The Drifters helped create soul music by bringing gospel-styled vocals to secular material. Literally scores of singers (like Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King) worked with this durable institution. After McPhatter left Billy Ward and His Dominoes, Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun encouraged the singer to put together his own vocal group. According to an early press release and rock lore, the Drifters' name came from the fact that the original members had drifted from one group to another. The truth is that several members of the first lineup were discovered by McPhatter singing with the Mount Lebanon Singers at the Mount Lebanon Church in Harlem. In fact, they chose to name themselves after a bird called the drifter. Clyde McPhatter, already known to the record-buying public, propelled the Drifters to immediate success. He was among the first to apply the emotional fervency of gospel to pop songs about romance, a stylistic keystone in the creation of modern R&B and soul. At its peak, the first set of Drifters was an extremely popular and influential live act, not only for its stellar vocals but for its flashy choreography. After a string of hits —"Money Honey" (#1 R&B, 1953), later covered by Elvis Presley; "Such a Night" (#2 R&B, 1954); "Honey Love" (#21 pop, #1 R&B, 1954); "White Christmas" (#80 pop, #2 R&B, 1954); "Whatcha Gonna Do" (#2 R&B, 1955) —McPhatter was drafted into the army in late 1954.
Following McPhatter's departure, lead vocals fell briefly to "Little" David Baughan before Bill Pinkney discovered Johnny Moore singing in Cleveland. Although McPhatter and Ben E. King are most often recalled as the group's important lead singers, Moore proved the longest-lasting and enduring of the three vocalists. Moore-led singles of this period include "Hypnotized" and "Fools Fall in Love," but they were not enough to buoy the flagging group. Other personnel changes occurred, hits became rarer, and Moore and Hughes were drafted in 1957. Group morale was at an all-time low, and so when manager George Treadwell, who owned the group's name, heard a young, new group called the Crowns at the Apollo Theatre one night, he fired the entire Drifters lineup and christened his discoveries the new Drifters.
This lineup, which featured three lead tenors and included Ben E. King, proved even more successful than the original group. The Drifters were assigned to producer/writers Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller, and their first release, "There Goes My Baby," was a #2 hit in 1959. The lushly produced song's style —incorporating orchestral strings, a gentle Latin rhythm, and King's yearning, romantic lead —became the Drifters' calling card. King was featured on "This Magic Moment" (#16 pop, #4 R&B, 1960), "Save the Last Dance for Me" (#1 pop, #1 R&B, 1960), and "I Count the Tears" (#17 pop, #6 R&B, 1961), but shortly after "Save the Last Dance for Me" hit in October 1960, he left for a solo career [see entry].
Over the next two years, leads on Drifters hits would be split among Rudy Lewis ("Some Kind of Wonderful" [#32 pop, #6 R&B, 1961], "Please Stay" [#14 pop, #13 R&B, 1961], "Up on the Roof" [#5 pop, #4 R&B, 1962], and "On Broadway" [#9 pop, #7 R&B, 1963], Charlie Thomas ("Sweets for My Sweet" [#16 pop, #10 R&B, 1961]), and Johnny Moore ("I'll Take You Home" [#25 pop, #24 R&B, 1963] and "Under the Boardwalk" [#4 pop, #4 R&B, 1964]). During the two years following the recording of 1961's "Some Kind of Wonderful," additional backing vocals on record were provided by a quartet consisting of Dionne and Dede Warwick, their aunt, Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney), and Doris Troy (of "Just One Look" fame). Lewis died suddenly in 1964; his last-released single was "Vaya con Dios." From 1964 on, Moore dominated the Drifters' hits, which although produced by Bert Berns (as was "Under the Boardwalk") retained the sound of the Leiber and Stoller hits and gave the group a consistency regardless of who was in the lineup. The Drifters kept placing R&B chart hits ("I've Got Sand in My Shoes," "Saturday Night at the Movies") through the '60s while playing the club circuit. Although the group never had another major U.S. hit after that, a reissue of their 1965 single "Come On Over to My Place" went to #9 in the U.K., where the group has enjoyed a large, loyal following since 1960 when "Dance With Me" went to #17 there.
When the Drifters' Atlantic contract expired in 1972, Moore, with a new lineup, moved to England, where they signed with the Bell label and released a string of U.K. Top 10 hits: "Like Sister and Brother" (#7, 1973), "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies" (#2, 1974), "Down on the Beach Tonight" (#7, 1974), "There Goes My First Love" (#3, 1975), "Can I Take You Home Little Girl" (#10, 1975), and "You're More Than a Number in My Little Red Book" (#5, 1976).
At the same time, here in America and elsewhere in the world, any number of Drifters aggregations could be found performing in nightclubs. The group's many members have included at least one past or future Swallow, Carol, Raven, Diamond, DuDropper, Turban, Ink Spot, Cadillac, Cleftone, Domino, Royal Joker, or Temptation. One version of the group was founded by Pinkney, included the Thrashers and Ferbee (of the '53-era group), and called itself the Original Drifters.
McPhatter emerged from his two years in the service in 1955 to relaunch his solo career. With Atlantic Records' full support, he quickly charted with a duet with Ruth Brown ("Love Has Joined Us Together" [#8, 1955]). His other hits included "Treasure of Love" (#16 pop, #1 R&B, 1956), "Without Love (There Is Nothing)" (#19 pop, #4 R&B, 1957), "Just to Hold My Hand" (#26 pop, #6 R&B, 1957), "A Lover's Question" (#6 pop, #1 R&B, 1958), "Come What May" (#3 R&B, 1958), "Since You've Been Gone" (#38 pop, # 14 R&B, 1959), "Ta Ta" (#23 pop, #7 R&B, 1960), "Lover Please" (#7 pop, 1962), and the #1 R&B hit, "Long Lonely Nights" (1957).
Although McPhatter had a few more hits after leaving Atlantic, he never regained a commercial foothold after the mid-'60s. He lived in England for a couple of years in the late '60s, but in 1972 succumbed to a heart attack after years of alcoholism. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987; the Drifters were inducted in 1988.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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