The earliest origins of The Drifters dates back to 1953 when they were formed by Clyde McPhatter who was only with them for one year. McPhatter’s original vision for the group was to blend gospel and more secular sounds. In order to achieve this, the first line-up that he assembled were all members of his church group. After a recording session in ’53 Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records realized that this religious group did not work and had McPhatter assemble another line-up. This group consisted of Bill Pinkey, Andrew Thrasher, Gerhart Thrasher, bassist Willie Ferbee and guitarist Walter Adams. They recorded the Drifter’s first big hit in September of that year titled “Money Honey.”
Ferbee left the group after being involved in a car accident. Adams died and was replaced by Jimmy Oliver. Rather than replacing Ferbee, the other singers instead decided to shift around their vocal parts. Gerhart became first Tenor, Andrew moved to Baritone and Pinkey became the bassist. This new incarnation recorded several hits over the next year before McPhatter left.
McPhatter was originally replaced by David Baughan who had been a member of the original group. However, his behavior made him difficult to work with so he was soon replaced by Johnny Moore. This line-up would record several further hits over the next couple of years. However, Pinkey and Andrew both soon left due to protests over low pay. The former was replaced by Tommy Evans and the latter by Charlie Hughes. They then had a hit in 1957 with “Fools Fall In Love.”
Not long after, Moore and Hughes had to leave the band to do their National Service, which was a compulsory thing for young men to do at the time. They were then respectfully replaced by Bobby Hendricks and Jimmy Millender. This line-up had a moderate hit with “Drip Drop” in 1958. After this, the group’s popularity started to decline. At a final concert where one of the members got into a fight with the owner of the Apollo Theatre, the band’s manager George Treadwell fired the entire group and got a whole new one together, officially marking the end of the band’s original era.
Despite Treadwell owning the name, the members were outraged by his plans to form a completely different group under the Drifters name and as a result several splinter groups were formed. After gaining legal permission to do so, Pinkey, Baughan and the Thrashers began touring under the name “The Original Drifters.” Several other originals came in and out of this group as well as other musicians, but they never replicated their original success.
Treadwell meanwhile approached another group named the Five Crowns and arranged for them to become the new Drifters. This new incarnation consisted of Ben E King, Charlie Thomas, Dock Green and bassist Elsbeary Hobbs. Despite early hostility from audiences due to having no connection to the original line-up, this version of the group soon began having massive hits , producing several chart toppers throughout the brief period of the next two years. In 2000, this specific era of the Drifters was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
This brief golden period came to an end after the group’s Road Manager Lover Patterson got into an argument with Treadwell. Patterson had King under contract and exercised his power to not let him tour with the group. Johnny Lee Williams was brought in to handle vocal duties on the group’s next tour.
King then left after a dispute over low pay (a reason why many members left). Williams also left and a new lead was bought in the form of Rudy Lewis. They then produced several more hits. After Hobbs was drafted to do his military service, he was replaced in the familiar form of original group member Tommy Evans. Green left in 1962 and was replaced by Eugene Pearson. A year later Evans once again departed and was replaced by John Terry. Johnny Moore joined the new version of the group in 1964.
Later that year Lewis died. Terry then left and was replaced by Dan Dandridge and then by William Brent in 1966. The same year Gene Person left and was replaced by Rick Sheppard. Brent himself then left and was replaced by Bill Fredricks. Then the next year in 1967, Charlie Thomas who was the only original member from the second Drifters incarnation left and was replaced by Charles Baskerville.
After leaving Atlantic in 1972, The Drifters relocated to England and continued their career with several different vocalists. After scoring several more hits, members left and were replaced by other musicians. As the group continued into the 1980’s, several members came back and left again. To this day, The Drifters continue to exist as a successful touring act, having had over sixty members over the course of their existence.
# 10 – Money Honey
Kicking off our top ten best Drifters songs list is a song that written by Jess Stone and performed by newly formed Drifters with McPhatter. It was a hit instantly upon its release, being on the R&B chart for twenty-three weeks, peaking at number one. It has been the subject of many covers over the years by people such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard.
# 9 – Some Kind of Wonderful
This track taken from Save The Last Dance For Me was written by Gerry Goffin and Carol King and released in 1961. It reached number thirty-two on the Billboard Pop charts and number six on the R&B chart. There have been several covers of the song by people such as Marvin Gaye in 1967 and even more recent covers by people such as Michael Bublé in 2010. In 2007, Welsh singers Aled Jones and former Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews recorded a cover of it as a duet.
# 8 – There Goes My Baby
This was the first single of the second incarnation of the Drifters who had previously been known as the 5 Crowns. They took the name after George Treadwell fired all the members of the previous incarnation in 1958. Released on Atlantic Records in 1959, it was Ben E King’s debut as lead vocalist. It was a massive hit, reaching number one on the R&B charts and number two on the mainstream Billboard.
# 7 – Sweets for my Sweet
This was the group’s first recording featuring Charlie Thomas as the lead vocalist. It reached number sixteen on the pop chart and number ten on the R&B charts when it was released in 1961. It is notable as being one of the few Drifters songs of this era not to feature a string section. Instead, it is a cha-cha style number being piano and bongo drum- led. It is also taken from Save The Last Dance For Me.
# 6 – Save the Last Dance for Me
This title track was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shurman and released in 1960 featuring King on lead vocals. Released several months after King left the group, it reached number one three times on the pop charts as well as the same position on the R&B chart for one week. It also got to number two in the UK.
# 5 – I Don’t Wanna Go On Without You
This next entry was written by Bert Burns and Jerry Wexler and released in 1964. It has been covered by a wide variety of artists such as Nazareth, The Moody Blues and Van Morrison. It was originally intended to be the A side of “Under the Boardwalk”. The group’s then vocalist Rudy Lewis died of a heron overdose the night before the recording and as a result Charlie Thomas handled lead vocal duties.
# 4 – Like Sister and Brother
This song is one the later period hits from 1973. With Bill Fredericks as the lead singer, it is one of four high charting hits from their Love Games LP. It was the first of three singles to reach number ten in the Uk. It also reached the top ten in Australia. With Fredericks very different sounding vocals, it shows The Drifters very much entering a new musical era.
# 3 – Honey Love
At number three is another McPhatter era song that was released in 1954. It was their third single release, the fourth to chart at the second to top the R&B charts. Not long after its release, the Memphis Police confiscated copies of it from jukeboxes because the lyrics were seen to be “suggestive.”
# 2 – On Broadway
This song was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Well and released in 1963 and taken from the album Under the Boardwalk. It had been released by a couple of other groups previously, but this version is the most well-known and successful, reaching number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. The guitar solo is played by a young Phil Spector.
# 1 – Up On The Roof / Under The Boardwalk
At number one on our list of ten best Drifters songs we have a tie. It was so hard to pick between these two classic Drifters songs. “Up On The Roof,” is a cut from 1962 written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. It was a major hit upon its release, reaching number five on the pop chart and number four on the R&B charts. The song was highly critically acclaimed upon its release, with many praising its lyrics that are quite cynical in nature, expressing frustration at the daily grind and chaos of urban city life. The same year, another version by Kenney Lynch was released which reached number ten in the UK.
When anyone from the era of the 50s 60 70s or 80s thinks of The Drifters, chance are the song “Under The Boardwalk,” is the first song that comes to mind. While it may not have been their highest charting song, it easily stands as their most lasting.
Top 10 Drifters Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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