There’s something iffy about The Drifters
Still touring after 65 years, but they’re The Drifters in name only
The Drifters are one of the best known groups of all time. Members of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, they’re famous for classic songs such as Save The Last Dance For Me, Up On The Roof, Kissin’ In The Back Row, Come On Over To My Place and Under The Boardwalk.
In 2018, when I saw that The Drifters would be playing just up the coast from me at Worthing’s Pavilion Theatre, I assumed it was just another tribute act, the likes of which have become a fixture at all too many venues these days.
But on closer inspection, there was no word on the poster saying this was a tribute show. Instead, it proclaimed it was part of their 65th anniversary tour.
I reasoned if they formed six and a half decades ago, they’d now have to be in their 80s and at that age most unlikely to still be able to tread the boards.
I was curious. Just who were these Drifters?
What’s more, you have to wonder why such an iconic group would be playing small venues in seaside towns like Worthing. Surely, they’d be packing ’em in the big cities, not the likes of Grimsby’s Auditorium, Whitley Bay’s Playhouse or the Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone? Something didn’t seem quite right.
According to their blurb, The Drifters claim to be ”the longest running singing group in history.” My curiosity aroused, I wondered just how bonafide that actually was.
It’s certainly true that the group first got together 65 years ago. It was in New York City in 1953 — June 1953 to be precise — that they were formed as the backing group for Clyde McPhatter.
The pair who brought them together and gave them their name were George Treadwell (who was married to singer Sarah Vaughn) and Ahmet Ertegun (who went on to found Atlantic Records)
The original lineup featured William Anderson, David Baldwin, Little David Baughan and James Johnson. On 29 June 1953 they began their first recording session with McPhatter. It didn’t go well.
Indeed it was so bad that all four were quickly replaced by Willie Ferbee, brothers Andrew and Gerhart Thrasher and Bill Pinkney. It wouldn’t be the first time that The Drifters would change members.
A little research reveals that since then there have been over 60 — yes 60! — different vocalists performing under the guise of The Drifters.
As Rolling Stone magazine put it: ”They were low paid musicians hired by George Treadwell who owned The Drifters name.”
Low salaries contributed to a burnout among members. As a result, few made much money, and most didn’t stay long.
Originally, they were known as Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters or, in some cases, it was ’and his Drifters.’ Before long, it had become The Drifters featuring Clyde McPhatter.
McPhatter himself didn’t last long either. Enlisted in the military, soon after being discharged in April 1956, he decided to leave the group for a solo career. At the time, he also sold his share of the group to Treadwell which is how he ended up with the rights to the name.
Despite the loss of their lead vocalist, The Drifters continued to exist albeit with an ever-changing lineup.
Fast forward to 1972 and George Treadwell’s wife Faye, moved to England where she put together yet another lineup.
Today, the rights to the Drifters name belong to the Prism Music Group Ltd, now run by George’s daughter, Tina Treadwell. And it’s her company that putting on 2018’s 60-date 65th anniversary UK tour.
The current members of The Drifters are listed as being Charlie Thomas, Louis Bailey, Stephen Brown and Jerome Manning. As far as I know, none have any connection with any former members of the group. It would not be inaccurate to say they are The Drifters in name only.
But the story doesn’t end there. Over the years, it seems there have been numerous other incarnations of the group including acts going under a slew of different names such as The Original Drifters, The New Drifters, The American Drifters, Charlie Thomas’ Drifters and Drifter Legends to name but five.
So with at least two different versions of The Drifters still touring, are either of them anything more than mere tribute acts masquerading under The Drifters logo?
I think most people would agree they are little more than tribute acts and should be labelled as such. Their only connection to the original group is they sing the same songs.
Over the years there’s clearly been wrangles between the two organisations that own the rights to the name on both sides of the Atlantic, with each stating it’s they, and not the other, who have the claim. The US owners even describe the UK imposter as The If-ters.
To be honest, it’s hard to get clarity on who owns what where, but what’s abundantly clear is that all these years later The Drifters name still holds value and that there’s still an audience to see them play live, whoever maybe performing on stage. And there’s money still to be made exploiting that asset.
At the heart of this, is the question: Is a group a group because of the name they perform under — or the names of the performers? For me, it has to be the latter. Indeed, throughout music history the vast majority of groups that lose their original vocalist tend to have a short-lived career.
According to the posters, 2018 marked the 65th anniversary of The Drifters. However, the group performing the songs on tour are nothing more than a tribute act — and as such, that’s how they should be billed.
Postscript: In 2021, The Drifters Girl, a musical written by Ed Curtis and based on an idea by Tina Treadwell was premiered in Newcastle, England. It tells the story of The Drifters and their manager Faye Treadwell, and features 22 of their songs. Originally announced in November 2019 to open in September 2020, the show had to be postponed due to Covid.
Finally, on 4 November 2021 The Drifters Girl made its West End debut at the Garrick Theatre. The role of Faye Treadwell was originally played by singer Beverley Knight, who in Julky 2022 was succeeded by Broadway actress Felicia Boswell.
A cast album recorded at Abbey Road studios was released in May 2022.
By the way, 2023 will mark the 70th anniversary of founding of The Drifters.