According to Rolling Stone magazine, the Drifters were the least stable of the great vocal groups, as they were low-paid musicians hired by George Treadwell, who owned the Drifters name. There have been 60 vocalists in the history of the Treadwell Drifters line, including several splinter groups by former Drifters members (not under Treadwell's management). These groups are usually identified with a possessive credit such as "Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters", "Charlie Thomas' Drifters", etc.
There were three golden eras of the Drifters; the early 1950s, the 1960s, and the early 1970s (post-Atlantic period). From these, the first Drifters, formed by Clyde McPhatter, was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame as "The Drifters". The second Drifters, featuring Ben E. King, was separately inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame as "Ben E. King and the Drifters". In their induction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected four members from the first Drifters, two from the second Drifters, and one from the post-Atlantic Drifters.
According to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame: "Through turmoil and changes, the (original) Drifters managed to set musical trends and give the public 13 chart hits, most of which are legendary recordings today." Matching that feat, subsequent formations of the Drifters recorded 13 Billboard Hot 100 top 30 chart hits. A 1970s revival in Britain, with both old and new material, was not matched in the United States, although it saw their biggest successes on the UK pop charts, peaking with the number 2 hit "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies"
The Drifters in 1964
|Origin||New York City, U.S.|
|Genres||R&B, doo wop, soul, pop|
|Labels||Atlantic, Bell, Neon Records|
|Associated acts||Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter|
Daniel Bowen Smith
|Past members||Clyde McPhatter
Ben E. King
Lloyd Butch Phillips
To many fans and historians, "The Drifters" means Clyde McPhatter, although he was with the group for only one year. McPhatter was lead tenor for Billy Ward and His Dominoes for three years, starting in 1950. It was McPhatter's high-pitched tenor that was mostly responsible for the Dominoes' success. In 1953, Ahmet Ertegün of Atlantic Records attended a Dominoes performance at Birdland and noticed McPhatter wasn't present, only to learn that McPhatter was no longer with the group. As Jerry Wexler recalls,
"Ahmet exited Birdland like a shot and headed directly uptown. He raced from bar to bar looking for Clyde and finally found him in a furnished room. That very night, Ahmet reached an agreement with McPhatter under which Clyde would assemble a group of his own. They became known as the Drifters."
Wanting to blend gospel and secular sounds, McPhatter's first effort was to get members of his old church group, the Mount Lebanon Singers. They were William "Chick" Anderson (tenor), Charlie White (tenor), David Baldwin (baritone, and author James Baldwin's brother), James "Wrinkle" Johnson (bass), and David "Little Dave" Baughan (tenor). After a single recording session of four songs on June 29, 1953, Ertegün realized that this combination didn't work and had McPhatter recruit another lineup.
This second group of new recruits consisted of gospel vocalists; first tenor Bill Pinkney (of the Jerusalem Stars), second tenor Andrew Thrasher and baritone Gerhart Thrasher (both formerly of the gospel group, the "Thrasher Wonders"), and Willie Ferbee as bass, with Walter Adams on guitar.
This is the group on the second session, which produced the group's first major hit, "Money Honey", released September 1953, with the record label displaying the group name Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters. McPhatter was barely known during his time with the Dominoes, and he was sometimes passed off as "Clyde Ward, Billy's little brother". In other instances people assumed it was Billy Ward doing the singing.
"Lucille", written by McPhatter, from the first session, was put on the B-side of "Money Honey", making a recording industry rarity; a single released with songs from two essentially different groups of the same name on the two sides. "Money Honey" was a huge success and propelled the Drifters to immediate fame.
More lineup changes followed, after Ferbee was involved in an accident and left the group and then Adams died. Adams was replaced by Jimmy Oliver. However, Ferbee was not replaced; instead, the voice parts were shifted around. Gerhart Thrasher moved up to first tenor, Andrew Thrasher shifted down to baritone, and Bill Pinkney dropped all the way down to bass. This group released several more hits, including "Such A Night" in November 1953, "Honey Love" June 1954, "Bip Bam" October 1954, "White Christmas" November 1954, and "What'cha Gonna Do" in February 1955. McPhatter received his draft letter in March 1954; however, as he was initially stationed in Buffalo, New York, he was able to continue with the group for a time. "What'cha Gonna Do", recorded a year before its release, was McPhatter's last official record as a member of the Drifters, although his first solo release ("Everyone's Laughing" b/w "Hot Ziggety") was from his final Drifters session in October 1954. After completing his military service, McPhatter pursued a successful but relatively short-lived solo career with 16 R&B and 21 pop hits.
