30 August 2007

The Drifters (Part One)

Drifters' Greatest Hits

We Gotta Sing!
The Drifters On Broadway
1959-1966
by Donny Jacobs
How do you create a Rock 'n' Roll legend? You need the right elements. Start with songs. How about "There Goes My Baby", "This Magic Moment", "Save The Last Dance For Me", "Sweets For My Sweet", "Up On The Roof", "On Broadway", "Under The Boardwalk" and "Saturday Night At The Movies"? Only some of the most beloved songs in the history of American popular music! 

Add a famous record company: Atlantic, the most successful independent label ever launched. Add a landmark: The Brill Building, birthplace of hundreds of classic American Pop songs. Add colorful characters: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Bert Berns and Phil Spector, among the most respected producers and record executives in the music business. 

Add exceptional vocalists: Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King, two of the greatest Soul singers ever to set foot in a recording studio. Add Pop superstars: Burt Bacharach, one of popular music's most important composers. Dionne Warwick, Bacharach's protegée, a trailblazing artist who bridged the gap between Gospel, Pop and R & B. Carole King, a singer/songwriter par excellence with dozens of enduring hits to her credit. 

Finally, throw in some lesser-known but equally important names: Sound engineer Tom Dowd. Arrangers Stan Applebaum, Klaus Ogermann, Bert Keyes, Teacho Wiltshire and Gary Sherman. Performers Charlie Thomas, Rudy Lewis, and Johnny Moore. Session singer (and sister of Dionne) Dee Dee Warwick. Power couple George and Faye Treadwell. Stir these elements together, bring them to a boil, and you've got a fascinating true story that took place in New York City nearly 50 years ago. It's the story of a singing group: The Drifters and their incredible musical legacy. A story so lengthy and complex, only a small portion of it can be told here.

The Drifters were the hottest R & B act of the 1950s. They morphed into the top Pop vocal group of the early '60s. How did they accomplish this feat? They didn't! The same name was printed on the record labels, but it wasn't the same group. Let's trace the act's origins back to the summer of 1953. 

Clyde McPhatter was the lead vocalist of a hugely popular group called The Dominoes; their chart-topping hits from 1951 and '52, "Sixty Minute Man" and "Have Mercy, Baby" are considered seminal Rock 'n' Roll discs today. For reasons that have never been made clear, The Dominoes' music director Billy Ward gave McPhatter his walking papers. Upon learning that he was a free agent, Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler contacted the singer. At their urging, he founded a new vocal group to showcase his unique tenor voice.

Signed to Atlantic, Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters racked up seven consecutive Top Ten R & B singles over the next two years. The first, "Money Honey" topped national R & B surveys for a staggering eleven weeks. The fourth, "Honey Love" nearly matched it with an eight week run. The sixth, a doo-wop version of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas", crossed over to Pop and became an enduring holiday standard. 

McPhatter was drafted into the Army in May of 1954, which limited The Drifters' recorded output. After his discharge, he decided to pursue a solo career. The group's manager, George Treadwell, recruited a new lead singer, and they continued scoring major hits. However, Ertegun and Wexler didn't think much of The Drifters without their charismatic original lead. They grew disenchanted, and producers' indifference can be as lethal to a music career as poor sales.

This certainly proved true, when, at Jerry Wexler's instigation, George Treadwell fired the entire five-man ensemble in late 1958! Clyde McPhatter had sold the Drifters' name to Treadwell, so he could do whatever he wanted with the membership. What he did was christen a new group of singers with the name. 

The Five Crowns had been appearing at the Apollo Theatre on the same bill with The Drifters. After signing them to a contract, Treadwell called music director Reggie Kimber and went to work rehearsing them on the Atlantic hits. Then he sent them out on tour, where they had the unenviable task of winning over fans of Clyde McPhatter's group. 

Eight months later, he called the five harried men back to New York City and had them report to Coastal Recording Studios. It was time to begin cutting new Drifters sides. Jerry Wexler got the new sound he wanted: The Crowns' lead singers, Ben E. King and Charlie Thomas, were both baritones, and The Drifters' previous leads had all been tenors. 

Still, the change of personnel wasn't enough to make him want to produce Drifters sessions again. He turned them over to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the independent producers who'd recently given The Coasters a string of Pop and R & B smashes. Wexler hoped they could cross The Drifters over into the Pop market again. His hopes were realized, and then some!

