The Drifters

  • Doo-wop and R&B vocal group formed in 1953 from New York New York. Over the years, there have been 65 members of the group – the members that were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were Clyde McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Gerhardt Thrasher, Ben E. King, Johnny Moore, Charlie Thomas and Rudy Lewis.
  • McPhatter was the lead tenor from 1950 to 1953 for the group Billy Ward and His Dominoes. A record executive was at a concert to see the Dominoes, and he noticed that McPhatter was not on stage – apparently, McPhatter quit the group that day. The executive immediately tracked McPhatter down, and it was agreed that McPhatter would form a new group and would record under the executive’s record label, to be called The Drifters. McPhatter recruited 5 singers from his church group, but after 1 recording session in June 1953, the executive insisted that McPhatter assemble another lineup.
  • By August, McPhatter recruited Pinkney, Gerhardt and Andrew Thrasher, Willie Ferbee and Walter Adams on guitar. This group recorded the single Money Honey, which was released and credited to “Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters.” It topped the R&B chart, and the group became an immediate success. The song is considered by some to be the first Rock & Roll record – Rolling Stone put the song at #254 on their Greatest Songs of All Time list.
  • Membership in the group immediately changed, as it frequently did for The Drifters. Their next hit was later in 1953 – Such A Night reached #2 on the R&B Chart, with a new guitarist and with Ferbee no longer with the group. The had another #1 R&B song with Honey Love, which was their first to chart on the Hot 100 chart. They also had top 5 R&B hits with White Christmas and Watcha Gonna Do in 1954 and 1955.
  • McPhatter was drafted into the military and left the group in 1954. He sold his share of the group to George Treadwell, who became the group’s manager. Treadwell refused to pay much of a salary, nor did he provide royalties or income from performances – members were strictly salaried employees. Thus, dozens of members of the group came and went. McPhatter initially was replaced by David Baughan, and then by Johnny Moore. This lineup had hit singles with Adorable, Steamboat and Ruby Baby. By the summer of 1956, Pinkney was fired by Treadwell when Pinkney asked for more money, and Andrew Thrasher left in protest. Pinkney went on to perform and record using the name The Original Drifters, with numerous members over the years, some of which also performed with Treadwell’s Drifters.
  • By early 1958, Gerhardt Thrasher was the only remaining original member. Their popularity was declining, and they were performing at smaller venues. During a show at The Apollo Theater in Harlem, one of the group members got into a fight with an employee at the theater, and Treadwell subsequently fired the whole band. He then contacted another band, the Five Crowns, and he hired them to become The Drifters.
  • The 2 lead tenors for the Five Crowns were Ben E. King and Charlie Thomas – they became the main vocalists for The Drifters. Between June 1958 and May 1960, The Drifters had 2 of their biggest hits with King as lead vocalist – There Goes My Baby peaked at #2 on the Hot 100, and Save the Last Dance For Me was their only #1 on the Hot 100 chart. King left in the summer of 1960 after Treadwell refused to give him a raise, and King went on to a successful solo career.
  • Rudy Lewis joined in 1960, replacing King. Lewis and Thomas were the main vocalists through May of 1964, and the band released 4 singles that were top 20 hits on the Hot 100 chart, including Up On the Roof and On Broadway. In May 1964, the group was set to record a new single, and Lewis was found dead of a heroin overdose. Johnnie Moore, who had left the group in 1957 and rejoined  in 1963, took over the lead vocal that had been planned for Lewis. The song, Under the Boardwalk, became one of their signature songs, peaking at #4 on the Hot 100 – it was their last major hit.
  • The Drifters continued to cycle through numerous members over the ensuing years. They released albums and singles through 1976, with Moore as the only constant member of the group. While no longer recording, the group continued to tour – Moore left in 1978, then returned in 1979, then left again in 1982, replaced by Ben E. King, who stayed until 1985. They continue to tour today, with 4 vocalists – nearly 70 years after the original formation of The Drifters.
  • The Drifters were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Rolling Stone puts them at #81 on their list of the Greatest Artists of All Time. Other songs on Rolling Stones’ GOAT list are Up On the Roof (#114), Save the Last Dance For Me (#184), There Goes My Baby (#196), and Under the Boardwalk (#489). Their legacy is complicated by all of the changes in their lineup, but they were fortunate to have several of the best R&B singers of all time. Hard to find good videos of The Drifters that date back to their early days, but here’s a grainy one of one of their classics, Under the Boardwalk.

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