Reissue CD Review: The Drifters – Rock (Bear Family, 2013)
The Drifters have one of the most complicated family trees a group has ever assembled under a single name. Over the six decades since their inception the group’s lineup has been completely replaced, cycled through nearly four dozen members and spun off several splinter groups and solo careers. Most notable among the latter is the post-Drifter success of former lead singers Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King, each of whom were also inducted with their respective editions of the group into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. The details of the group’s discography is as complicated as their membership, with big hits led by Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Moore, Bill Pinkney, Ben E. King, Johnny Lee Williams, Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas over a decade that stretched from 1953’s “Money Honey” through their last Top 10 R&B, 1965’s “At the Club.”
Like many bands of the early rock ‘n’ roll era, their catalog has been compressed by oldies radio, film soundtracks and greatest hits CDs to a handful singles that had the fortune to spring from the Brill Building and cross over to the pop charts. Starting with 1959’s “There Goes My Baby,” and continuing through early ’60s with “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway” and “Under the Boardwalk,” the Drifters carved what would become their most long-lasting image These hits represent the tenures of Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis, and the return of Johnny Moore after his hitch in the Army; wthey don’t tell are the upbeat R&B sides that the group waxed throughout their career, and especially in their early years with Clyde McPhatter out front.
Bear Family’s 32-track lineup samples tracks from 1953’s unreleased-at-the-time “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll” through 1959’s “Hey Senorita” and “Baltimore” (the latter pair featuring the distinctive sax of King Curtis), and a pair of stereo recordings from the 62/63, “I Feel Good All Over” and “If You Don’t Come Back.” Also included are spin-offs from Bill Pinkey’s Flyers (“On Bended Knee”) and Turks (“After the Hop” and “Sally’s Got a Sister”), and alternate takes of “Bip Bam,” “Such a Night” and “Drop Drop.” None of this is likely to be new to Drifters afficionados, but those who only know the early ’60s crossover ballads will be bowled over by the incendiary power this group sustained over the half-dozen lead vocalists (and countless studio musicians) featured here.
Eleven early sides showcase how Clyde McPhatter brought his gospel fire to secular sides, starting with the group’s very first session in June, 1953. The initial lineup pulled in a quartet of singers from McPhatter’s church group, and though his lead on “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll” pays off on the promise which lead to his signing, the Mount Lebanon Singers are just a touch too smooth to really bust loose. Atlantic prevailed upon McPhatter to develop a new lineup, and the reformed quintet hit the top of the R&B chart with their very first single, “Money Honey.” The same August, 1953 session found the lineup re-recording “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll,” and the differences — a slightly faster tempo, a bigger push from the piano, harder swinging sax and a more emphatic lead vocal — add up to something big.
The core of the new lineup — McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher and Gerhart Thrasher — defined the group’s first golden era, laying down mid-tempo tunes with Latin accents, bluesy doo-wop, upbeat R&B and proto-rock ‘n’ roll. McPhatter’s high tenor leads were filled with excitement, and the backing harmonies of his fellow Drifters were equally sophisticated and highly-charged. McPhatter’s draft notice and the lure of a solo career led to Bill Pinkney’s cool lead on 1955’s “No Sweet Lovin’,” and subsequently to a number of singles featuring Johnny Moore, including “Ruby Baby” (eight years before Dion’s bigger hit with the same title), “I Gotta Get Myself a Woman” and a bouncy cover of Terry Noland’s “Hypnotized” that actually beat the writer’s rockabilly version to market. The group’s financial structure (which rewarded their manager more than the singers) led to numerous defections, several of which resulted in singles from splinter groups such as the Flyers’ catchy “On Bended Knee,” and the Turks’ slapback-tinged sides from Sun’s Memphis studio.
After Moore was drafted, the spotlight fell to Bobby Hendricks, who helped gain the Drifters notice on the pop charts with a superb recording of Lieber & Stoller’s “Drop Drop,” offered here in its released single version and a stereo alternate take. Hendricks also sang lead on the rock ‘n’ roll “Itchy Twitchy Feeling,” borrowing members of the Coasters to fill out the vocal lineup. The group’s second golden age began with the arrival of Ben E. King and his fellow Five Crowns, and though this lineup’s crossover success was based primarily on uptown Brill Building ballads, King also sang grittier R&B material like “Hey Senorita” and “Baltimore.” King’s departure led to Rudy Lewis’ arrival, and continued success on the pop charts. Johnny Moore returned to the Drifters after his discharge from the services, scoring several more hits, waxing soulful sides like “If You Don’t Come Back” and leading the group through the mid-70s.
Since the end of the Drifter’s chart action, they’ve become more a catalog than a group — much like the charts of famous big bands. You can still find heritage groups touring under the Drifters and Original Drifters names, and thinly related or completely counterfeit lineups plying their trade at county fairs and in small clubs. The group’s recorded catalog has been anthologized in greatest hits discs that emphasize their crossover material of King and Moore, but their earlier material can be found on sets like Rhino’s out-of-print Rockin’ & Driftin’, a two-fer from Collectibles and Jasmine’s singles collection. Bear Family is the first to focus so sharply on the group’s lesser-heard upbeat sides, homing in on their early R&B work, sprinkling in some important splinter singles, and adding a few alternates takes. The set comes packed in a tri-fold digipack with a removable 49-page (!) booklet stuffed with pictures, lengthy liner notes by Bill Dahl and discographical detail.