions of fans. Their musical innovations heavily influenced the recording industry in the 1960s, and their relaxed style served as a cornerstone of the surf-and-sand genre known as beach music. The Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and saw the reissue of most of their back catalog by Rhino and Collectable Records during the 1990s. “The Drifters have been favorites of jukeboxes and venues for more than 40 years, no matter which group of Drifters you saw or heard!,” wrote Chris Beachley in the liner notes to Rockin’ & Driftin’. “That’s a pretty stout claim, but their popularity is monstrous.”
“Money, Honey,” Atlantic, 1953.
“Honey Love,” Atlantic, 1954.
“There Goes My Baby,” Atlantic, 1959.
“Save the Last Dance for Me,” Atlantic, 1960.
“This Magic Moment,” Atlantic, 1960.
“Some Kind of Wonderful,” Atlantic, 1961.
“Please Stay,” Atlantic, 1961.
“Up on the Roof,” Atlantic, 1962.
“On Broadway,” Atlantic, 1963.
“Under the Boardwalk,” Atlantic, 1964.
Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, Atlantic, 1956.
The Drifters’ Greatest Hits, Atlantic, 1960.
Save the Last Dance for Me, Atlantic, 1962.
Under the Boardwalk, Atlantic, 1964.
The Very Best of the Drifters, Rhino, 1993.
Rockin’& Driftin’: the Drifters’ Box, Rhino, 1996.
Up on the Roof/Under the Boardwalk, Collectables, 1998.
Brown, Ashley, editor, The Marshall Cavendish History of Popular Music, Marshall Cavendish, 1990.
Graff, Gary, editor, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Popular Music and Society, Spring 2000, p. 129.
Rhino Records, http://www.rhinorecords.com (March 27, 2002).
“The Drifters,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 25, 2002).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
"The Drifters." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/drifters
"The Drifters." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/drifters
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