A Leisurely Look @ The Drifters

Onstage at Keith’s 105th Street Theatre in Cleveland, c. 1955.

When we look back – as we often do here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure – at the period of music we hold so dear, many artists come quickly to mind. Presley, of course, Buddy Holly, The Platters, etc. But when we consider the golden era that occurred between 1954 and 1963, I wonder how readily we think of The Drifters. Now, I may be wrong but this legendary vocal group may not be the first act that comes to mind when thinking about the oldies but, as we’ll see, they certainly left a large mark on pop and R&B music in the rock & roll era and they have plenty of excellent songs that should put them on everyone’s list of the greatest acts of the era.

Billy Ward and his Dominoes were a pioneering vocal group of the early 1950’s. While Ward himself may not have gone down in history, two of the singers from his group have. Jackie Wilson spent time in his outfit as did Clyde McPhatter. One night in 1953, Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records caught the Dominoes at a club and noticed that McPhatter was absent. When he heard that Clyde had left the group, he eagerly sought him out and asked him to form his own group.

Clyde did so and they were christened “The Drifters”. At this group’s second recording session they cut “Money Honey”, a major R&B hit that peaked at #1 on that chart. This song has gone down in history as an early example of rock & roll and the revered tune has been recorded many times, perhaps most notably by Elvis Presley on his debut LP. Almost immediately, the line-up of this vocal group began changing – something that would continue to occur throughout the group’s history. Later that year, the group recorded “Such a Night”, another R&B smash that reached #2 on that chart. This track has become legendary as well, its status benefiting from Presley also essaying it, this time on his first album back from the Army, Elvis is Back! (1960).

Clyde McPhatter

This great start for the Drifters was continued with “Honey Love”, another R&B chart-topper and their first to appear on the Pop charts where it peaked at #21. The group closed out the year with a now legendary version of “White Christmas”. Near the end of 1954, Clyde McPhatter was inducted into the U.S. Army. He was initially stationed locally so he was able to continue with the group. During his time with Billy Ward, Clyde felt he was underpaid so his lucrative deal with the Drifters’ management sought to rectify that. When his tour of duty was over, Clyde left the group to begin a solo career. When he left, he sold his interest in the group to the group’s manager, George Treadwell. Not desiring to share the wealth with any future members as he had with McPhatter, Treadwell started a practice of paying the vocalists in the Drifters extremely low wages which lead to much turn-over in the group.

Lead singer Johnny Moore replaced Clyde and the group hit out of the gates with “Adorable”, a #1 R&B hit. This was followed in 1956 with “Ruby Baby”, a Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller composition that the Drifters took to #10 R&B. The song became a massive worldwide hit in 1962 when Dion released it. Another Leiber-Stoller tune was a hit for the group in the spring of ’56. “Fools Fall in Love” also hit #10 R&B, #69 Pop. The tune is well-known to Presley fans from a 1966 recording by the King. “Drip Drop” (#58 Pop) is yet another Leiber-Stoller tune that was later covered by Dion.

Throughout 1958, fortunes for the group declined sharply and added to this were flaring temperaments and infighting. Manager Treadwell got fed up and fired every member, determined to start fresh. Singer Bill Pinkney, one of those fired, gained legal rights to the name “The Original Drifters” and began forming his own line-up. This group never caught on though and so Treadwell forged ahead, determined to build a new group called “the Drifters” from the ashes. We have seen before in our look at The Platters that often throughout history groups splinter and many different entities go into business using a variation of the group’s name. Interesting to note though that this happened to the Drifters as early as 1958.

Ben E. King

George Treadwell basically “bought” another group called the Five Crowns and made them his new Drifters. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were tasked by Atlantic to record this new group and the truly “golden era” of the Drifters began. Their lead singer for this new beginning was Ben E. King. For their very first release, this new version of the Drifters was aimed in a slightly different direction by Leiber and Stoller. They fostered a clean, crisp style and added strings to a song co-written by King, “There Goes My Baby”. Interesting that I have read that this legendary recording, that became the group’s first real smash hit topping the R&B listings and reaching #2 Pop, is “the first commercial rock & roll recording to include a string orchestra”. I say it’s interesting because – speaking of the Platters – I’ve seen it reported that their recording of “Twilight Time” is actually the first rock & roll hit with strings. For the record, the Platters released their record in April of ’58 and “There Goes My Baby” was recorded in March of ’59. One thing is for sure though; the new Drifters, featuring Ben E. King, were off and running.

