Ok, strap in. The story of the Drifters is a long and complicated one. Back in 1953 there was a prominent vocal group called the Dominoes, which had been formed by Billy Ward. The group’s lead singer was a guy named Clyde McPhatter. Clyde quit the group that year, and the Dominoes went on without him.
The thing is, McPhatter had an important fan. When the Dominoes appeared at Birdland in New York, Ahmet Ertegun went backstage to look for him. When he was told that McPhatter had left the group, Ertegun sought him out, and signed him to his fledgling label, Atlantic Records.
Ertegun encouraged McPhatter to form a group of his own, and they were called the Drifters. No one seems to know where the name came from, and no one at Atlantic liked it much because it sounded like the name of a country and western group. The only thing that anyone can figure out is that the group got their name because the members just sort of drifted in from other groups.
McPhatter went through a lot of singers before he found a combination that made Ertegun and producer Jerry Wexler happy. The original lineup first recorded in June, 1953, but there was already a second lineup by August. What set the Drifters apart is that the vocal group included a guitarist, and the sound of the electric guitar was an important part of their sound.
The second lineup recorded the Drifters first hit. “Money Honey,” was released by Atlantic and became a #1 R&B hit in the autumn of 1953. Some have called it the first rock and roll record. Even as the Drifters were having their initial success, the lineup changes were continuing. A third version of the group, this time including bass singer Bill Pinkney, who came to be a pivotal figure in the group’s history. That lineup lasted for about a year and had a crossover hit with “Honey Love” in early 1954.
McPhatter thought of himself as a ballad singer, and thought that he could become another Nat “King” Cole. He began to resent the way that Ertegun were trying to make the Drifters sound in an effort to appeal to a white audience. By October, 1954 McPhatter was gone for a solo career.
Things got complicated because McPhatter owned half of the business entity known as Drifters Incorporated. Upon his departure, he sold his share of the corporation to his manager George Treadwell, who already controlled the other half of the business. That’s when the revolving door lineup of the Drifters really started because at that point all that a group member could hope for was to be a salaried employee. McPhatter later came to regret his decision.
Several lead singers came and went in an attempt to replace McPhatter, but it wasn’t until 1955 that the Drifters found Johnny Moore. He had been with a group called the Hornets who managed to achieve some local success in Cleveland, and he sounded enough like McPhatter to make him a good candidate. He would go on to become another important figure in the history of the Drifters.
Moore first recorded with the group in September, 1955. Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Lieber were the producers, and the sessions spawned the R&B hit “Adorable,” but not much more. They were still looking for a return to the pop charts, where there was real money to be made, although it was during this period that they recorded the classic “Ruby Baby” which became a hit for Dion some years later.
Things took a positive turn when Lieber and Stoller took over production, and the lineup finally seemed to stabilize for a little while. Led by Moore, who was ably assisted by Pinkney, and tenor Bobby Hendricks, the Drifters had another R&B hit with “I Gotta Get Myself A Woman” in 1956.
McPhatter remained immensely popular though. Black audiences didn’t seem to care much about the Drifters without him. Atlantic began actively chasing the white market, which was potentially a lucrative one. Responding to public demand, Atlantic released Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, the group’s first album, in 1956. It consisted of tracks that McPhatter had recorded with the group before his departure.
In late 1956 the members of the Drifters became tired of the exploitative business practices that Treadwell was employing. Pinkney went to Treadwell demanding at least a raise. When Treadwell refused, Pinkney quit, and right behind him out the door was founding member Andrew Thrasher. It seemed that the Drifters were dead, but that turned out to be far from the case.
Yet another Drifters lineup came into being, and with Lieber and Stoller producing it seemed that they might have a shot. Then Moore was drafted, and hopes faded again. Bobby Hendricks returned to the group, and Atlantic had them record some lightweight pop stuff ala the Coasters, but hits continued to elude them.
Late in 1958 the whole group was sick of Treadwell, and they all left (or were fired, depending on who you believe).
The group had obligations though, and Treadwell had to fulfill them. He approached Lover Patterson, the manager of a group called the Five Crowns who were big in Harlem, but had little recording success. Treadwell suggested to Patterson that the Crowns become the new Drifters, Patterson agreed and sold the member’s contracts to Treadwell.
The new lineup included a guy named Benjamin Earl Nelson. The group continued making appearances as the Drifters, and very few people knew the difference. They also continued to record for Atlantic, with Lieber and Stoller producing.
And so it was that they went into the studio on March 6, 1959 to record four songs. Charlie Thomas was supposed to sing lead, but he developed a case of nerves and Nelson was appointed as the lead singer for the day. One of the songs on the day’s schedule was one that Nelson had co-written. It was called “There Goes My Baby”. It became one of the most important records in soul music history.
“There Goes My Baby” didn’t sound like the old Drifters, but then again it didn’t sound like anything ever recorded. R&B records didn’t typically include strings and latin percussion. Some people heard it as a complete mess, including the otherwise astute Wexler.
“There Goes My Baby” reached #2 on the Pop chart. It was the Drifters biggest hit yet, and their biggest selling record. The group was poised for major success but then the business arrangement reared its ugly head again.
Nelson was making $100 a week with the Drifters. He had a big hit record and yet he was still poor. So much so that he had to sell his rights to “There Goes My Baby.” He asked for more money. Treadwell (can you see a pattern developing here?) said no. Nelson quit.
Nelson agreed to stay with the group until a replacement could be found. It was during this time that he could be heard singing on Drifters classics like “This Magic Moment,” and “Save the Last Dance For Me.” By the time of his departure Nelson had changed his name to Ben E. King, and he went on to have a legendary solo career.
The Drifters too went on. In fact they’re still going on today in some form. After King’s departure there were hits like “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Up On the Roof,” and “On Broadway,” all of which featured lead vocals by King’s replacement, Johnny Lewis.
The Drifters in any form were a hugely influential group. “There Goes My Baby” was the forerunner of a shift that saw R&B move to a more pop-oriented sound. A guy named Berry Gordy certainly got the message, and so did a guy named Phil Spector who went to school on the Lieber and Stoller sound.
The intrigue surrounded the Drifters continued after King’s departure. Lieber and Stoller left Atlantic to form their own Red Bird label, and producer Bert Berns began to work with the group. They had a hit with “Vaya Con Dios” in 1964. That same year, the the Drifters were offered a song called “Under the Boardwalk.”
The recording was scheduled for May 21, 1964. The night before the session lead singer Rudy Lewis was found dead in his apartment under mysterious circumstances. There was no time to reschedule the session so Johnny Moore, who had by then returned to the group, sang lead on “Under the Boardwalk.” It was the last top ten hit for the Drifters, reaching #4 on the Pop chart.
There’s more. Much more. But this seems like a good place to stop. Drifters continued to come and go over the years. There were lawsuits aplenty over who had the right to the name. Johnny Moore died in the ’90s, bringing an end to that era of the Drifters. Bill Pinkney continued to tour with a group of Drifters until he died in 2007. Their records have been repackaged, remastered, and rereleased. You can probably see a group called the Drifters somewhere in your area this weekend.
The Drifters made some of the most important records in the history of soul music, and their story is almost as interesting as their music.