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Roy Black: The two Johnny Moores led Skatelites, Drifters to stardom

Published:Sunday | June 14, 2015 | 6:00 AMRoy Black
The Skatalites in earlier years.
The Drifters performing at the Regal Theatre in 1960.
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To many Jamaican music enthusiasts, the name Johnny Moore conjures up memories of that late Jamaican trumpeter who helped the Skatalites band to become, arguably, the greatest and most talented aggregation of musicians ever to be assembled on the island. What was remarkable is the fact that another man with that same name helped an American singing group to become one of the most popular on the island, almost simultaneously.

The Drifters, as they became known, had no equal as a singing group during their tenure of 1959-1965, while The Skatalites, with Don Drummond and Johnny Moore at the helm, were the epitome of the Jamaican ska beat between 1963 and 1965. But The Drifters' singer - Johnny Moore, stood alone as the most important foundation of the group's existence. He came to the group's rescue on two occasions, when bad fortunes almost skidded them into the doldrums of obscurity. Ben E. King, who passed away on April 30 this year, was perhaps the best known member of that group, but Moore was the longest serving, and the only one to have served in two distinct phases of their existence.

Moore joined the original group as a 21-year-old in 1955 at a very critical stage when McPhatter, the mainstay and leader, left to do army service in 1954, and his replacement, David Baughan, didn't fit properly. Bolstered by McPhatter's lead vocals, the group had just established themselves with Money Honey, Such a Night and Honey Love, but his sudden departure left a seemingly irreplaceable void that proved difficult to fill, until Moore's arrival. Moore, who had been a member of a group called the Hornets, had a McPhatter sound that seemed to impress manager George Treadwell on one of his visits to town, and he hired him on the spot.

 

lead vocals

 

With Moore on lead vocals, The Drifters resumed recording in September of 1955. He was first heard singing lead with the group on a cut called Adorable - a number-one R&B chart single, which was largely responsible for re-establishing the group's reputation. Atlantic Records soon released Ruby Baby, also led by Moore, which was recorded on the same session on September 19, 1955 (as per Atlantic Records authentic documents - 'Their greatest recordings, the early years'). The recording proved a very important one for the group, as it marked their introduction to the shrewd songwriting talents of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who also took over the production role.

For the first time in over a year, the group's line-up and lead vocal problems seemed stabilised with Moore's cool high tenor being backed at various times by brothers Gerhard and Andrew Thrasher, Bill Pinkney, Charlie Hughes and Tommy Evans.

The following year, the Johnny Moore-led blues number, Fools falls in Love, became a big favourite among dance fans at home and abroad. The lyrics, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and recorded at the Beltone Studios in New York on November 8, 1956, were a lesson to hasty-minded lovers:

"Fools fall in love in a hurry

Fools give their hearts much

too soon

Just play them two bars of

stardust

Just hung out on one silly

moon.

They've got their love torches

burning

when they should be playing it cool.

I used to laugh but now I

understand,

shake the hand of a brand new fool.

Fools fall in love, just like schoolgirls

blinded by rose-coloured dreams.

They build their castle on wishes

with only rainbows for dreams."

Like McPhatter, Moore was also drafted for army service and, upon release, disappeared from the music scene for a while, re-emerging in April 1963 to lead on the classic I'll Take You Home, followed by the masterpiece One Way Love, in December of that same year. But it was the Johnny Moore-led recording of Under the Boardwalk that held the spotlight on The Drifters at home and abroad in 1964 and 1965.

While being a number-four hit in America, the recording created history in Jamaica when both sides of the record (the other side being the Charlie Thomas-led I Don't Want to Go On Without You), climbed to number one on the Jamaican charts. And the drama didn't stop there, because Johnny Moore wasn't even slated to do the recording in the first place. Just hours before the recording session, slated for May 21, 1964, Rudy Lewis, the singer billed to lead on the song, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his hotel apartment.

 

last top-10 hit

 

Without much time to reschedule the session, Moore fortuitously stepped into the breach with his sorrowful vocals, and transformed a summer novelty into a luminous soul classic, which became the group's last top-10 hit.

Moore's performance consolidated his lead-vocal status with the group, a position he held throughout the 1970s and beyond their time as a remarkable recording act. His lead voice can also be heard on hits like Up in the Streets of Harlem, Saturday Night at the Movies, Sand in my Shoes, I'll Take You Where the Music's Playing, Nylon Stockings, Follow Me, Down at the Club, He's just a Playboy and Come On Over to My Place. Moving to Britain in the 1970s, Moore and the group continued to create an impact on the charts there with Down at the Club and Come On Over to My Place.

Amid confusion over the ownership of the name 'Drifters', Moore started his own outfit in 1982. The man who could easily claim to have sung on more than half of the Drifters recordings remained at the helm right to the end. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and given a posthumous pioneer award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1999.

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