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As vocal groups of the ’50s and ’60s go, it’s hard to beat the Drifters. Of course, you have to be clear which version you’re talking about, as the Drifters had a particularly volatile lineup history even by the standards of the era. The original group — led by Clyde McPhatter — enjoyed some success on the U.S. R&B chart, but the version we’re remembering this week started in the summer of 1958 when manager George Treadwell recruited 19-year-old tenor Ben E. Nelson (later to become Ben E. King) to lead the new Drifters.
King stayed with the Drifters for just two years but in that time the group scored six Top 40 Pop singles and one chart-topper. That #1 was “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which spent three non-consecutive weeks at the top of the Hot 100 chart in October/November 1960 and hit #2 in the U.K. later in the year.
For the follow-up, Atlantic Records issued “I Count the Tears” (#45-2087, b/w “Suddenly There’s a Valley”) in early December. The song — produced by the legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller — debuted on the pop chart at #77 on December 19 and peaked at #17 on January 30, 1961. That same week it reached its high position of #6 on the Hot R&B Sides chart.
But beyond all that, “I Count the Tears” is directly related to one of the seminal recordings of the late 1960s. More on that in a bit.
All the hallmarks of the great Drifters sides from this period are on “I Count the Tears” — fabulous group harmony, a superb arrangement and a really effective employment of a backing orchestral section (to say nothing of King’s timeless lead vocal). The combination of a soaring violin part and a really punchy guitar sound frame King’s vocal quite beautifully.
Despite cramming so many elements into the song, Leiber & Stoller manage to keep the track from suffocating as it moves along at a rather fast clip for just over two minutes. It moves so quickly, in fact, that the introduction of melodic tension through the middle eight chord change barely has time to get established before King moves back to the main verse structure.
OK, so if you already know this song or just listened to it you’re probably wondering about the chorus. It seems familiar, doesn’t it? You’ve heard that somewhere before, right?
Indeed you have. In 1966 a pair of gentlemen named David Shapiro and Ivan Mogull wrote a song called ”Piangi Con Me” (“Cry with Me”), which was released by Shapiro’s band, the Rokes. The Rokes, by the way, were an English band that became popular in Italy in the mid-to-late ’60s. Listen to the chorus of the song and see if you can’t spot the resemblance to the chorus of “I Count the Tears.”
Pretty similar, isn’t it? The Rokes recorded an English-language version of the song, with new lyrics and a new name — “Let’s Live for Today” — but it failed to gain any traction in the U.S. In 1967 the song was recorded by an L.A.-based rock band called the Grass Roots, with Creed Bratton of The Office fame on guitar. The Grass Roots’ version was released in May 1967, reached #8 on the Hot 100, and has sold over two million copies to date.
This version of “Let’s Live for Today” has become one of the enduring songs of the late ’60s and of that era’s Counterculture movement. And for that you can thank the Drifters and a Top 20 song that can rightfully be called overlooked.