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The Drifters

 

Their story began in early 1953, when Clyde McPhatter, the soaring high-tenor lead singer in the Dominoes, a vocal quintet formed by Billy Ward three years earlier, quit that group. The Dominoes were playing a scheduled gig at the New York club Birdland, one of their first performances without McPhatter, when one of the audience members present asked after the singer backstage. That fan was Ahmet Ertegun, a one-time record collector who had started Atlantic Records in the late '40s; as soon as he learned of McPhatter's having left the Dominoes, he contacted the singer and signed him to Atlantic.

It was Ertegun who gave McPhatter the impetus, as part of his contract, to start a group of his own, which came to be called the Drifters. The origins of the name and credit for thinking of it are obscure, although no one at Atlantic liked "the Drifters" at first, thinking it sounded too country & western — the explanation sometimes offered by those present was that the members simply drifted in from other groups.

The main source for McPhatter's backing singers was among the ranks of former members of the Mount Lebanon Singers, the gospel group with which McPhatter had sung in the '40s. He went through several attempts at assembling a group that would be acceptable to Ertegun and producer Jerry Wexler, going through as many as a dozen friends and acquaintances, a handful of whom actually made it to formal recording sessions. The initial, unsuccessful lineup, featuring William Anderson, David Baughn, Dave Baldwin (the brother of author James Baldwin), and James Johnson, recorded four songs on June 28, 1953, of which only "Lucille," a McPhatter-authored song, was ever released. In August, a second Drifters lineup was put together, with Gerhart Thrasher, Andrew Thrasher, two very experienced gospel singers on tenor and baritone, respectively, bass singer Willie Ferbee, and Walter Adams on the guitar. From the beginning, the group was unusual among R&B vocal ensembles in that a guitarist was part of their core lineup and the electric guitar central to their arrangements; Jimmy Oliver, who would soon take that spot as his own, also proved to be an important songwriter for the Drifters, especially for tenor Gerhart Thrasher. The new edition of the group cut five numbers on August 9, 1953, one of which was "Money Honey," written by arranger/pianist Jesse Stone. Released within a few weeks, it hit the number one spot on the R&B chart by mid-fall of that year, and it was occasionally cited in later years as the first rock & roll record, and later entered the repertory of Elvis Presley and dozens of lesser talents. The group's career was made after that, at least as long as Clyde McPhatter was singing lead with them.


The Drifters are a long-lasting American doo-wop and R&B/soul vocal group. They were originally formed to serve as a backing group for Clyde McPhatter (of Billy Ward & the Dominoes) in 1953.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, the Drifters were the least stable of the great vocal groups, as they were low-paid musicians hired by George Treadwell, who owned the Drifters name. There have been 60 vocalists in the history of the Treadwell Drifters line, including several splinter groups by former Drifters members (not under Treadwell's management). These groups are usually identified with a possessive credit such as "Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters", "Charlie Thomas' Drifters", etc.

There are two notable versions of the Drifters. The first classic Drifters, formed by Clyde McPhatter, was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame as "The Drifters" or "The Original Drifters". The second Drifters, featuring Ben E. King, was separately inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame as "Ben E. King and the Drifters". In their induction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected four members from the classic Drifters, two from the second Drifters, and one from the post-Treadwell Drifters.

According to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame: "Through turmoil and changes, the (original) Drifters managed to set musical trends and give the public 13 chart hits, most of which are legendary recordings today." Matching that feat, subsequent formations of the Drifters managed to give the public 13 Billboard Hot 100 top 30 chart hits.

The Vocal Group Hall of Fame has inducted both 'The Original Drifters' (1998) and 'Ben E. King and The Drifters'(2000). In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked The Drifters #81 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.In 1988, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted The Drifters; naming members Clyde McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Gerhardt Thrasher, Johnny Moore, Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas, and Rudy Lewis. Bill Pinkney, Charlie Thomas, and Johnny Moore (posthumously) received Pioneer Awards from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1999.

 

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