With the start of the 1960’s, the Drifters offered a unique sound. They perhaps can be described as the first soul music vocal group. While singers like Sam Cooke were inventing the soul sound, the Drifters were making similar records, often love songs that featured an orchestra and they managed to sound different than any other act of the day. It can be said that they helped pave the way for vocal groups like the Four Tops. Even less popular or less enduring songs like “Dance With Me” or “I Count the Tears” were a joy to hear and today are wonderfully indicative of the vintage sound we all love.

1960 saw the group deliver two hits that have become timeless treasures. At the start of the year, the group released “This Magic Moment”. In the spring of ’60, this tune peaked at #16 Pop and was another in their string of top ten R&B tunes. “Save the Last Dance for Me”, released in late summer, is a recording that is on a very short list of songs that have come to define this era. This delightful song was a worldwide #1 hit, peaking at the top of the US Pop listings and becoming the group’s first and only pop chart-topper. Unfortunately, it was the last Drifters recording to feature the vocals of Ben E. King. The revolving door continued to swing and King was only with the Drifters for less than two years and only thirteen recordings. He made the mistake of asking George Treadwell for a raise and George let him go. He would of course go on to a solo career and Leiber and Stoller wrote and produced for him the all-time classic “Stand By Me”.

Yet another Philadelphia native I’ve run across is Rudy Lewis, who replaced King as lead singer of the Drifters. Fascinating to note that, despite various lead vocalists and an ever-changing line-up, the Drifters continued to have hits. With Rudy taking the lead, 1961 and ’62 saw the group hit with “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Up on the Roof” another classic song that was Top 5 on both the Pop and R&B listings. 1963 began with another notable Top 10 record, “On Broadway”. Johnny Moore took a turn singing lead on a couple of gems hidden in the Drifters’ catalogue. “If You Don’t Come Back” was a groovy tune that later became one of many Leiber-Stoller numbers recorded by Elvis Presley. The King did a funky version on his Raised on Rock LP from 1973. Another beauty from this era sung by Moore was “I’ll Take You Home”, a delightful song you should seek out that reached the top 25 on both the R&B and Pop charts. Sadly, though, Rudy Lewis was yet another short-lived lead singer in the Drifters.

In May ’64, the Drifters were set to go into the studio to record a new song written by Arthur Resnick and Kenny Young. As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Resnick was a songwriter employed by a publishing company called TM Music, a company that was owned by Bobby Darin. This song – “Under the Boardwalk” – was therefore published by Darin’s company. The night before the group was due to record this new tune, Rudy Lewis was found dead in his Harlem hotel room. Lewis was reportedly a closeted homosexual, a binge eater and a heroin addict.1 An autopsy ruled the death as an overdose; Lewis was 27, making him a lesser-known member of the infamous “27 Club”.

Johnny Moore then stepped up to sing lead on “Under the Boardwalk” which became yet another timeless classic from the Drifters – with yet another lead singer. “Boardwalk” topped the R&B charts and reached #4 Pop. It has since been recorded countless times including notably by the Rolling Stones and Bruce Willis. Johnny Moore was again at the mic for my favourite two songs by the Drifters and the two that could be considered their last truly great recordings.