McPhatter had demanded a large share of the group's profits, which he had been denied in the Dominoes; however, on his departure, he did not ensure that this would continue for his successor. He sold his share of the group to George Treadwell, manager, former jazz trumpeter, and husband of singer Sarah Vaughan. As a result, the Drifters recycled many members, none of whom made much money and got paid $100 a week (US$894 in 2016 dollars). McPhatter later expressed regret at this action, recognizing that it doomed his fellow musicians to unprofitability.
McPhatter was first replaced by original member David Baughan, who had already been singing lead in concert while McPhatter was in the service. Baughan's voice was similar to McPhatter's, but his erratic behavior made him difficult to work with and unsuitable in the eyes of Atlantic Records executives. Baughan soon left the group to form the Harps (1955) (finding his way back into Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters in 1958), and was replaced by Selma native Johnny Moore (formerly of The Hornets). September 1955 saw this lineup record a major double-sided R&B hit with the A side's "Adorable", reaching number one and the B side, "Steamboat", going to number five. These were followed by "Ruby Baby" in February 1956, and "I Got To Get Myself A Woman".
Low salaries contributed to burnout among the members, particularly Bill Pinkney, who was fired after asking Treadwell for more money. In protest, Andrew Thrasher left as well. Pinkney formed another group, called "The Flyers", with lead singer Bobby Hendricks, who would leave to join the Drifters the next year. Bill Pinkney was replaced by Tommy Evans (who had replaced Jimmy Ricks in The Ravens). Charlie Hughes, a baritone, replaced Andrew Thrasher. Moore, G. Thrasher, C. Hughes, and Evans were the last good-quality lineup with the top ten hit, "Fools Fall In Love" in 1957 (number 69 Pop and number 10 R&B).
Moore and Hughes were drafted in 1957 and replaced by Bobby Hendricks and Jimmy Millender. By early 1958, the lineup was: Bobby Hendricks (lead tenor), Gerhart Thrasher (first tenor), Jimmy Millender (baritone), Tommy Evans (bass), and Jimmy Oliver (guitar). This lineup had one moderate hit, the original version of "Drip Drop" (number 58 Pop), released in April 1958.
With declining popularity, the last of the original Drifters were reduced to working the club scene and doing double duty with gigs under the Coasters and the Ravens names. By May 1958, both Hendricks and Oliver had quit, returning only for a week's appearance at the Apollo Theater. During that week, one of the members got into a severe argument with the owner of the Apollo, Ralph Cooper. That was the last straw for manager Treadwell, who fired the entire group. After the argument with Cooper, Treadwell hired a group called the Five Crowns on the spot and renamed them "The Drifters".
Although Treadwell allegedly owned the Drifters brand, original members felt they were the real Drifters and were determined to keep the group alive. Bill Pinkney left first. After receiving exclusive and irrevocable ownership of the name/mark "The Original Drifters" in a binding arbitration, he joined with the Thrashers and David Baughan to begin touring as "The Original Drifters". Several original Drifters came in and out of this group over time, as well as other new artists, but these Drifters never replicated the success of the earlier Drifters group.
Baughan left after a short time. Bobby Lee Hollis joined in 1964 and took over the lead spot. Later that year, Andrew Thrasher left and Jimmy Lewis joined the group. Bobby Hendricks returned, making the group a quintet for a short time, before Lewis' departure. Andrew Thrasher returned, replacing Hollis. Hollis and Baughan were periodically with the group through the 1960s. As of 1968, the group consisted of Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher, Hollis, and Hendricks.
Pinkney then recruited an existing group, the Tears, to perform as part of his group on a short tour. The Tears were Benny Andersson, George Wallace, Albert Fortson, and Mark Williams. After the tour, the Tears—without Pinkney—continued to tour as the Original Drifters, but Pinkney successfully sued to stop them using the name.
