29 August 2007

The Drifters (Part Two)

Drifters Under The Boardwalk

We Gotta Sing!
The Drifters On Broadway
1959-1966
by Donny Jacobs
Ben E. King, popular lead singer of the Drifters, leaves the group to go solo. His replacement, Johnny Lee Williams, departs soon afterward. Manager George Treadwell recruits a powerful new lead who's destined to sing some of the most memorable Pop records ever put on wax.

The Rudy Lewis Era

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas
with Abdul Samad, guitar and Mort Shuman, piano

1 February 1961
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Burt Bacharach
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
5323 Room Full Of Tears (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
5324 Please Stay (Burt Bacharach-Bob Hilliard)
5325 Sweets For My Sweet (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)
5326 Some Kind Of Wonderful (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)

Rudy Lewis was a troubled, closeted Gay man with a drug addiction that would prove lethal. He also possessed a burnished mahogany voice that could stretch and bend like molten steel. The Gospel training he got during a stint with The Clara Ward Singers increased its amazing flexibility; with a single note, Lewis could transmute almost any song into gold. His first session as The Drifters' lead singer produced one killer of a record: ""Please Stay", a fabulous tango rocker from the pen of an up-and-comer named Bacharach. Stepping up to the studio microphone for the first time since 1959, Charlie Thomas does himself proud on two tasty Pomus/Shuman numbers: "Sweets For My Sweet", a bodacious cha-cha, and "Room Full Of Tears," a gorgeous Spanish rhumba. The only disappointment to come out of this date is the stiff arrangement that hampers Goffin and King's "Some Kind Of Wonderful". The staid Pop chorus sounds a false note, the kettledrum parts seem contrived, and the shrill string section weighs down Lewis's soulful lead. He's such a riveting stylist, though, the track is still worth hearing. R & B fans certainly thought so; they made "Wonderful" The Drifters' eighth Top Ten single in two years. (With Goffin and King producing, Little Eva would wax the definitive version in 1962 for her Loco-Motion album.) Atlantic's studio logs credit Ray Ellis, and the record labels say Stan Applebaum, but Burt Bacharach actually directed the musicians on this session.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis
with The Gospelaires and Abdul Samad, guitar

13 July 1961
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Burt Bacharach
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
5630 Loneliness Or Happiness? (Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
5631 Mexican Divorce (Burt Bacharach-Bob Hilliard)
5632 Somebody New Dancing With You (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)

This summer session yielded a trio of classics. None are well-known to the public, because all of them were issued as single B-sides. Of the three, "Mexican Divorce" is the most acclaimed, and deservedly so. The blend of exotic percussion, agitated strings, melancholy vocals and virtuouso Spanish guitar is exquisite, nothing less than a work of art. The tragic mood is maintained on "Loneliness Or Happiness," a Bacharach-David rarity that fairly drips with dramatic tension. "Somebody New Dancing With You" is a less intense dance number that nevertheless mirrors the estrangement theme of the other two selections. All in all, this session was a stellar showcase, both for Burt Bacharach's arranging skills and Rudy Lewis's interpretive abilities. The Gospelaires were Cissy Houston, Doris Troy, Dee Dee Warwick and her sister Dionne; individually, all four would go on to make an impact on the charts. Of course, Dionne Warwick would become a superstar (as would Cissy Houston's daughter Whitney a few decades hence). Rock historians claim that Bacharach scooped Dionne up immediately after this date and began grooming her for a solo career. Untrue!  Dude had no intention of producing her at this stage. First, he started using her as a demo singer. One of her demos, "Move It On The Backbeat", became the sole release by a one-shot studio group called Burt and The Backbeats. A later one, "It's Love That Really Counts", unexpectedly led to Dionne getting signed by Scepter Records. At that point, the grooming began in earnest . . . but that's another story.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas
with Abdul Samad, guitar

26 October 1961
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Klaus Ogermann
Atlantic Studios, New York City
5743 Jackpot (Chuck Kaye-Aaron Schroeder)
5744 When My Little Girl Is Smiling (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)
5745 She Never Talked To Me That Way (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)

Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas made a great lead vocalist tag team; their raspy styles complimented each other, so much so that some listeners couldn't discern between one and the other. Some reviewers named Lewis as lead singer on "When My Little Girl Is Smiling"; others thought it was Thomas doing the lead. In actuality, Rudy sings the opening verses over sparse harpsichord backing. Then an ocean of samba percussion engulfs the song, and Charlie takes over. This was the second hit single written for The Drifters by the crackerjack team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Many years later, Charlie Thomas would amusedly recall rehearsing material with King; a small Jewish woman surrounded by hulking Black men, she would insist that they phrase her husband's lyrics just so! "When My Little Girl Is Smiling" made for a beautiful, panoramic production, possibly the most romantic number in the group's catalog. Rudy Lewis lay a cocksure vocal on "Jackpot", a sleazy Blues ballad; a year later, it slipped out unnoticed on the flipside of a belatedly-issued "Sometimes I Wonder". "She Never Talked To Me That Way" was a song-in-progress; Doc Pomus hadn't polished the lyrics when The Drifters cut it, and the rhyme sounds noticeably awkward. Klaus Ogermann's strident rhumba arrangement wasn't awkward, though: loaded with hooks, it bathed the tune in waves of Cuban rhythm. Del Shannon's arranger Bill Ramal interpreted this number quite differently. He turned it into a whirling dervish of saxophone, strings and snare drums. Shannon released it as the flipside of his 1962 single "The Swiss Maid" with a revised lyric and title: "You Never Talked About Me". Either the Del Shannon or the Drifters version could've cracked the charts, but deejays didn't bother to flip "The Swiss Maid" over, and Atlantic Records didn't even bother to release their master.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis
with Abdul Samad, guitar

15 March 1962
Arranged and Conducted by Klaus Ogermann
Produced by Ahmet Ertegun
Atlantic Studios, New York City
6031 Stranger On The Shore (Acker Bilk-Robert Mellin)
6032 What To Do?
(Florence Davis-Abdul Samad-Faye Treadwell)

Two months earlier, Atlantic Records had scored a million-selling Adult-Contemporary instrumental with Acker Bilk's original version of "Stranger On The Shore." Ahmet Ertegun was keen to chart with a vocal version, and he also longed to produce a record with Rudy Lewis. When Leiber and Stoller were unavailable to supervise this session, he jumped at the chance. Rock purists sneer at this record, which stalled on the Pop charts and got hardly any R & B airplay. They must never have really listened to it! A marriage of quaint Old World atmosphere, Latin-American exoticism and pure schmaltz, it's a remarkably evocative production; as you listen, you can almost see the harbor lights twinkling. Despite the lyric's contrived sentimentality, Lewis's mournfully earnest vocal (which climaxes in a spine-tingling falsetto) rips your heartstrings out by the roots. So what if it's not Rock 'n' Roll? It's beautiful. If Rock's what you want, look no further than "What To Do", a great boogie-woogie tune that would've suited the original Drifters to a tee. The group's touring guitarist, Abdul Samad, penned it with his wife and George Treadwell's wife Faye; for sure, it must've been a crowd pleaser on stage.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas

28 June 1962
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
6356 Another Night With The Boys (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)
6357 Up On The Roof (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)
6358 I Feel Good All Over (Otis Blackwell-Winfield Scott)

"Another Night With The Boys" is a stone hillbilly number! It wouldn't have gone over well on R & B radio, but it sure made a great B-side. The duet version Goffin and King cut with Big Dee Irwin and Little Eva is pleasantly folksy, but Rudy Lewis's interpretation seems to have been torn from the depths of his tortured soul. His world-weary performance hollows out the song at its core, transforming it into a reservoir of melancholy and a Country/Blues masterpiece. As inconsolably glum as he sounds on "Boys", Lewis infuses "Up On The Roof" with a palpable sense of joy: I climb 'way up to the top of the stairs/And all my cares just drift right into space. His cares were anything but feather-light, but he sang those words like he really meant them. Sad songs were unquestionably Rudy's forté, but with "Up On The Roof" he proved that his sorrow-laden voice could soar. The first in a series of picturesque urban vignettes that The Drifters would become famous for, this gently swinging tango immediately broke for a Top Ten smash upon its release in the fall of 1962; nobody could resist its strong lyrical imagery and its tropical vacation resort music. Now that Gary Sherman had taken over as the group's music director, fans were in for a bevy of exceptional Latin-flavored sides. There wasn't much Sherman could do to redeem "I Feel Good All Over", though. The Drifters had no business cutting this rinky-dinky barroom novelty; it belonged in the Coasters' catalog. Charlie Thomas gives it all he has, but it's not enough. Definitely not one of Otis Blackwell's better compositions!

