Such was the success of the Drifters that even the most casual rock and roll fan has heard of them. The Drifters were famous not only for numerous hit recording but because at various stages of their career they were trendsetters in rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Part of the reason is that the Drifters were not just one group, they were at least two, with enough members between 1953 and 1971 to make up several quintets. They had 12 different lead singers, 11 from other groups, and even boasted two members named Charlie Thomas who knew each other and were both originally from Virginia.
Before the original hit group formed there were at least three different units going under the name the Drifters. The first, a modern-sounding black pop group, recorded two singles for Coral Records, “I’m the Caring Kind” (September 1950) and “And I Shook”(November 1950).
The next Drifters were on the L.A.-based Excelsior label in June 1951 with an earthy bass-lead blues ballad called “Mobile” written by Otis Rene. The third and most obscure of the early Drifters groups recorded “Three Lies” for Class in 1953.
Six months after the original Drifters formed, another namesake showed up on the Beverly Hills-based Crown Records singing “The World Is Changing” in February 1954. But for popular history’s sake, the Drifters’ story really all started with Clyde McPhatter, whose innocent-sounding falsetto could merge raunchy blues with gospel to yield an exciting R&B mix.
By early 1953 this underpaid, underbilled lead singer decided to leave BILLY WARD AND HIS DOMINOES (though some say he was fired). As vocal groups were coming into their own, Clyde decided he should build one around himself. That sentiment was echoed by Atlantic Records guru Ahmet Ertegun, who went to see Clyde and the Dominoes perform at the Royal Roost in Manhattan only to be told Clyde was gone from Ward’s domain. As fast as you can see dollar signs, Ertegun sought out Clyde and on May 7, 1953, signed him to Atlantic with a mandate to go build his group.
Clyde Lensley McPhatter, who came to New York at age 12 from Durham, North Carolina, sought out his friends in the Mount Lebanon Singers of Harlem’s 132nd Street Mount Lebanon Church. He had sung lead for them in the late’40s at the age of 14 and felt it was a natural place to merge his secular singing with his gospel roots. The group thus became Clyde (lead), David “Little David” Baughn (tenor), William Anderson (tenor), David Baldwin (baritone), and James Johnson (bass). Contrary to general opinion the group’s name was not chosen because they drifted together from other acts. Each member put a name of his choice on a piece of paper and dropped it in a hat. The one picked was David Baldwin’s, a name taken from his father’s book of birds that included a “Drifter.” The group was actually four-fifths of the old Mount Lebanon gospel group, but not for long. The first session on June 29, 1953 resulted in four less-than-competitive recordings; the group sound didn’t work as well with Clyde’s voice as it had on gospel tunes. One song, “Lucille,” was kept and later issued as the B side of their second single “Such a Night.” The other three (“Gone,” “Whatcha Gonna Do,” and “Let the Boogie-Woogie Roll”) were all rerecorded on August 9th by a new aggregation-the one Clyde put together when he realized the Mount Lebanon contingent wasn’t working. Sticking with gospel vocalists, he drafted tenor Bill Pinkney from the Jerusalem Stars (of whom Brook Benton was a member), second tenor Andrew “Bubba” Thrasher and baritone Gerhart “Gay” Thrasher (both of the Thrasher Wonders with their sister Bernice), and bass Willie Ferbie.
Though they formed in New York City, all were originally from North or South Carolina. Bill was from Dalzell, S.C., and had originally sung with the Singing Cousins gospel group from 1946 to 1949. Bubba and Gay had been with the Silvertone Gospel Singers of Oxford, North Carolina.
The group recorded “Money Honey,” the Drifters’ first Atlantic single, released the second week of September 1953. No one could have imagined the huge success awaiting “Money”: it turned Clyde and company into overnight R&B sensations. It hit the Billboard charts on October 31st and flew to number one, staying there for an amazing 11 weeks and spending over five months on the Best Seller list. Without hitting the Pop list it became a million seller. But already changes were taking place. Willie became ill; Bill dropped down to bass when he departed.
By January 1954 the new stars were touring and appearing with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald (when they performed at the Howard Theater on January 15th). All was not a star’s life, however. During one tour, the group was passing through Fredricksburg, Virginia, on their way to Atlanta when car trouble forced them to work for money. After repairs and while cruising the town waiting for the wire transfer, they were picked up be the police, who thought they fit the description of a gang who had just robbed a loan company. With guns in their faces and sweat on their brows the Drifters spent anxious hours in police custody until they were finally cleared.
The single of “Such a Night” was recorded on November 12, 1953, and came out the first week of the new year. Clyde’s performance on this lyrically suggestive (for the time) mover and shaker earned the group three weeks at number two. Both Bunny Paul and Johnny Ray covered the Lincoln Chase-penned hit, so that by February Clyde felt compelled to issue a press release stating that he would sue anyone who copied his musical arrangement or vocal styling on the song. But by March 13, WXYZ in Detroit had banned all three versions as being too racy (even though the Johnny Ray version was banned in the United Kingdom-the Drifters original never even got a shot there-it still made it to number one). Even the Drifters flip “Lucille” make it to number seven R&B in the U.S., which in effect had a different group on each side (except for Clyde) calling themselves the Drifters. “Lucille’s” group could easily have been called Little David Baughn and the Mount Lebanon Singers.