Pinkney then added new members Bruce Caesar, Clarence Tex Walker, and Duke Richardson, but the lineup changed rapidly. In 1979 the group was Pinkney, Andrew Lawyer, Chuck Cockerham, Harriel Jackson, and Tony Cook. Their 1995 album Peace in the Valley, on Blackberry Records, credited vocals to Pinkney, Cockerham, Richard Knight Dunbar, (Vernon Young), and Greg Johnson. They appeared on the 2001 PBS special Doo Wop 51 with Pinkney, Dunbar, Johnson, and Bobby Hendricks. The lineup in the early 2000s was Pinkney, Cockerham, Dunbar, Young, and Ronald Jackson, the son of singer Ruth Brown.
Pinkney died July 4, 2007, and his legacy continues via the successfully defended registered federal service mark "Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters. The present Original Drifters lineup is Russell Henry, Chuck Cockerham, Richard Knight Dunbar, and Roger Whitehead.
Treadwell owned the rights to the name "Drifters", and still had a year's worth of bookings for the Apollo when he fired the group. In summer 1958, he approached Lover Patterson, the manager of the Five Crowns featuring lead singer Benjamin Earl Nelson—better known by his stage name of Ben E. King—and arranged for them to become the Drifters. The new line-up consisted of King (lead tenor), Charlie Thomas (tenor), Dock Green (baritone), and Elsbeary Hobbs (bass). James "Poppa" Clark was the fifth "Crown"; he was not included due to an alcohol problem, which Treadwell had considered to be a problem with the first group. The group went out on the road to tour for almost a year. Since this new group had no connection to the prior Drifters, they often played to hostile audiences.
When Atlantic decided to send the new Drifters into the studio, Ertegün and Wexler were too busy to produce the sessions, so they enlisted Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had been successful producing the Coasters. With Leiber & Stoller producing, this new lineup — widely considered the "true" golden age of the group — released several singles with King on lead that became chart hits. "There Goes My Baby", the first commercial rock-and-roll recording to include a string orchestra, was a Top 10 hit, and number 193 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. "Dance with Me" followed, and then "This Magic Moment" (number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960). "Save the Last Dance for Me" reached number 1 on the U.S. pop charts and number 2 in the UK. It was followed by "I Count The Tears". This version of the Drifters was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000 as Ben E. King and the Drifters. The write-up indicates an award primarily as a tribute to Ben E. King with a nod to his time in the Drifters, only one of five paragraphs being exclusively devoted to the Drifters, although Charlie Thomas was also cited by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame's induction of the original Drifters, which technically was only through 1958).
With this brief golden age lasting just two years, personnel changes quickly followed. Lover Patterson (now the Drifters' road manager) got into an argument with George Treadwell. Since Patterson had King under personal contract, he refused to let him tour with the group. Thus King was only able to record with the group for about a year. Johnny Lee Williams, who sang lead on "(If You Cry) True Love, True Love", the flipside of "Dance with Me", handled the vocals on tour along with Charlie Thomas. When the group passed through Williams' hometown of Mobile, Alabama, Williams left the group. (Williams died on December 19, 2004, at the age of 64.)
When King asked Treadwell for a raise and a fair share of royalties, a request that was not honored, he left and began a successful solo career. Williams left at the same time and new lead, Rudy Lewis, (of The Clara Ward Singers), was recruited. Lewis led the Drifters on hits such as "Some Kind of Wonderful", "Up On The Roof", "Please Stay" and "On Broadway", which reached number 5 on the U.S. pop singles chart and number 4 on the U.S. R&B singles chart in 1963. Lewis was also named in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Drifters induction. (Ben E. King died on April 30, 2015, at the age of 76.)
Hobbs was drafted for military service and eventually replaced by the returning Tommy Evans (from the first group). Green left in 1962 and was replaced by Eugene Pearson (of The Rivileers and The Cleftones). Evans left again in 1963 and was replaced by Johnny Terry, who had been an original member of James Brown's singing group, The Famous Flames (and was co-writer of their first hit, "Please Please Please"). After his military service and a failed solo career, Johnny Moore returned in 1964, making the group a quintet of Moore, Thomas, Lewis, Pearson, and Perry.