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis
with Roy Buchanan and Phil Spector, guitar

22 January 1963
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Bell Sound Studios, New York City
6743 Let The Music Play (Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
6744 On Broadway
(Jerry Leiber-Barry Mann-Mike Stoller-Cynthia Weil)

High intensity human angst captured for eternity on a seven-inch circle of wax: That's "Let The Music Play" in a nutshell. Originally cut by Dionne Warwick under the title "Make The Music Play", this superb habanera track is the finest showcase Rudy Lewis's Gospel/Blues artistry ever got. Lewis fills Hal David's poignant lyric with so much lip-biting emotion, it's almost unbearable! For this performance alone, Leiber and Stoller's ninth recording date with The Drifters would be legendary; but it also included "On Broadway", one of Rock 'n' Roll's most revered standards. If the only versions of this Mann/Weil classic you've ever heard are the ones cut by George Benson and the cast of the Broadway musical Smokey Joe's Cafe, you're in for a surprise. The sheer power of this track was a revelation in 1963: The world-shaking electric guitar hook rings out like Armageddon thunder! Heavy Metal Rock may well have been born at this session. The obligato guitarist on the instrumental break is indeed Phil Spector, who'd already produced a version of "On Broadway" with The Crystals. Goffin and King produced the earliest version for The Cookies. However, once you've heard the majestic roar of Gary Sherman's orchestra framing Rudy Lewis's commanding vocal, those excellent predecessors just seem to evaporate into thin air. The single's #9 Pop and #7 R & B chart placings downplay the song's importance in the Rock 'n' Roll canon. Over the years, it's come to symbolize a golden era of 20th century American music. If The Drifters could only have one signature tune, "On Broadway" would have to be that one.

Rudy Lewis
with The Gospelaires

11 April 1963
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Atlantic Studios, New York City
6917 I've Loved You So Long (Ahmet Ertegun)
6918 Baby, I Dig Love (Rudy Clark)

Recognizing a budding R & B legend when they saw one, Atlantic executives prepared to launch Rudy Lewis as a solo act in early '63. These two sides comprised his début single. R & B radio ignored both of them upon their release that spring, which means that somebody dropped the ball! "Baby, I Dig Love" is one bitchin' hunk of wax, a pepper-hot dance floor workout with funky organ parts suggestive of Booker T. and The MGs' records; Lewis's limber vocal sears over a crackling habanera flame. Dee Dee Warwick and The Gospelaires baste the track in a sassy, scat-sung call-and-response marinade. The flipside is an Otis Redding-styled Soul ballad that fades out just as the emotion starts to intensify. Had this platter taken off, Memphis and the Stax Records sound would've been the logical next step for Lewis.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore

12 April 1963
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Atlantic Studios, New York City
6919 Only In America
(Jerry Leiber-Barry Mann-Mike Stoller-Cynthia Weil)
6920 Rat Race (Jerry Leiber-Van McCoy-Mike Stoller)
6921 If You Don't Come Back (Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller)
6922 I'll Take You Home (Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)

In retrospect, it's hard to fathom how anyone could think a number as jingoistic as "Only In America" would work for a Black vocal group. It surely wasn't going to fly during the height of the Civil Rights struggle! Originally conceived by Mann and Weil as a protest song, Leiber and Stoller's revised lyrics articulate the American Dream from a Goldwater Republican's perspective: Only In America/Can a guy from anywhere/Go to sleep a pauper/And wake up a millionaire. Not exactly a realistic scenario for a Black man living in the racially segregated South! The Drifters hated the song, and you can tell by the sullen sound of their background voices. For his part, Rudy Lewis sends it up something terrible with a reading that's drenched in sarcasm. A nervous Jerry Wexler quickly nixed the release, and Leiber and Stoller gave the track to Jay + The Americans. For five Jewish singers, "Only In America" was perfect; it jump-started their stalled career and won them a cult following among Cuban exiles in Miami. "Rat Race" was chosen for The Drifters' next single, but ironically, its bleak urban narrative proved too gritty for fans used to romanticism; it peaked at #71 on the Pop charts and didn't even register on R & B lists. The remaining tracks on this session are led by Johnny Moore, tapped by George Treadwell to replace Rudy Lewis whenever his planned solo career took off. "I'll Take You Home" pulled a Top Thirty Pop hit with its warm, folksy appeal, while "If You Don't Come Back" generated enough interest to chart as a B-side; the new recruit handled this saucy mix of Blues and cha-cha stylings like a pro. No surprise there, because he was a pro! He was also a veteran Drifter. Moore had filled Clyde McPhatter's spot in 1955, and fronted the group on their R & B smashes "Ruby Baby" and "Fools Fall In Love". Then, just like McPhatter, he got drafted. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, because he avoided the group's mass sacking in 1958! Since his discharge from military service, Moore had been cutting solo sides for the Sue and Melic labels. Those platters hadn't exactly set the world on fire, so Treadwell had no trouble recruiting him back into the fold. Charlie Thomas probably didn't appreciate being elbowed out of his role as second lead voice, but Rudy Lewis didn't mind sharing the spotlight with Johnny. Reportedly, the two became fast friends. The Lewis/Moore era probably would've gone on for quite some time, had a hypodermic needle not intervened.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore
with Abdul Samad, guitar