On April 16th Clyde was reunited with his old friend, boxer-turned-singer Sugar Ray Robinson (Clyde and the Dominoes did many shows with Robinson), when the Drifters, Ray, and Ruth Brown began a series of one-nighters at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. So much has been said about the vocal work of the Drifters over the years that few realized what a skilled performing and dance act they were. While Clyde stood off to the left, the group would gyrate through some of the hippest acrobatic and tap routines this side of Motown (and about eight years ahead of Motown). Adding the rapidly flashing lights of the Apollo Theatre you had a cross between an early light show and a silent movie. But all the fun and games were interrupted when on May 7, 1954, a letter came for Clyde from Uncle Sam. He was to be stationed in Buffalo, New York, which meant, fortunately, that he could return for weekend gigs.
In the first week of June, the group’s calypso-influenced “Honey Love” rode up the Best Seller chart to number one by mid-summer, and remained there for eight weeks. Another million seller, it held on to the hit list for 23 weeks total. “Honey Love” also became their first pop charter, going to number 21 in October.
In August the group was part of the second annual “Biggest R&B Show” for a five-week tour with Alan Freed, THE SPANIELS, LaVern Baker, Roy Hamilton, Faye Adams, and the Counts. They hit Cincinnati; flint, Michigan’ Detroit; Gary, Indiana; Indianapolis; Chicago; St. Louis; Kansas City; and Dayton, Ohio (where 4,700 people, the largest audience for a non-racing event, saw the show at the Speedway). The tour finished up at the Brooklyn Paramount for the five-day Labor Day weekend show.
“Bip Bam” followed in October going to number seven; the flip “Someday You’ll Want Me to Want You” was far and away the best of the group’s McPhatter-led ballads. In the second week of November, Atlantic released what would become the most popular vocal group Christmas record of all time, the Drifter’s version of “White Christmas.” A note-for-note clone of THE RAVENS’ brilliant 1949 release (#9 R&B), it nevertheless opened up a wider audience for both versions while becoming the Drifters’ second pop chart record at number 80. It made it to number two R&B, with subsequent chartings at number five in December 1956 and number 12 in December 1957. The flip “The Bells of St. Mary’s” was also an inspiring reading.
The new year ushered in Alan Freed’s first rock and roll ball (January 14th and 15th), an extravaganza held at the St. Nicholas Arena in New York that was sold out a week in advance. These shows were noteworthy in that the performers were all black while more than half the people in the audience were white teens. The bill included Fats Domino, the Clovers, Joe Turner, THE MOONGLOWS, THE HARPTONES, Red Prysock’s Combo, Buddy Johnson’s Orchestra, and, of course, the Drifters.
In March, the boogie-woogie rocker “”Whatcha Gonna Do’ (written by Nugetre-Ertegun spelled backwards; see THE CLOVERS) was let loose and skyrocketed up Billboard’s R&B listings, this one carving a niche at number two for two weeks. The flip “Gone” (from the group’s August 9th session, their first) was a gem of a ballad with free-flowing falsetto harmony and a surprising modulation that gave Clyde and Company another vocal dimension to wail through. “Whatcha Gonna Do”/”Gone” was technically the last Drifters single with Clyde. Though he had recorded his last four sides with the group on October 24, 1954, “Three Three Three” was not released until used in the Drifters’ LP Their Greatest Recordings, The early Years in 1971. “Sugar-coated Kisses” was not issued at all and “Everyone’s Laughing” b/w “Hot Ziggetty,” listed in Atlantic’s discography as record 1070 released in August 1954, never made the charts. The fact that Clyde formally announced in mid-July he was leaving the Drifters could have precipitated a recall of the single and a regrouping (thus explaining why a record could fail that miserably when the group was so hot). Little David (16 at the time and fresh from recording with the Checkers on King) became an interim replacement, but his only lead wasn’t released until March 1961 as the B side to a later Drifters recording of “Some Kind of Wonderful,” (One of Atlantic’s practices was to take old unreleased tracks and put them on the flip of later Drifters A sides. They did this maneuver several times for Clyde’s solo sides as well.)
During this transition period the group was in Cleveland on tour when Bill Pickney found the Drifters a new lead singer. Johnny Moore was singing by himself in a men’s room and Bill was so knocked out he hired this former lead of the Hornets (States) right there and then. Little David, young, undisciplined, and drinking heavily, left to form the Harps (“I Won’t Cry,” Savoy, 1955) and later sang with Bill Pickney’s original Drifters in 1958 that recorded two singles for End (“Am I to Be the One” and “Gee”) as the Harmony Grits. Little David died in 1970.
