Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Drifters

Note: As I write this, The Drifters do not appear on YouTube, except in live recordings and remakes. It is a shame, and a perfect example of how those on the business side have the heads firmly up their collective asses....

If they play music in heaven, and surely they do, they play old Drifters records.

The Drifters were two groups, more or less, maybe three, depending on which history you read. The first group had, at first, Clyde McPhatter singing lead, and were a better than average 50s R & B vocal group.

Then in 1959, after many personnel changes, manager George Treadwell fired the whole group, and hired a group called the Five Crowns, with lead singer Ben E King, renamed them “The Drifters,” and the rest is history. The third incarnation came about after Ben E King left.

It is that 2nd / 3rd group, though, where the magic happens. The Drifters, of course, sing of love and romance. But the songs are so beautiful, the harmonies so magic, the arrangements so glorious, that songs of romantic love become transcendent statements of human potential, a tribute to how wonderful things could be (Some Kind Of Wonderful), even when they’re sad (I Count The Tears). In Drifters records, it is always Saturday night, the music is always playing, the stars are shining, and the night is magic.

It’s not fair for one group to have made so many great singles.

These tracks come from 1. A compilation of their early records, the name of which I can’t remember, which I found in the dusty vaults of the Centennial Library, and which was the only copy I ever saw. 2. The Drifters’ Golden Hits, the standard package for many years, which I picked up at Country Music Centre. 3. various singles / compilations.

The Drifters:

Three Thirty-Three – The title refers to an address. This is a cool hangout, with “all shapes and sizes of women,” with whom you can “do things you’ve never done.” One can only imagine.
Money Honey – The root of all evil. Everything comes down to the almighty dollar. One of the great gritty R & B songs of the era. Elvis did it. It is not The Bay City Rollers song. From 1953.
Honey Love – “I need it in the middle of the night.” I bet. A stud song. From 1954.
White Christmas – One R & B version of many, maybe the first black White Christmas. Great doop doop doops in the background. This song snuck into the top 100 in December, 1955.
The Bells Of St. Mary – Harkens back to The Harptones and that ilk, which was exactly contemporary with this, more or less, exactly. Heavy on the organ.
Watcha Gonna Do – This is nothing more complicated than making a date for the evening, to a great beat. From 1955.
I Should Have Done Right – This is a throwback to style closer to 40s jump blues than 50s R & B
Adorable – Johnny Moore takes over as lead singer from Clyde McPhatter. The group makes “adorable” sound like “lewd and lascivious.” From 1955.
Steamboat – The boat is the symbol of separation. Lead vocals by Bill Pinkey. From 1956.
Ruby Baby – Leiber & Stoller par excellence. Dion hit it big with this in 1963, and Ronnie Hawkins covered it.
Fools Fall In Love – This has the strange quality of being a fast ballad; only The Drifters could pull it off. There is an odd twangy guitar solo that plays off against the sax; conclusion – this is good stuff. From winter, 1957. Elvis covered this about 10 years later. Johnny Moore sings a great lead
Drip Drop – Another one covered by Dion. One of the greatest self-pity songs ever. From the summer of 1958. Bobby Hendricks sings.
Your Promise To Be Mine – A song about separation, and promises.
There Goes My Baby – This song stands huge in the annals of R & B, said to be the first such record to use strings (the pundits never heard The Platters obviously). Ben E. King kicks off the second version of The Drifters with a vocal that strains just out of his comfort zone, baion bass, typany that threatens to bring the roof down, and an atmosphere of romantic tragedy that would bring a tear to the eye of the most hardened cynic. From the summer of 1959.
(If You Cry) True Love, True Love – Easily one of the most beautiful records ever made in the history of the world. From late 1959. Johnny Williams sings lead.
Dance With Me – Maybe the best song about dancing ever; dancing becomes a metaphor for everything that’s beautiful in life. From late 1959, the A side of (If You Cry) True Love, True Love. Ben E King back on lead vocal.
This Magic Moment – Oh my goodness, those swirling strings sound as if they’re played by angels. This may be the best that Ben E. King ever did. The silliness of the romantic lyrics are completely and totally redeemed by the magic of the music. The moment when the background is reduced to a lone Spanish guitar – that’s pure musical genius. From the spring of 1960. Jay & The Americans put it back on the charts in 1969.
Save The Last Dance For Me – How we want things to work out. We don’t always get our wish. The Stones sang You Can’t Always Get What You Want and the message was the same, but The Drifters speak the language of love and longing, the Stones – drugs. This was actually the only #1 record that The Drifters had; it was a hit in the fall of 1960. A hit again in the early 1970s for The DeFranco Family, and Harry Nilsson put it on his Pussy Cats album.
I Count The Tears – Again, King puts it over, helped along by the great bass, the strings, the guys la-la-la-ing along. Beautiful beautiful stuff, from the winter of 1961.
Some Kind Of Wonderful – Another wonderful song, this one from the spring of ’61. Not to be confused with Some Kind Of Wonderful by The Brothers Six, covered by Grand Funk. Rudy Lewis sings. The Fourmost covered this.
Please Stay – Think of The Temptations, and how proud David Ruffin was when he sang Ain’t Too Proud To Beg. And Lewis here, he is not proud, not at all, he is desperate; If I got on my knees, sings Rudy, with a quality of voice that one can only describe as unearthly. You know she won’t stay, you know he knows it, and you know that he can’t not beg. This record is almost too painful to listen to. From the summer of ’61.
Sweets For My Sweet – Confection, as the title would (and does in fact) suggest. Kind of a cha cha rhythm going on here. From the autumn of ’61. This was The Searchers’ first hit. Charlie Thomas is lead vocalist
When My Little Girl Is Smiling – Another Charlie Thomas lead. From the spring of ’62. And I know that smile...
Up On The Roof – Rudy Lewis is back in charge. A song of escape, especially poignant I think for those who can’t afford trips to California, can’t even afford a back yard. Goffin & King wrote this, and Carole King covered it later, as did James Taylor, and The Nylons. From the winter of ’63.
On Broadway – A song about trying and failing, about not fitting in. From the spring of ’63. George Benson did this.
I’ll Take You Home – A high school dance, a young singles social perhaps. Things don’t always work out how we expect. Johnny Moore back in the group, on lead vocals. From the fall of ’63. Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers had a go at this.
Under The Boardwalk – One can smell the hot dogs; and feel the sun on the sand. But, there is an underlying melancholy going on here, which has nothing to do with the lyrics. After all, this isn’t about the boardwalk at all, nor about the beach or the summer. A great record, from the summer of ’64. The Stones covered it on one of their early albums.
I’ve Got Sand In My Shoes – This Under The Boardwalk rewrite was a hit in the fall of ’64.
Saturday Night At The Movies – The Drifters’ formula applied to plain old fun. From late 1964.

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