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Drifters show their sticking power

Written by Bob Tallent

I’ve always loved The Drifters and while I was on holiday in Majorca few years ago I saw them perform live. I didn’t recognise their faces. A couple of years afterwards I saw them live again and there were different people in the group. This got me thinking about the group and I saw them on TV3 this morning (Feb 8th 2011). They then played in Belfast and after that in Dublin’s National Concert Hall.


The Drifters started in 1953 as a doo-wop, R&B and soul group and have gone through massive line-up changes. During research on this article, I discovered there were Drifters groups, all with different claims to fame. So I’ve tried to make some sense of it for you here.

Clyde McPhatter (fired from the Dominoes) and Ahmet Ertgun founder of Atlantic Records formed the group in 1953 under the management of former jazz singer George Treadwell. Clyde McPhatter discovered the other members singing at the Mount Lebanon Church in Harlem, New York. The Drifters were popular for their vocals and also their choreography. The line-up changed regularly and in the early days it included William Anderson, David Baughan, David Baldwin and James Johnson, bass player Bill Pinkney, guitarist Jimmy Oliver, brothers Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher and bass singer Willie Ferbee. In 1954, McPhatter left the group to follow a solo career. He enjoyed success the rest of the 1950s. He sold off his interest in the group to Treadwell. From then on the line-up was made up of salaried members earning wages as low as $100 a week. The low salary caused the high turnover in the group.

In 1954, tenor Johnny Moore (from the Hornets) was auditioned. He got the job and stayed with The Drifters for over 20 years.

Then Bill Pinkney and Andrew Thrasher left. Jimmy Ricks, Tom Evans, Charlie Hughes, Jimmy Millender and guitarist Jimmy Oliver joined.

In 1958, Treadwell sacked the entire line-up just before a show at the Apollo Theater in New York and replaced them with a group known as The Five Crowns, later renamed The New Drifters. This brought about a new line-up that included baritone Benjamin Earl Nelson, aka Ben E King, Dock Green and Elsbeary Hobbs.

From 1953 to 1958, they recorded hits as Money Honey, Such A Night, Honey Love,  White Christmas, Ruby Baby, There Goes My Baby, This Magic Moment, I Count the Tears, and Save the Last Dance for Me.

Ben E King left the group in 1960 and rejoined in 1974 with the R&B and pop hit Supernatural Thing and later recorded with The Average White Band. He went on European Tours in the early 1980s. Ben E King enjoyed renewed popularity and had a hit again with Stand By Me the title song to the film of the same name in 1986 and thereafter recorded for EMI, Manhattan, and Ichiban.

The Drifters enjoyed their greatest hit making period with Rudy Lewis on lead vocals. Through 1963, they had major pop and rhythm and blues hits provided by Brill Building songwriters. These included Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s Some Kind of Wonderful, When My Little Girl Is Smiling, and Up On the Roof; Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s Sweets For My Sweet, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s On Broadway and I'll Take You Home. Lewis died in summer 1964 and early Drifter Johnny Moore took over the lead for the group’s final pop hits Under the Boardwalk and Saturday Night At the Movies. The band continued to record into the early 1970s. Around 1972, Johnny Moore with a new group of Drifters, moved to England, toured the clubs and cabarets, and signed with British Bell, for whom they had a series of British hits through 1975. Several different groupings of Drifters perform today. Johnny Moore died in London on December 30th, 1998 at 64.

In 1988, Drifters originals Clyde McPhatter, Gerhardt Thrasher and Bill Pinkney along with subsequent Drifters Johnny Moore, Ben E King, Rudy Lewis, and Charlie Thomas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Though Treadwell represented ownership of the Drifters brand, the original members felt they were the real Drifters and were determined to keep the group alive. Bill Pinkney was the first, and he joined with the Thrashers and David Baughan to begin touring as The Original Drifters after receiving exclusive and irrevocable ownership of the name/mark The Original Drifters in a binding arbitration brought by Pinkney (also recording as The Harmony Grits, Bill Pinkney & The Turks, and Bill Pinkney & the Originals during that time). Several original Drifters came in and out of this group over time, as well as other new artists, but these Drifters never had the success of their earlier Drifters days.

George Treadwell owned the rights to the name Drifters and managed them until his death in 1967. His wife, Faye Treadwell, took over management. Today, her daughter, Tina, runs the group and calls the company Treadwells Original Drifters.

Sixty-five group members later, we have The Drifters as we know them today – Michael Williams, Ryan King, Carlton Powell and Pierre Herelle.

Over their 59 years, the group have assembled a huge catalogue of over 50 hits, selling over 214 million singles and 114 million albums across the world. They are one of the biggest selling and longest lasting groups of all time.

Enjoy this half hour of drifter magic.


Copyright © 2011, DPNLIVE – All Rights Reserved

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