By September 1955, the Drifters had recorded five new sides; two of the, “Adorable” and “Steamboat,” began charging up the charts together in November and December respectively. “Adorable,” led by Moore, became the group’s first and only cover (see THE COLTS) and went to number one R&B while “Steamboat” paddled to number five with Pinkney on lead.
That December, the group fought in a mock “battle of the quartets” to beat THE EL DORADOS at the Magnolia Ballroom in Atlanta. It was shows billed as battles that lead to the highly successful “Battle of the Groups” LPs of the middle and late ‘50s (The Paragons Meet the Jesters and others).
The Drifters’ February 1956 release was a dynamic two-sider with the early nod going to the ballad side, “Your Promise to Be Mine.” Billboard’s April 7th review stated: “A gentle ballad builds into an intense exciting production as the lead singer [Gerhart Thrasher in one of his few lead roles] turns in a truly outstanding performance. Could be another big one for the boys.” Of the B side, “Ruby Baby,” the reviewer said: “The high lead [Johnny Moore] takes over on this pounding 16-bar blues theme taken at a good rock tempo. Less weight than on the flip, though it’s an infectious item.” In the April 21st issue, Billboard’s “Best Buys” reviewer commented, “preference for side is still sharply divided with both sparking considerable interest.” But by May 12th “Ruby” (penned by Leiber and Stoller and produced in Los Angeles by Nesuhi Ertegun, Ahmet’s brother) was on its way to becoming a classic, topping off at number 10 R&B. (Had “Promise” been coupled with a lesser side, it too might have been a champion.) Almost seven years later DION and THE DELSATINS would record “Ruby Baby,” taking it to number two Pop and garnering R&B approval to the tune of number five. The next Drifters’ single, “I Gotta Get Myself a Woman” (#11), was the last for a couple of the old guard. Pinkney was fired by manager George “Stingy” Treadwell when he asked for a raise for the group. Andrew was shown the door when he defended Bill. Pinkney, not one to brood, immediately put together a group called the Flyers with former Crowns and Swallows (King) member Bobby Hendricks. They signed to Atlantic’s Atco subsidiary for one 45, “My Only Desire”
Bill’s spot was covered by former CARLOS (Columbia) and Ravens (Columbia) bass, Tommy Evans.
It seems that the Drifters found a number of their members in various men’s rooms. “Carnation” Charlie Hughes, formerly a tenor for THE DIAMONDS (Atlantic) and lead of THE DU DROPPERS, was met by old friend Gerhart Thrasher in the toilet of 1650 Broadway while Treadwell was holding auditions a few doors down for Andrew Thrasher’s spot. The minute they heard “Carnation” sing, the other hopefuls were dismissed. While all this was going on, McPhatter was charting with Ruth Brown (“Love Has Joined Us Together,” number eight, December 1955” and his first solo hit “Seven Days” (#2, February 1956).
The Moore, Gerhart Thrasher, Charlie Hughes, and Evans quartet became the first Drifters unit since the “White Christmas” group to register a top 10 R&B record and hit the Pop charts when “Fools Fall in Love” went to number 69 (#10 R&B) in the spring of 1957.
From here on, changes became more rapid and the attitude more laissez-faire, coinciding with less-than-quality releases.
In the summer of 1957 Moore and Hughes were drafted. Bill Pinkney, who’d been in and out for performances but not recording, got in touch with ex-Flyers lead Bobby Hendricks, who jumped at the chance to front the group. Jimmy Millender replaced Hughes on baritone and the last “original” Drifters group was formed in time to record three sides on April 28, 1958, less than five years since the first Drifters group session. One terrific single emerged from that session, the Leiber and Stoller classic “Drip Drop.” With a lead sung by a Clyde McPhatter-inspired Bobby Hendricks, “Drip Drop” made it to number 58 Pop but (surprisingly) never charted R&B, possibly signaling that the public wanted a new sound from the Drifters.
These last original Drifters (Hendricks, Thrasher, Millender, and Evans) watched their popularity wane; soon they were forced to do one-nighters posing as both THE COASTERS and the Ravens.
Their fateful night in June of 1958 was approaching, but the Drifters’ name and legacy would live on.
Clyde McPhatter went on to solo stardom and recognition as one of the best and most original voices in rhythm and blues history. Between 1955 and 1965 he registered 16 R&B and 21 Pop chart records, including “A Lover’s Question” with THE CUES (#6 Pop, #1 R&B, 1958), “Lover Please’ (#7 Pop, 1962), “Without Love” (#19 Pop, #4 R&B, 1957), “Since You’ve Been Gone” with the Cookies and the Cues (#38 Pop, #14 R&B, 1959), “Long Lonely Nights” with the Cues (#49 Pop, #1 R&B, 1957), and his all-time classic “Treasure of Love” (#16 Pop, #1 R&B, 1956). Clyde died on June 13, 1972, not realizing the impact his voice would have on the R&B and rock and roll scene for decades to come.
Through turmoil and changes the Drifters managed to set musical trends and give the public 13 chart hits, most of which are legendary recordings today. (See THE DRIFTERS, 1958-1979, for the remainder of their story.)
– Jay Warner