The matter of finding suitable singers to fill the slot of lead vocalist for the most popular vocal group of the 1960s - The Drifters, proved to be a constant problem for managers and organisers of the group right from the outset, and throughout its entire lifespan.
Last week, The Music Diaries placed the focus on Ben E. King, the man who was perhaps best known to have occupied that position. He came at a crucial time, when the original Drifters, led by the talented vocalist, Clyde McPhatter, had just been fired by their manager George Treadwell for unruly behaviour. The bust-up was triggered by salary issues.
At the time, King was a member of a group known as The Crowns, which had toiled hard, but had seen no fruits from its labour.
The group began in Harlem in 1952, and was bought by Treadwell to replace The Drifters, and renamed accordingly, in an effort to, first of all, fulfil important assignments the group had on the road, and then to become a recording group.
signed to atlantic
It was at the instigation of Ahmet Ertegun, who started the larger-than-life Atlantic Recording Company in the late 1940s, that McPhatter became the first leader, and lead vocalist of the group. Ertegun was in the process of recruiting performers for his fledging label, and realising that McPhatter had just quit his group -The Dominos, signed him, with the request that he form a group.
McPhatter laid the foundation by hiring George Treadwell as manager, and settling with gospel singers, Willie Fernee and Andrew, and Gerhart Thrasher.
The group registered its first hit, Money Honey, in August 1953, cited by some authorities as the first rock and roll recording.
But the recording that brought McPhatter to prominence was Honey Love, in February 1954, on which he co-wrote and sang lead. But just as the group seemed headed for big things, McPhatter quit in the fall of 1954, citing differences with the producers on the matter of selected material. His goal was really to cross over to pop audiences as a solo balladeer. The move made him a success for the remainder of the 1950s
McPhatter had organised The Drifters under the auspices of his own business entity - Drifters Incorporated.
It involved the sharing of the earnings on a half-and-half basis between manager Treadwell and himself, while placing the performers on paid salary. Upon his departure, McPhatter sold his share to Treadwell, making Treadwell the sole owner of the group.
The search was now on for a replacement for McPhatter.
Johnny Moore, whose style was quite different from McPhatter, filled the slot on such mid-1950s winners as, Adorable, Ruby Baby, and Fools Fall In Love, which had a message for hurried minds:
Fools fall in love in a hurry
fools give their hearts much too soon.
Moore earned the distinction of being the longest-serving member of the group, having served in two separate stints of The Drifters' tenure.
He returned, singing lead in the early 1960s with the second set of Drifters, on such immortal gems as One Way Love, Saturday Night At The Movies, Sand In My Shoes, and Under The Boardwalk, which as a single, created history in Jamaica, when both sides of the record, (the other side being, I Don't Want To Go On Without You), reached No. 1 on local charts.
However, low salaries and a denial of royalties from record sales, created frustration among members who kept drifting in and out of the group.
Moore received a draft notice in early 1957, paving the way for Bobby Hendricks to lead on the Clyde McPhatter-sounding Drip Drop in 1958, and Moonlight Bay shortly after.
The metamorphosis from early to later Drifters, and the Ben E. King years were now on the cards. But finding a replacement for King after an ephemeral stay, was no easy task, as organisers strived to maintain the 'King sound'. Johnny Williams' lead on True Love in October 1959, couldn't be described as anything less than outstanding, but his voice was thought to be too high pitched.
Rudy Lewis drifted in from the Clara Ward singers in February 1961, and proved to be the man they were looking for. Under his watch, the group had its most impressive period on the charts hitting the top 10 with songs like Upon The Roof, Please Stay (Don't Go), Some Kind of Wonderful, On Broadway, and Mexican Divorce.
In the meantime, Charlie Thomas from The Crowns had hits with, Baltimore, Room Full of Tears, Sweets for My Sweet, When My Little Girl Is Smiling, Feel Good All Over, and I Don't Want To Go On Without You.
I Don't Want To Go On Without You was done with very little notice on May 21, 1964, after Rudy Lewis, the slated singer, was found dead in his hotel room the previous night. With Lewis' death casting a pall over the proceedings, the sombre mood of the session was captured to perfection in Thomas' rendition. During the same event, Johnny Moore's sorrowful flipside vocals in Under The Boardwalk, transformed a summer novelty into a luminous soul classic.
According to Jack Williams, a well-known authority on The Drifters, Moore was asked by management to drop his voice a register or two to fit into Lewis' key.
Moore returned from 1963-1964 to lead The Drifters with hits like I'll Take You Home, One Way Love, and Sand In My Shoes.
Thereafter, the contract with Atlantic Records was terminated and the group moved to England, where it showcased the lead vocals of one Bill Fredericks on the collectors item, Like Brothers and Sisters in the early 1970s.
In later years, several Drifters' line-ups surfaced, resulting in a series of lawsuits to verify the true owners of the name.
In the 1990s, after decades of conflicting and contradictory claims, a new court ruling determined that Faye Treadwell, wife of George Treadwell, owned the trademark in The Drifters name.