Later that year, the group was scheduled to record "Under the Boardwalk" on May 21. However, Rudy Lewis died the night before the session, and Johnny Moore took over as the sole lead (he and Lewis had been alternating). Terry was replaced in 1966 by Dan Dandridge for a couple of months, then by William Brent, who had been with Johnny Moore in the Hornets in 1954. Gene Pearson was replaced by Rick Sheppard that same year. By late 1966, baritone/bass Bill Fredricks replaced William Brent. Charlie Thomas, the group's last member from the Five Crowns, left in mid-1967 and was replaced by Charles Baskerville, a former member of The Limelites. Baskerville stayed only a short time. It was in 1972 that the Drifters quietly left the talent roster of Atlantic artists.
After this, the Drifters moved to England and continued with several different vocalists. Although early lineups included golden era singers Moore, and later Ben E. King, they fell off the US radar, but continued to have UK chart successes, notably "Like Sister & Brother", "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies", "There Goes My First Love" and "You're More Than a Number in My Little Red Book". Butch Leake and former Ink Spot Grant Kitchings replaced Sheppard and Thomas. Fredricks was replaced by Clyde Brown the next year, and Kitchings by Billy Lewis the year after. Leake was replaced by Joe Blunt in 1976, making the lineup Johnny Moore, Clyde Brown, Joe Blunt, and Billy Lewis. This year, Faye Treadwell renamed the group's management company Treadwell Drifters Inc.
Moore left in 1978 and was replaced by Ray Lewis. Blunt and Billy Lewis left in 1979 and were replaced by the returning Johnny Moore and former Temptations lead Louis Price. Moore left again in late 1982, along with Clyde Brown. They were replaced by two returning members, Benjamin Earl Nelson (a.k.a. Ben E. King) and Bill Fredricks.
Fredricks, Lewis, and Price all left in 1983, and were replaced by the returning Johnny Moore, Joe Blunt, and Clyde Brown. In 1986, the group split up, and a new lineup was constructed by Treadwell, consisting of new member Jonah Ellis and former members Ray Lewis, Billy Lewis, and Louis Price. The next year, more former members came in as replacements, making the group Moore, Billy and Ray Lewis, and Gene Jenkins (replaced shortly after by George Chandler, then John Thurston). Ray Lewis was out in 1988, and was replaced by Joe Cofie. In 1989, Billy Lewis left, and was replaced by the returning George Chandler, then Tony Jackson, Keith John, and finally Peter Lamarr in 1990.
Thurston was out at the end of the year and was replaced by Roy Hemmings. Patrick Alan was in for Peter Lamarr briefly, before Lamarr left in 1991, and was permanently replaced by Rohan Delano Turney. Johnny Stewart joined the group in 1963 and left in 1993 in Las Vegas. He later joined The Platters and continued his singing career. This lineup lasted until 1996, when Cofie was out and Jason Leigh was in. Leigh was replaced after two years by the returning Lamarr. Leigh later returned on the next tour and Lamarr was replaced by the returning Patrick Alan.
On December 30, 1998, the group's longest-serving member, Johnny Moore, died in London. Patrick Alan returned to the group, keeping it a quartet.
In 2001, Faye Treadwell left the United Kingdom and apparently abandoned the Treadwell Drifters franchise (even though in January 2000 a US court had previously overturned a 1999 jury verdict declaring that it was abandoned.) In this environment, two members of her company, Mark Lundquist and Phil Lunderman, started a new management company, Drifters UK Limited, to run the group. Their new duties included stopping a trademark by a UK group calling themselves American Drifters. Lamarr left again in 2003, and was replaced by Victor Bynoe. Hemmings left in 2004 and was replaced by the again-returning Peter Lamarr. The group's lineup as of 2007 was Peter Lamarr, Rohan Delano Turney, Patrick Alan, and Victor Bynoe. On June 20, 2007, this lineup performed at Prime Minister Tony Blair's Farewell Party in London. In 2008 Tina Treadwell won her case in a UK court establishing her ownership of the Treadwell Drifters franchise, so this lineup lost the right to use the Drifters name (see below).
