The Drifters in History
Rock and roll is here to stay in the Garden of Eden in Northport, Long Island, oldies night for the swinging singles and marauding marrieds of Sunken Meadow. Last week the Cadillacs, next week the Shirelles, and now, ladies and gentlemen, the Drifters. Jackets required, of course--you think this is some roughneck joint?
The bassist and the drummer from the house band, looking even gaudier than the flamingos in the audience with their black jumpsuits and ruffled lavender shirts, are already on stage. A portly, coffee-colored man in a tux is tuning a guitar. On his cue the makeshift combo goes into a familiar riff, and four Afro-American men--all in their mid-to-late thirties, all wearing identical cream suits and chocolate shirts--swing past the bar and onto the tiny makeshift stage. It's "Up on the Roof," a top-ten million-seller in 1963, followed quickly by "Honey Love," a number-one rhythm-and-blues hit in 1954.
The dance routine is a little sloppy, although it's twice as energetic and ten times as difficult as anything any of the seventy-five or so patrons is likely to try, and the singing is just a little disappointing. Which is not to suggest that complete satisfaction is possible. When the Drifters recorded "Up on the Roof," the lead singer was Rudy Lewis, who died in 1964. When the Drifters recorded "Honey Love," the lead singer was Clyde McPhatter, who died in 1972. Although he was gospel-trained, Lewis was one author of the Drifters' smooth pop style, and the Garden of Eden version is a credible if somewhat flat replica. But "Honey Love" doesn't make it. McPhatter's rendition was a masterpiece of concupiscence, the sexiest song of the year of the sexy song. In the Garden of Eden it sounds campy.
To me, that is. I happen to know McPhatter's version, not because I was one of those superhip white kids who listened to black radio in 1954, but because Scott Muni played it on WOR-FM in 1967 and I flipped for it. The audience is happy in its ignorance, and it ought to be--this is a fine show. The Drifters perform ten songs, every one either top-thirty pop or top-five r&b, and there are plenty more where those came from. The excitement builds effortlessly, and the show climaxes with an encore of the first Drifters' hit, "Money Honey," and the seminal "There Goes My Baby." In 1959 "There Goes My Baby" introduced the big string arrangement to rock and roll, and the Drifters to the mass teen public. Ben E. King's vocal on the record is a landmark of early soul music. Fittingly, the 1972 version is slower, even more strained and soulful. For what is supposed to be nostalgia, this is powerful stuff, and the crowd goes as wild as crowds go in such circumstances.
The Drifters are arguably the greatest black singing group in the history of rock and roll, although what that means is even more arguable. Groups do change, but whereas there have been eight Temptations over more than a decade, the Drifters had gone through eighteen members in less time. It is reasonable to assume that their group identity was as much as a matter of production and management as of personnel. In 1959, in fact, the group's manager, George Treadwell, fired an entire quartet of Drifters. Then he waved his magic pen and transformed a young group called the Crowns--lead singer, Ben E. King--into new Drifters, paying them seventy-five dollars a week to learn all the Drifters' r&b hits and fulfill the Drifters' contracts. Eventually, they did a lot more.
Since groups are never entirely the creatures of managers and producers, it is fitting that Treadwell created something he couldn't have anticipated when he made this switch. From 1953 to 1959 the r&b innovations of Clyde McPhatter dominated the Drifters, even though McPhatter had left in 1955. But Ben E. King ended McPhatter's influence; in fact, he created the Drifters' pop period. Like McPhatter, he soon escaped Treadwell to go solo, but unlike McPhatter, he wasn't really missed, because his innovations proved infinitely malleable. The producers of the r&b Drifters, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, were expert at providing a catchy, funky bottom from which the various Atlantic Records vocalists could build, but they never found a lead Drifter who could swoop and shout and shift rhythms like McPhatter. King's genius, however, was to integrate a genuinely evocative gospel-rooted singing style into the full pop productions of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Bert Berns, and Phil Spector. Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore found they could imitate the knack, and each came up with many hits that rose higher on the pop charts than anything McPhatter or his successors ever recorded.
The Drifters at the Garden of Eden represent a third period--the oldies Drifters. The group has been so malleable that it seems almost appropriate that two sets of singers now claim the name. One group comprises three young unknowns and Johnny Moore, who first joined the Drifters in 1955, singing lead on about two-fifths of their recordings, with not so many hits to show for it. The other set, the one at the Garden of Eden, includes all the original pop Drifters, or Crowns, except Ben E. King--lead Charlie Thomas, baritone Dock Green, and bass Elsbeary Hobbs--plus Al Banks, formerly of the Turbans, and guitarist Abdul Samed. Under the name Billy Davis, Samed was with the pop Drifters from the beginning, and his presence adds legitimacy to the second set, but Moore, who split off from the others a little less than a year ago, is such a brilliant performer that it's unlikely that anyone who goes to see either set of Drifters will get cheated. That's the beauty of the concept.
Both sets are living off a phenomenon that is not a fad or a craze but a simple fact of chronology and economics. The people who grew up with rock and roll are now adults, with enough money to pay to see their favorites at revival concerts or small showcases like the Garden of Eden. It's more complicated than that, of course--like many oldtime performers, Charlie Thomas says his most enthusiastic fans are college kids who weren't even born when "Money Honey" was recorded, and Ben E. King is more famous in Europe than he is here. But all the Drifters make more money now than they did when they were stars on contract. By simulating all the Drifter hits, they encapsulate the evolution of a prototypical black rock and roll quartet, a presentation as vital in its way as their recordings were in theirs.
Rhythm-and-blues fanatics, the moldy figs of rock and roll, will tell you that the Drifters just about died artistically when the big pop producers got together with the ex-Crowns, but they not only miss a lot of great music that way, they also miss the point. McPhatter and (occasionally) his successors were great singers, but the Drifters weren't merely about great singing: They were a great phenomenon. The smoothness to which they aspired in their pop phase wasn't just a cop-out; it suggested, among other things, that emotion could be understated and even sweet without being gutless. And their songs were as good an overview of teen-age life as anyone this side of Chuck Berry ever provided.
And, of course, if the Drifters had stuck to pure rhythm-and-blues, they'd be lucky to be working in the post office now. The drinkers at the Garden of Eden aren't teen-agers anymore, but they pay the bills. Abdul Samed sneaks in some jazz licks, Elsbeary Hobbs does the traditional bassman clown routine and brushes an artificial prelapsarian apple away from his head, and the Drifters perform. Second set they ask for requests, and nobody can remember their songs. People keep naming "So Fine" and "Get a Job." A white man comes in with a black woman, and some roughneck bouncer type makes a joke: "I like niggers; it's wops I can't stand." Ho ho ho. Manfully--they've certainly done it before--the Drifters go through "So Fine" and "Get a Job" and "Little Girl of Mine." Then they remind us of "Don't Go," "Sweets for My Sweet," "I Count the Tears." Ars brevis, vita longa. Unless you happen to be Rudy Lewis or Clyde McPhatter.
Newsday, Aug. 1972