Tue | Jun 25, 2019

The Music Diaries | The power of the Drifters

Published:Sunday | June 3, 2018 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
The Drifters performing at The Regal Theatre in 1960.


The Drifters vocal group of the early 1960s was easily the most exciting and popular group of singers in popular music during that period. Those who were around at the time will well recall the impact they had on the music scene and on the charts, while those who were not would perhaps find it difficult to resist the temptation to dance from the moment the very first note of one of their songs is sounded. Such was the power of the Drifters' music, mainly concocted by ace music arrangers and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

When the group consisting of Ben E King, Charlie Thomas, Elsbeary Hobbs and Doc Green, marched into the Coastal Studios in New York on March 6, 1959, to do their first set of recordings, they were confronted with nothing that suggested they had a Rhythm and Blues (R&B) date. Indeed, they had originally been a R&B group when they began in 1953 and they were expecting to continue that way. But, lo and behold, Leiber and Stoller shockingly assembled a band consisting of no less than 15 musicians, including a five-piece string section, four violins and a cello, in addition to the regular R&B section. Obviously, a grand pop ballad session was about to unfold and it really did. As of that day, the Drifters were no longer a R&B group, but a pop group that epitomised orchestral arrangements laced with Latin rhythms.

Their first release, There Goes My Baby on April 24, 1959, with its rich orchestral arrangements, mirrored the intentions of Leiber and Stoller and it didn't take long to prove that the group was heading in the right direction. Led by Benjamin Nelson, aka Ben E King, it peaked at number two on the industry standard Billboard Hot 100 chart by the middle of August. The follow-ups Dance With Me, This Magic Moment, Save The Last Dance For Me and I Count The Tears, all led by King, were big chart-toppers up to May 1960.

It was smooth sailing up until then. But suddenly problems began to surface when King became dissatisfied with manager George Treadwell's salary arrangements and officially left the group in May 1960. It was the continuation of an ongoing characteristic problem that had beset the group from the outset, which saw members, lead vocalists in particular, drifting in and out of the group. In the midst of the Ben E King saga, the group had already witnessed two other lead singers - Charlie Thomas, who sang lead on Baltimore, and Johnny Williams who did likewise on True Love.

Finding an adequate replacement for King was no easy game. Treadwell was adamant that he wanted to retain the 'Ben E King sound' in order to remain competitive and original. The perfect replacement came in February 1961 when Rudy Lewis was recruited from The Clara Ward gospel group. Lewis auditioned on the spot for Treadwell in his (Lewis') hometown of Philadelphia and was recruited to replace Ben E King, thus becoming the second established lead vocalist with the new Drifters.

The group enjoyed their most successful stint, with Lewis featuring on the big hits Please Stay (his first with the group in 1961), Some Kind Of Wonderful, Mexican Divorce, On Broadway, Upon The Roof, Another Night With The Boys, Jackpot, Let The Music Play, Loneliness or Happiness, Rat Race, Somebody New Dancing With You, Stranger On The Shore, Vaya Con Dios, What To Do and Only In America - a recording that somehow made a startling prediction in the second stanza:

"Only in America

Can a kid without a cent

Get a break and maybe grow up to be president"

Lewis was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 23, 1936, but moved to New York in 1961 after joining the Drifters. His tenure with the group was, however, short-lived. On the morning of May 21, 1964, when the Drifters - Charlie Thomas, Johnny Moore, Eugene Pearson and Johnny Terry - assembled for a recording session, the shocking news came that Lewis, who was down to sing lead on Under The Boardwalk, had died in his hotel room. He was 27 years old. Although the news cast a pall over the proceedings, the recording session still went on, with Johnny Moore filling the breach. In the liner notes from the album The Drifters 1959-1965 - All Time Greatest Hits and More, Colin Escott states: "Moore's sorrowful vocals transformed a summer novelty into a luminous soul classic. The somber and intense mood of the session was then captured to perfection as Charlie Thomas took the lead on the b-side - I Don't Want To Go On Without You. Thomas was especially close to Rudy Lewis and his spine-tingling lead on the recording transformed a rather trite pop song into an elegy for his departed friend."

It is worthy of note that both recordings reached number one on the Jamaican charts in 1964.