100 Greatest Artists

81

The Drifters

Illustration by Olaf Hajek

By Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Over the years, the Drifters were a couple of different great groups and a whole bunch of wonderful guys. In a way, that upheaval may be part of the reason they recorded so many immortal songs over such a long period.

We were both fans of the Drifters even before we started writing, and later producing, for them. There was a real tradition of great singers in the group: Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Moore, Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis. Yet for all their fantastic records, the Drifters had the least stable lineup of any of the great vocal groups. They were in essence a band of hired guns, overseen by their management. Let's just say this wasn't necessarily a situation where guys were getting rich off the royalties.

Our first cut writing for the Drifters was "Ruby Baby," which Nesuhi Ertegun produced and Johnny Moore sang lead on, in 1955. We loved what they did with the song. Their management changed the lineup in 1958, and that's when the great Ben E. King came into the picture. The Drifters records that we're most associated with, including "There Goes My Baby," come from that era.

Ben E. King was this younger singer just coming up, yet he had this mature style that was so unusual. He was always wonderful to work with, and we had a truly great run together. People have said that "There Goes My Baby" was a very influential record because it helped set the stage for the Wall of Sound and Motown. Who are we to argue? Thanks to a great arrangement by Stan Applebaum, the song showed us how rock & roll and strings could really work together. When King left, we worked with him as a solo artist, and the Drifters kept on having hits too, first with Rudy Lewis as the new lead singer. Upon Lewis' death, Moore returned to the group in time for "Under the Boardwalk."

We wrote songs for the Drifters, but we also put the call out to all the best songwriters in our world. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman came with perfect songs like "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance for Me." Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote "Up on the Roof." We also put the Drifters together with Burt Bacharach — who met Dionne Warwick at our office for a Drifters session.

Through it all, the Drifters always had this exquisite vocal blend. It was warm and round and full and dripping with chocolate. Since we were involved in the Drifters' career, it's probably not our place to declare their music immortal. But you have to say, they did pretty well.

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