Who was/is The Drifters ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
On the surface, the name of The Drifters sounds more like a country combo wearing Stetson hats, twangy guitars, and lonesome expressions on their faces than the most important R&B vocal group of two different and very distinct eras. During the period leading directly into rock and roll's mainstream rise, The Drifters were a sensational hitmaking vehicle for the spectacular lead vocals of Clyde McPhatter, one of the seminal figures in rhythm and blues history due to his extensive use of gospel-rooted melisma in his high-flying leads.
"The marvel of Clyde was you never could tell whether those high notes were in natural voice or falsetto. I believe they were all natural," said his late Atlantic Records co-producer, Jerry Wexler. "It was incredible."
After Clyde went solo, the group utilized a series of replacement leads possessing their own considerable vocal strengths, scoring more hits on a lesser level. Then The Drifters were reborn with all new members, riding a daring violin-and-percussion-enriched sound eventually christened uptown soul to the same stratospheric chart heights McPhatter had previously taken them to.
Manager George Treadwell and New York-based Atlantic kept right on releasing product under the valuable name into the '70s. If anything, the former Crowns, initially led by Ben E. King, became an even bigger commercial commodity than Clyde's original lineup after they were installed as the new Drifters; they stuck around the scene longer despite enduring another endless series of personnel changes. Like Clyde, Ben E. didn't stay for long, his curt dismissal by Drifters management failing to impede the group's fortunes one iota.
It didn't hurt to have some of the industry's top producers and songwriters in The Drifters' corner to help them segue seamlessly into the soul era. The name itself retained its value long after the hits stopped coming; witness the countless phony Drifters aggregations criss-crossing the U.S. to this day, populated by singers young enough to be McPhatter's grandkids. But when Clyde was barely able to legally buy a drink in a Manhattan bar, his Drifters exploded into the most innovative R&B group on the scene, posting seven major hits on Atlantic from late 1953 through early '55, including a pair of chart-toppers. A mere handful of other pioneers - Ray Charles, The "5" Royales – brought as much sanctified passion to their uplifting vocal deliveries as McPhatter did that early in the game.
In those days, The Drifters rocked, as this compilation amply illustrates. In an era when sweetly harmonized love ballads were the preferred repertoire for most black vocal groups, the Drifters weren't afraid to cut loose with unrestrained up-tempo numbers brilliantly showcasing McPhatter's church-imbued lead tenor and the rafter-rattling backup of his fellow Drifters. Atlantic honcho Ahmet Ertegun was a McPhatter fan even before he signed him, having watched him front Billy Ward's Dominoes until the dictatorial Ward fired the young singer during a high-profile New York engagement in the spring of 1953.
"Ahmet loved the Dominoes," said Wexler. "He went to Birdland to see Billy Ward. And Billy Ward used to run his band like James Brown did. There were fines for this and fines for that - fines for unshined shoes, for missing a note, whatever. So after they did their show, Ahmet went backstage and he said to Billy, 'Where's Clyde? I didn't see him this evening.' He said, 'I fired his ass!' So Ahmet went uptown and found him, and that was it."
McPhatter subsequently became a hero to an entire generation of up-and-coming lead tenors. "So many people paid debts to him," said Wexler. "All the high-voiced singers, including Smokey Robinson, Aaron Neville, you name them. None of them fails to hail Clyde as a main influence."
"When I got to be about 11 or 12, I became interested more in what they termed then as the R&B music and the rock and roll kind of sound," says Smokey. "Billy Ward was the leader of a group called the Dominoes, in which Clyde McPhatter sang the lead vocals. The first record I ever heard by them was a record called 'Have Mercy Baby.' I mean, I thought it was a woman singing the song! And I had one of these real high voices when I used to sing.
"Then I went to this theater in Detroit called the Broadway Capitol, and they were playing there. And I saw that it was Clyde McPhatter singing, man, and that really was inspirational to me, because I had a high voice, and the girls were going crazy over him. So Clyde McPhatter was probably like my first male idol as a singer."
Add Nolan Strong of The Diablos, Dee Clark, Marv Johnson, Donnie Elbert, Jimmy 'Handy Man' Jones, and subsequent Drifters front men David Baughan, Johnny Moore, and Bobby Hendricks to the select list of McPhatter disciples. Once an impressionable young tenor absorbed Clyde's intoxicating innovations, it was difficult for him not to be permanently swayed.
"Clyde had the high thing I used to like to do," confirms Neville. Even singers whose styles weren't all that obviously influenced by him are quick to pay tribute. "My main idol was the late Clyde McPhatter," says Gary U.S. Bonds.
Clyde came by his gospel influences organically. Born November 15, 1932 in Durham, North Carolina, McPhatter's father preached at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, and his mother played the organ for services. Clyde started singing in the choir at age five. Before he was 10, he was soloing. The McPhatters (there were seven kids in all) relocated to Harlem during the mid-1940s. Clyde joined a young gospel aggregation, The Mount Lebanon Singers, while in high school. They made a heavenly name for themselves not just in New York, but along the East Coast.
The temptation of secular music proved irresistible for McPhatter. He competed in the Apollo Theatre's weekly amateur contest in 1950, crooning Lonnie Johnson's Tomorrow Night his way and finishing high in the voting. Ward was in the process of assembling a new group with agent Rose Marks that they envisioned challenging The Ravens and Orioles, the two hottest R&B harmony groups around at the time. He offered McPhatter a chance to audition (fellow Mount Lebanon Singer Charlie White came along for the ride and ended up being hired as well). The classically trained Ward got an earful of Clyde's thrilling tenor and was brought on board, the new group initially christened The Ques. An appearance on the 'Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts' preceded veteran guitarist Rene Hall sending them in the direction of Syd Nathan's King Records.
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