Over the course of two 1959 recording sessions, Leiber and Stoller completely revamped The Drifters' image on wax. They softened the hard R & B sound of their previous releases with romantic, classically-influenced orchestrations. However, they anchored the new tracks in energetic Latin rythms: The rhumba, the cha-cha-chá, the samba, and a bouncy Brazilian beat known as the baião. New York session musicians lacked familiarity with the baião, so it quickly evolved into a similar Cuban rhythm known as the habanera. This four-beat refrain has been a part of American music since before the turn of the 20th century; it forms the basis of the tango, and many Drifters records cut under Leiber and Stoller's auspices are Rock 'n' Roll tangos. 

The combination of bluesy vocals, sweet band string sections and percolating Cuban dance patterns revolutionized Rhythm and Blues, and took early '60s Pop radio by storm. Between 1959 and 1966, The Drifters bagged a combined total of 21 Top Ten Pop and R & B platters; three of those singles went Gold. An equal number of Drifters songs rated Top Forty airplay during this period. 

Fronted first by Ben E. King, and later by Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore, the group became known for their highly commercial Habanera Rock sound (also called "Beat Concerto Rock", "Chalypso Rock" and "Rock-A-Beguine"). They didn't start the trend, but they did more than any other act to popularize it. The masterful backing tracks on Drifters releases, crafted by Leiber and Stoller in collaboration with top East Coast music directors, set a new standard for the record industry. Those tracks exerted a strong influence on Rock 'n' Roll arrangements for nearly a decade.

Songwriters beat a path to Leiber and Stoller's office suite at 40 West 57th Street; everybody wanted to write a Drifters record! Conceivably, Jerry and Mike could've supplied all the tunes themselves; after all, they'd written hits for the original Drifters("Ruby Baby", "Fools Fall In Love" and "Drip Drop"). However, their bluesy writing style didn't fit the group's new image. To maintain that aura of Latin romanticism, they needed to solicit outside material. 

After collaborating with Ben E. King on the first two singles, the team commissioned veteran tunesmiths Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman to write the next batch. Burt Bacharach, who briefly served as the group's conductor, penned a best-selling side for them, too. Then Leiber and Stoller began favoring a group of young songwriters who worked in the environs of the Brill Building, a music publisher's haven located at 16th and Broadway. The charting singles Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote for The Drifters helped catapult the Aldon Music staffers into the top echelon of Pop composing talent. 

Bert Berns, himself a Brill Building writer, succeeded Jerry and Mike at the production helm in 1963. Berns also favored Goffin/King and Mann/Weil material, but he didn't limit himself to their output. He and Jerry Wexler (acting as executive producer) scoured the Brill Building for more young talents. They found Artie Resnick, Kenny Young, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, whose dynamic compositions translated into more hit platters for the group. Other successful releases bore the credits of songwriters from Muscle Shoals (Dan Penn), Philadelphia (Kenny Gamble) and London (Kenny Lynch). Today, The Drifters' label credits read like a Who's Who of '60s songwriting legends.

Look up Drifters titles in a Pop singles reference book anywhere in the world, and you'll find cover versions galore! Donna Summer, George Benson, Dolly Parton, Tony Orlando, Steve Alaimo, James Taylor, Laura Nyro and Bruce Willis are just a tiny sampling of the many stars who've raided the group's catalog over the years. Starting in the '60s and extending into the 2000s, their classic hits were covered by hundreds of acts. 

Happily, the singers as well as the songs made it into the 21st century; The Drifters' latter day incarnation commands a loyal international following from its home base in London. While their records aren't played on classic oldies radio as often as they used to be, their reputation as an American Pop music institution remains intact. "The Drifters On Broadway" is a retrospective that focuses in depth on the groundbreaking sides that introduced Latin romance to a generation of Rock 'n' Roll lovers.

The Ben E. King Era

The Drifters
featuring Ben E. King and Charlie Thomas
with Reggie Kimber, guitar, and King Curtis, tenor saxophone

6 March 1959
A Leiber-Stoller Production
*Arranged and Conducted by Reggie Obrecht
Arranged and Conducted by Stan Applebaum
Coastal Studios, New York City
3396 Hey, Senorita! (Lover Patterson-George Treadwell)*
3397 There Goes My Baby
(Ben E. King-Jerry Leiber-Lover Patterson-Mike Stoller-George Treadwell)
3398 Baltimore
(Walter Coleman-Ben E. King-Lover Patterson)
3399 Oh, My Love (Ben E. King-Lover Patterson)

Four violins, a cello and an out-of-tune kettledrum changed the sound of Rhythm and Blues forever! The groundbreaking "There Goes My Baby" came dangerously close to not being released; executive producer Jerry Wexler despised the track. Through the intervention of Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic's chief engineer Tom Dowd, the single version was released over his strenuous objections. It shattered the barrier separating so-called Black and White music, and charted a bold new musical course for a fresh roster of Drifters. Its flipside, "Oh, My Love" didn't sound as revolutionary, but its solemn waltz tempo and anguished Ben E. King vocal resulted in a track that was also very commercial; had the topside failed, deejays no doubt would've flipped the platter over. Reinforcing this session's Latin mood is "Hey, Señorita", a Lover Patterson composition originally waxed by The Cadillacs; a funky cha-cha rocker, it sounds primitive compared with the sophisticated fusion fare soon to come. Charlie Thomas sings lead on "Baltimore", a conventional R & B number that recalls the original Drifters.

