Dance With Me: The Drifters Collection – The Drifters (Warner Platinum 2005)
Back in the mid 70’s the Drifters would appear regularly on “Top of The Pops”. They had a string of Roger Greenaway hits which were pure pop singalong. To me, although I very much appreciated “There Goes My First Love” and “You’re More Than A Number In My Little Red Book” they seemed, well…… old. I didn’t really realise that this incarnation led by lead vocalist Johnny Moore who had their most successful run in the British charts at this time with nine Top 20 hits between 1973-1976 were a group with a complex and long history and who with different personnel had a different golden period in their homeland with ten Top 20 hits between 1959-64. Fifty-six years later they are still touring, with another completely different personnel and will be appearing on BBC TV’s “Songs Of Praise” this very weekend singing “Stand By Me” as a tribute to their most famous member, Ben E King. They appear yearly at my local theatre (and probably at a venue near you). There have been at least 65 members of this group and at times there have been multiple groups using the name “The Drifters” (and that’s not including Cliff Richard’s backing group who had to change their name from “The Drifters” to “The Shadows”).
The compilation I have chosen as an Essential CD by this group is from their early period of success in the years leading up to the British Invasion in the US Charts from the mid 60’s. Its twenty tracks include twelve US hit singles and 7 UK singles. It’s not definitive by any means (no “Under The Boardwalk” or “On Broadway” and none of their 70’s British hits) but it is an excellent example of this group at their peak and contains some of the great songs written for them by such songwriting teams as Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Leiber and Stoller, Weill and Mann, Pomus and Shuman, stalwarts of the Brill Building group of writers which transformed American popular music into something very special in the early 60’s and whose songs have remained standards.
By the time the Drifters had scored their first US Top 40 pop hit “There Goes My Baby” (number 2 in 1959) they had been around for six years. They had a string of R&B hits which did not break the pop charts with Clyde McPhatter in the lead. Clyde was only a member for a year but his name is still synonymous with the group. Head of Atlantic Records signed the Drifters as a backing group for McPhatter but a more lucrative solo career beckoned and he left but the group continued. At one time the whole group was sacked by their manager and a different group, the Five Crowns, were renamed The Drifters to honour existing bookings. This group had as the lead vocalist one Ben E King whose helm at the front of the group was during their commercial peak. King recorded with the group for only around a year and left to have a successful solo career (and sadly passed away in April this year). The longest running member of the group was the aforementioned Johnny Moore who came and went a bit but had a connection with the group from 1955 until his death in 1998). It is all very convoluted and their history is also one of court cases and disputed ownership of the name. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has admitted two sets of Drifters – the original group and the Ben E King led group.
Clyde Mcphatter Ben E King
There’s probably thousands more words on the history of this group but let’s get into the music…………………
In the UK the Drifters suffered more than most from the blight of the early 60’s for many African-American performers – the cover version. Their original versions of songs were beaten by acts, in the days when transatlantic travel was not as easy, who were more readily available for promotion. Thus in the UK their thunder was stolen by Kenny Lynch (“Up On The Roof #10 in 1963), Johnny Ray (“Such A Night #1 in 1954), The Searchers (“Sweets For My Sweet #1 in 1963), Jimmy Justice (“When My Little Girl Is Smiling # 9 in 1962) and Craig Douglas (the same song also reached number 9 for him in 1962). Some of these may have been good tracks but were not a patch on the originals they eclipsed.
There is one Clyde McPhatter led track on the CD – “Such A Night” which heralds from 1953. His voice is lighter than subsequent lead vocalists but it suits the urgency of this rock and roll song well. “Ruby Baby” and “Fools Fall In Love” both herald from the 50’s and these tracks have a more pronounced R&B/Rock n Roll feel than we would associate from “The Drifters”. There’s honking sax and guitar solos and Johnny More certainly the lead vocalist on the first sounding a million miles away from his more sugary 1976 lead on “Hello Happiness”.
Two of the outstanding tracks have Rudy Lewis on lead vocals. “Up On The Roof” is about as good a pop song as you can get. Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King this is such an evocative song about escape where the rooftop provides refuge from “the hustlin’ crowd and all that rat race noise down in the street” where “all the stars put on a show for free”. This song is superbly written and performed. It was a Top 5 hit in 1963 in the US. “Please Stay” features a trademark of their 1960’s hits, a full string section, here they almost sound classical, Elizabethan. It reminds me of the theme tunes to the Miss Marple movies starring Margaret Rutherford at much the same time (composed by Ron Goodwin), so despite the pleading lyrics it always cheers me up. Written by Burt Bacharach, this is one of his early hits (#14 in 1961 in US), so there is much class in evidence.
My favourite of the Ben E King led tracks is “Dance With Me” (US#15 in 1959 & their first UK hit #17 in 1960) with its gentle Latin touches, doowop backing, soaring strings, a great vocal and a very attractive song. Their biggest hit also came courtesy of a Ben E King vocal. “Save The Last Dance For Me (US#1, UK#2 1960) has one of those stories behind the song which may or may not be entirely true but it’s a poignant tale. It was said writer Doc Pomus wrote it on his wedding day. Pomus, was wheelchair bound and spent the reception watching his wife dancing with the guests and “don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be, so darling save the last dance for me” was his message to his new wife. I don’t know whether the marriage lasted! There are three more Ben E King tracks on this CD, their first pop hit “There Goes My Baby” (US#2 in 1959) is a much loosely structured song with a strong doowop R&B feel. “This Magic Moment” (US#16 1960) has an introduction which reminds me of “Ernie” by Benny Hill and the strings are out in force. This might be “sweetening” for a pop audience but I think it works so well with King’s voice. “I Count The Tears” (US#17, UK#28 1960) completes the Ben E King hits.
“Sweets For My Sweet” (US#16 1961), unusually, does not have the strings but it does have Charlie Thomas on lead vocal and a backing choir which featured Cissy Houston, Dionne and Dee Warwick, Doris Troy and Jimmy Radcliffe to maintain the party atmosphere of this track.
Also on the CD you get a pleasant enough version of Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made Of This” and the track “At The Club” which did well as a re-issue in the UK when paired with the later “Saturday Night At The Movies”giving the group a number 3 hit in 1972 which gave a kick-start to their hit career revival which lasted until 1976.
If I didn’t already have this and the Camden CD “The Very Best Of The Drifters”(1996) which focuses on their British output I would probably opt for the 58 track double CD “Definitive Drifters”(2003) but I remain doubtful that this would maintain such a high consistent standard throughout and would be skipped through by all but the most devoted fans. This single CD set is the one I would consider as essential, despite the couple of glaring omissions and it is a testament to one of the finest, and I think still very much under-rated vocal groups of all time.
At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £5.45 new and used from £0.01. American listeners can buy new from $12.69 and used from $0.49