The Drifters Biography

Formed in 1953 in New York, USA, at the behest of Atlantic Records, this influential R&B vocal group was initially envisaged as a vehicle for ex-Dominoes singer Clyde McPhatter (Clyde Lensley McPhatter, 15 November 1932, Durham, North Carolina, USA, d. 13 June 1972, New York City, New York, USA). Gerhart Thrasher, Andrew Thrasher and Bill Pinkney (b. 15 August 1925, Dalzell, South Carolina, USA, d. 4 July 2007, Daytona Beach, Florida, USA) completed the new quartet which, as Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, achieved a million-selling number 1 R&B hit with their debut single, ‘Money Honey’. Follow-up releases, including ‘Such A Night’ (number 5 R&B), ‘Lucille’ (number 7 R&B) and ‘Honey Love’ (a second chart-topper), also proved highly successful, while the juxtaposition of McPhatter’s soaring tenor against the frenzied support of the other members provided a link between gospel and rock ‘n’ roll styles. The leader’s interplay with bass player Pinkey was revelatory, but McPhatter’s induction into the armed forces in 1954 was a blow that the Drifters struggled to withstand.

The vocalist opted for a solo career upon leaving the services, and although his former group did enjoy success with ‘Adorable’ (number 1 R&B 1955), ‘Steamboat’ (1955), ‘Ruby Baby’ (1956) and ‘Fools Fall In Love’ (1957), such recordings featured a variety of lead singers, most notably Johnny Moore (b. 1934, Selma, Alabama, USA, d. 30 December 1998, London, England). Other new members included Charlie Hughes, Bobby Hendricks (who came in as lead tenor when Moore was drafted in 1957), Jimmy Millender and Tommy Evans. A greater emphasis on pop material ensued, but tension between the group and their manager, George Treadwell, resulted in an irrevocable split. Having fired the extant line-up in 1958, Treadwell, who owned the copyright to the Drifters’ name, invited another act, the Five Crowns, to adopt the appellation. Charlie Thomas (b. 7 April 1937; tenor), Doc Green Jnr. (b. 8 November 1934, d. 10 March 1989; bass/baritone) and lead singer Ellsbury Hobbs (b. 4 August 1936, d. 31 May 1996, New York, USA; bass), plus guitarist Reggie Kimber, duly became ‘the Drifters’. Hobbs was drafted and replaced by Ben E. King (b. Benjamin Earl Nelson, 28 September 1938, Henderson, North Carolina, USA). The new line-up declared themselves with ‘There Goes My Baby’. Written and produced by Leiber And Stoller, this pioneering release featured a Latin rhythm and string section, the first time such embellishments had appeared on an R&B recording. The single not only topped the R&B chart, it also reached number 2 on the US pop listings, and anticipated the ‘symphonic’ style later developed by Phil Spector.

Further excellent releases followed, notably ‘Dance With Me’ (1959), ‘This Magic Moment’ (1960) and ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, the latter a million seller which topped the US pop chart and reached number 2 in the UK. However, King left for a solo career following ‘I Count The Tears’ (1960), and was replaced by Rudy Lewis (b. 27 May 1935, Chicago, Illinois, USA) who fronted the group until his premature death from drug-induced asphyxiation in 1964. The Drifters continued to enjoy hits during this period and songs such as ‘Sweets For My Sweet’, ‘When My Little Girl Is Smiling’, ‘Up On The Roof’ and ‘On Broadway’ were not only entertaining in their own right, but also provided inspiration, and material, for many emergent British acts, notably the Searchers, who took the first-named song to the top of the UK chart. Johnny Moore, who had returned to the line-up in 1963, took over the lead vocal slot from Lewis. ‘Under The Boardwalk’, recorded the day after the latter’s passing, was the Drifters’ last US Top 10 pop hit, although the group remained a popular attraction. Bert Berns had taken over production from Leiber and Stoller, and in doing so brought a soul-based urgency to their work, as evinced by ‘One Way Love’ and ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’ (1964).

When he left Atlantic to found the Bang label, the Drifters found themselves increasingly overshadowed by newer, more contemporary artists and, bedevilled by lesser material and frequent changes in personnel, the group began to slip from prominence. However, their career was revitalized in 1972 when two re-released singles, ‘At The Club’ and ‘Come On Over To My Place’, reached the UK Top 10. A new recording contract with Bell was then secured and British songwriters/producers Tony Macaulay, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway fashioned a series of singles redolent of the Drifters’ ‘classic’ era. Purists poured scorn on their efforts, but, between 1973 and 1975, the group, still led by Moore, enjoyed several UK Top 10 hits, including ‘Like Sister And Brother’, ‘Kissin’ In The Back Row Of The Movies’, ‘Down On The Beach Tonight’, ‘There Goes My First Love’ and ‘Can I Take You Home Little Girl’. This success ultimately waned as the decade progressed, and in 1982 their stalwart lead singer Moore briefly left the line-up. He was replaced, paradoxically, by Ben E. King, who in turn brought the Drifters back to Atlantic. However, despite completing some new recordings, the group found it impossible to escape its heritage, as evinced by the numerous ‘hits’ repackages and corresponding live appearances on the cabaret and nostalgia circuits. They were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988, a year after McPhatter’s posthumous award.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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