The Drifters
featuring Ben E. King and Johnny Lee Williams
with Abdul Samad, guitar

9 July 1959
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged by Stan Applebaum
Conducted by Richard Wess
A & R Studios, New York City
3726 If You Cry (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
3727 Dance With Me
(Ben E. King-Jerry Leiber-Irving Nahan-Mike Stoller-George Treadwell)

This was the first Drifters session to be recorded in stereo. The public didn't know it, but Ben E. King had quit the group following a money dispute with George Treadwell. Atlantic signed him to a solo contract, and kept him singing lead on Drifters records for a while longer. His replacement, Johnny Lee Williams, was a Clyde McPhatter soundalike. He debuts on this session, and sings lead on "If You Cry." A heavily orchestrated track with a pleasant Adult Pop melody, this Pomus/Shuman number ends up sounding quite bland; Williams' deadpan delivery is no asset to the track. He was a better harmony singer than a lead, which probably explains why he didn't remain a Drifter for very long. Even though "If You Cry" landed in the R & B Top Ten and made a respectable showing on the Pop charts, fans clearly preferred the bold Latin romanticism of its flipside, "Dance With Me". Sung with gusto by Ben E. King, this side scored the biggest hit. Although King co-wrote the song, his name doesn't appear in the official composer credits. During this period, he was constantly strapped for cash, and got into the habit of selling off his copyrights. That changed once his solo career took off.

The Drifters
featuring Ben E. King and Johnny Lee Williams
with Abdul Samad, guitar

23 December 1959
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Stan Applebaum
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
3987 This Magic Moment (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
3988 Lonely Winds (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
3989 Temptation (Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed)

With its tornado of a string arrangement, "This Magic Moment" is clearly a Pop record. Yet, R & B radio responded to it most strongly. Most of the Pop airplay would go to Jay + The Americans' version, cut ten years later. This rhumba-licious track arguably features the most attractive vocal reading Ben E. King would ever contribute to a Drifters side. Surprisingly, there's nothing Latin about "Lonely Winds"; it's an old-fashioned Country high-stepper complete with banjo accompaniment. Pop audiences turned up their noses at it!  Future hillbilly stylings would be saved for flipsides and/or album cuts. Johnny Lee Williams shows off his skill as a harmony vocalist on the track but predictably, his lead performance on the Perry Como oldie "Temptation" didn't make the grade. The unfinished master would be kept under wraps until 1965 when a new vocal was grafted on.

The Drifters
featuring Ben E. King
with Abdul Samad, guitar

19 May 1960
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Stan Applebaum
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
4565 Save The Last Dance For Me (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
4566 Nobody But Me (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
4567 I Count The Tears (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
4568 Sometimes I Wonder (Ben E. King-Lover Patterson)

This was Ben E. King's final studio outing with The Drifters. Rumor has it that he submitted his song "Stand By Me" for this session, and George Treadwell rejected it. If true, then The Drifters' loss was King's gain; the revamped Gospel standard became his most enduring hit. The material Leiber and Stoller did cut at this date wasn't exactly second-rate. Pomus and Shuman's "Save The Last Dance For Me" tango'd its way straight to the top of the charts, scoring a worldwide smash for the group. Believe it or not, Atlantic originally marketed this classic disc as a B-side! Fortunately, "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark contacted Jerry Wexler and urged him to start plugging it. Wexler complied, and was mighty glad he did. Cover versions proliferated, including an outstanding French-language reading by Petula Clark. "I Count The Tears" and "Nobody But Me" drew their share of covers, too, but only the former tune deserved covering; its driving habanera rhythm and hurricane string section combined with Ben E. King's superb vocal to create sheer magic on wax. "Nobody's" cloying nursery rhyme melody deserved nothing but the B-side status it ended up with. Despite being one of The Drifters' most dramatic recordings, "Sometimes I Wonder" was nevertheless an inferior retread of "There Goes My Baby"; it couldn't even crack Billboard's Bubbling Under chart. Johnny Lee Williams would soon be gone, and the hunt would commence for a new lead. George Treadwell raided the ranks of Gospel music for his next front man, a singer who would match and arguably surpass everything Ben E. King had done with the group.


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