22 August 1963
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Atlantic Studios, New York City
7172 Land Of Make-Believe (Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
7173 Didn't It? (Rudy Clark)

The Drifters never got more exotic than "Land Of Make-Believe", a sensuous wet dream of a Bacharach/David ballad that would later be essayed by Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, among others. An understated steel guitar lends the production a vaguely Hawaiian ambiance as Rudy Lewis moans seductively over a serpentine Afro-Cuban backbeat. On the chorus, he falls into a masturbatory call-and-response frenzy with Johnny Moore, who hyperventilates at the top of his considerable vocal range. Gary Sherman's string and saxophone combination sways around the two men's voices like a troupe of sexy hula girls. This track never gets culled for Burt Bacharach CD anthologies, but it should; there's no finer interpretation of the song to be found. A little too steamy for radio airplay, "Land Of Make-Believe" nevertheless sneaked out as a 1964 flipside. Another future flipside, "Didn't It?", clocks in at less than two minutes, but this spirited Soul cha-cha lasts long enough to get listeners involved in a groovy Jimmy Smith-style organ break. Johnny and the boys lay right into it, wailing their ever-lovin' hearts out.

The Drifters
featuring Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore
with Dee Dee Warwick

12 December 1963
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Teacho Wiltshire
*A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Atlantic Studios, New York City
7466 Beautiful Music (Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)*
7467 One Way Love (Bert Berns-Jerry Ragovoy)
7468 Vaya Con Dios
(Inez James-Buddy Pepper-Bobby Russell)

This session was pivotal in several ways. First, it marked the end of Leiber and Stoller's tenure as The Drifters' producers. Behind the scenes, Jerry and Mike had gotten into a royalty dispute with Atlantic Records. Jerry Wexler played hardball, cutting off their access to the label's acts. In their place, he brought in Bert Berns, a hot new writer/producer with a growing list of hit songs to his credit: The Isley Brothers' "Twist And Shout", The Rocky Fellers' "Killer Joe", The Jarmels' "A Little Bit Of Soap" and Garnet Mimms' "Cry Baby," just to name a few. Later would come The McCoys' "Hang On, Sloopy" and Janis Joplin's "Piece Of My Heart". Even more hooked on Latin music than Leiber and Stoller, Berns quickly got busy rehearsing the group on a Mexican standard. Second, Gary Sherman bowed out of the Drifters story at this point; he'd go on to work wonders with Gene Pitney's music (see my previous essay "Conquistador"). This was also to be Rudy Lewis's final Drifters session; he had less than six months left to live. The aforementioned standard, "Vaya Con Dios" will be his swan song, but what a triumph he makes of it! The south-of-the-border theme and waltz tempo are the only nods Bert Berns gives to a Latin sensibility. The vocal interpretation is pure, industrial-strength Gospel. Backed with a session chorus led by Dee Dee Warwick and Charlie Thomas, Lewis goes straight to church, crying sanctified like a redeemed sinner kneeling at the altar of Christ. In later years, Faye Treadwell would call "Vaya Con Dios" his most honest Soul performance; R & B lovers probably felt the same way. They sent the single hurtling into Billboard's Rhythm and Blues Top Ten. Rudy led the same Gospel chorus through a take of "Beautiful Music", but there's no comparison; this meandering track was an afterthought that Atlantic wisely decided to shelve. (The song was originally called "My Heart Said The Bossa Nova", and Leiber and Stoller had previously cut Latinized versions with Tippie and The Clovers and Irene Reid. The original tune was right up The Drifters' alley; why they had Mann and Weil pen new lyrics is puzzling.) The other hit from this session was "One Way Love", sung by Johnny Moore; its gimmicky trumpet refrain notwithstanding, this hook-laden cha-cha rocker typified the kind of material The Drifters would wax for the next two years.

Excerpt from "Up On The Roof", words by Gerry Goffin, music by Carole King, 
 © copyright 1962 Screen Gems-EMI Music (BMI)

Excerpt from "Only In America", music by Barry Mann, lyrics by Cynthia Weil,
additional music and lyrics by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller,
 © copyright 1963 Screen Gems-EMI Music (BMI)


2 comments:

Ashley said...

Thank you so much for writing this, I never realized the Drifters had a revolving door of members like the Temptations.

Rudy Lewis is my favorite Drifter. He had such a beautiful voice, RIP Rudy.

DON CHARLES aka "STUFFED ANIMAL" said...

Rudy Lewis was an excellent singer . . . if you haven't heard his solo single "Baby, I Dig Love" (featuring Dionne Warwick's sister Dee Dee on prominent backing vocals), I strongly urge you to get hold of it.