In 1969, magazine editor Larry Marshak decided to mount a series of concerts by the Drifters and other classic vocal groups. He found Dock Green, Charlie Thomas, and Elsbeary Hobbs, and began to promote them as "the Drifters". This brought swift legal action from Faye Treadwell, wife of George Treadwell, who was managing the Drifters. In an attempt to grant his group the sole rights to the name, Marshak convinced Hobbs, Thomas, and Green to apply for a trademark on the Drifters name in 1976. The trademark was granted, but due to Treadwell's legal action it was revoked in 2000 in U.S. Federal Court. The trio of original Drifters split afterward into separate groups. The Truth in Music Advertising laws were legislated in 34 of the 50 US states from 2005 to 2014 to stop promoters such as Marshak from assembling new groups of musicians and marketing them as well-known groups such as the Drifters.
In December 2006, writs were served in the London High Court by Tina Treadwell, daughter of George and Faye, against Mark Lundquist and Philip Luderman Drifters UK Ltd, alleging they are not the rightful controllers of the Drifters.
In July 2008, The Treadwell family and Prism Music Group Ltd won their legal battle. The court order prohibited Phil Luderman, Mark Lundquist, Rohan Delano Turney, Peter Lamarr, Patrick Alan or Victor Bynoe from using the Drifters name.
Ownership of the Drifters name continues with the Treadwell family in the form of George Treadwell's daughter, Tina, and the UK-based company Prism Music Group Ltd. The line-up features Michael Williams, Pierre Herelle, Ryan King and Carlton Powell.
The current Drifters lineup performed at the London IndigoO2 Arena in 2009 with special guests the Drifter Legends, made up of some of the most prestigious former members of the group. Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented at this concert to Joe Blunt and Butch Leake by Neil Martin from Sony Music, and songwriter, Roger Greenway. Later in 2012, Gold discs (100,000 Units sold of the CD, Up On The Roof, The Very Best Of) were awarded by Sony Music to Butch Leake, Joe Blunt and Clyde Brown.
This is the only lineup, with the exception of Johnny Moore, to have recorded on both of the group's former labels, having recorded new material on Atlantic/Warner in 2009 and now in 2011 on Sony Music (Bell Arista) with the new release on March 21, 2011.
Dock Green led his group, the Drifters featuring Dock Green, throughout the 1970s and 1980s. That group consisted of Dock Green (lead/baritone), Derek Ventura (lead/tenor), Lloyd Butch Phillips (second tenor), and Bernard Jones (bass/baritone). Green died on March 10, 1989; Phillips died in 2002.
Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters (Pinkney died on July 4, 2007) continue to tour and record. Charlie Thomas leads another group billed as "Charlie Thomas' Drifters".
Rick Sheppard also tours with another group. Sheppard owns the Canadian trademark for the Drifters name and has won a lawsuit in Canada, so that no other Drifters are permitted to perform there. Ray Lewis and Roy Hemmings have led a Drifters group. Bobby Hendricks leads a group, as does Billy Lewis. Don Thomas leads a group, Don Thomas and the Drifters Review. In addition, Ronn McPhatter, son of Clyde McPhatter leads a group called Clyde McPhatter's Drifters.
Aside from the official post-2008 lineup, Treadwell managed a second group, The Drifters Legends, composed of former members Rick Sheppard, Butch Leake, Joe Blunt and Clyde Brown. Faye Treadwell died of breast cancer, aged 84, on May 22, 2011.
The Vocal Group Hall of Fame has inducted both "The Original Drifters" (1998) and "Ben E. King and the Drifters" (2000). In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the Drifters #81 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 1988, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Drifters; naming members Clyde McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher, Johnny Moore, Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas, and Rudy Lewis. Bill Pinkney, Charlie Thomas, and Johnny Moore (posthumously) received Pioneer Awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1999. The Songwriters Hall of Fame include The Drifters among their Songwriters Friends, the artists who popularized the songs written by inductees.
The Atlantic Years 1953-1972 (does not include Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters (1959- ), Charlie Thomas's Drifters (1971- ) or the Drifters in the UK (1972- ) which for many years featured Johnny Moore.)