“I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes” is a sequel of sorts to “Under the Boardwalk” and both songs were penned by Resnick and Young. In this tune, autumn is in the air. “Oh, the boardwalk’s deserted, there’s nobody down by the shore…” The lyrics tell of a summer gone by and this brings to mind the times you may have driven through a beach town in the off-season. Hard to believe such an empty place could at one time have been teeming with people. “The heat wave and the crowds are just old news. But I’ve still got some sand in my shoes”. It’s happened to me more than once in my life; after a trip to the beach or a vacation, I’ll notice the beach sand in the back of my vehicle – or sometimes actually in my shoes – and my mind wanders back to an enjoyable time. Most times, this song will pop into my head. The beauty of it is in the fact of its nostalgia. Not only is the tune harkening back to the previous hit, “Under the Boardwalk”, but the lyrics themselves take a wistful look back at a wonderful time in a relationship. The relationship may be over or it simply may be that the lovers have gone back to school; either way, it’s a look back at cherished memories. “Sand in my shoes brings memories of the salty air” can bring to mind – even in the deepest winter – a warm, sunny, happy place and can conjure up memories of your own; all the things that this music we love is supposed to do. Fast forward to today and we feel nostalgia when we hear this wonderful song about nostalgia. “How we fell in love down by the sea comes back to me with the sand in my shoes”. When you think about it, “sand in your shoes” may be the ultimate metaphor for the oldies. As we trudge on through this new world, the music of the Fifties and Sixties can be like discovering grains of sand in your boat shoes. You may pour it out into your hand and, as it falls through your fingers, it serves as a conduit, taking you back to a happier time and a warmer place, which is exactly what this music does. This may make “I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes” the ultimate song – the most accurate statement – of the rock & roll era.

Provided to YouTube by Rhino Atlantic.

There are a handful of songs I could name from the golden era that describe perfectly the days of yesteryear (“Here Comes Summer” by Jerry Keller, for example). “Saturday Night at the Movies” was the very next single for the Drifters and it is a perfect saunter down memory lane. “Saturday night at eight o’clock I know where I’m gonna go. I’m-a gonna pick my baby up and take her to the picture show…” The song was written by the legendary team of Cynthia Mann and Barry Weil and the lyrics continue, describing perfectly a delightful element of teenage life; “Saturday night at the movies. Who cares what picture you see? When you’re huggin’ with your baby last row in the balcony”. Like “I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes”, this tune can have practical applications; we can still use this song today on any given weekend. Just like I find myself singing “Sand in My Shoes” in the days after a holiday, many Saturday evenings find me anticipating watching a movie in my basement and singing to myself “Saturday night at the movies….”. “Saturday Night” was the Drifters’ last Top 40 Pop hit.

Provided to YouTube by Rhino Atlantic.

The hits then dried up after over a decade of chart success. Lead singer Johnny Moore remained at his post until 1978 and then he left and returned a few times. The longest-serving member of the Drifters, Moore died in London at the end of 1998. Again, as we’ve seen with the Platters, many variations of the Drifters existed long into the new millennium and were frequently seen at revival shows. And of course, there was plenty of the obligatory litigation over the legal use of the name. George Treadwell’s daughter, Tina, maintains ownership of the name and control of the group to this day. Between 1953 and the present day, almost 70 years, the Drifters have seen over 60 members pass through the doors and almost 40 different line-ups have banded together to sing these wonderful songs.

As we always do here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure, it’s time to look at the numbers. During the golden era between 1954 and 1963, the Drifters charted 23 songs on the Pop listings, 14 landed in the Top 40 including 4 Top 10’s and one #1. The majority of their records landed in the Top Ten of the R&B charts; 24 of them did so and this includes six Number Ones. It’s more than numbers, though, that tell the tale of this legendary group. Theirs is a rare story of an ever-changing line-up of singers, a revolving door of members, and yet an ability to have hit songs no matter who was at the mic. With lead vocalists ranging from legends like Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King to lesser-knowns like Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore, the Drifters were able to release both timeless, legendary, classic songs as well as those intangible little delights that often were simply B sides of bigger hits. This all adds up to a wonderful catalogue of beautiful music.

10 from The Drifters

  • There Goes My Baby
  • This Magic Moment
  • Save the Last Dance for Me
  • I Count the Tears
  • Some Kind of Wonderful
  • I’ll Take You Home
  • If You Don’t Come Back
  • Under the Boardwalk
  • I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes
  • Saturday Night at the Movies

  1. Liner notes, Rockin’ & Driftin’: The Drifters Box boxed set. Notes by James Austin, 1996.

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