You never know who you're going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter's not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By - or, better, that TGB needed his column - which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.
The Drifters have had more than 60 members over the years. Most of the groups from that time – mid to late fifties – had a high turn-over of members but I think this one might get the prize. The only stable group that I can think in this vein is The Four Tops, who went for about 40 years with the same members. The Tops aren’t whom we’re discussing today though.
There were two great versions of the Drifters. They were great because they each had an exceptionally gifted lead singer – Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King. The first was started - at the behest of Ahmet Ertegun, honcho from Atlantic Records - by Clyde McPhatter.
Their first record with this line-up (not much of a line-up as I haven’t mentioned any of the other members, but they were unfamiliar to me so that was a good enough reason not to say who they were) was Money Honey. This was a huge success and made the group famous.
The reason that Clyde started this group is that he’d just left Billy Ward and the Dominoes where he was the lead singer for a time.
Billy was a bit of a control freak. He also didn’t pay his bandsmen very much at all (sometimes nothing). This group also gave a start to Jackie Wilson who joined some time after Clyde left. This is Billy Ward and the Dominoes with Clyde singing lead on I’d Be Satisfied.
Getting back to The Drifters, there were a few personnel changes along the way but the major one occurred when Clyde received his draft notice. He decided to sell his share of The Drifters to George Treadwell, manager, former jazz trumpeter, and husband of singer Sarah Vaughan.
Clyde later said was the worst decision of his life. Okay, we’ve all done that. I remember selling my share of The Beatles back in - you’re right, I’m fibbing.
Anyway, after going through quite a few more changes in the group, George spat the dummy and fired the lot of them. He had seen a group at Apollo Theatre that had impressed him called the Five Crowns lead by a fine singer called singer Ben E. Nelson. He hired them on the spot and changed their name to The Drifters (as he had legal ownership of the name).
Ben’s stage name was Ben E. King. This is the line-up that had most of the famous songs. This may be the most famous, Save The Last Dance For Me.
Others from the time include On Broadway, There Goes My Baby, Under the Boardwalk, When My Little Girl is Smiling. Oh, many more. Here’s another, Up On The Roof.
Clyde’s solo career produced two of the finest songs from the fifties. The assistant musicologist and I disagree about which is better, but as I’m writing this we are going with A Lover’s Question rather then Lover Please.
In spite of being the lead singer for most of The Drifters’ most famous songs and writing most of them, Ben didn’t hang around very long. Indeed, he didn’t ever tour with them at the time. He left because the manager wouldn’t come to the party with money owed to him for royalties and the like.
When he went solo, he recorded a classic song Spanish Harlem which I’ve already featured in a column on Phil Spector. Instead, I’ll play Stand By Me.
Just because I can, I’m going to play another of Ben’s songs, Don’t Play That Song. That’s the name of the song, not an admonition to me.
I should stop there but I can’t leave well enough alone. If you look up the phrase “over the top” in the dictionary, it might suggest you put on this track of Clyde’s with Billy Ward and the song The Bells. For those readers who are not into over-the-top-ness, I suggest you skip this track. For others, you have been warned.