Musician - Author
The Drifters (The Group That Never Was)
from 1953 through to 2016
by Graham Sclater
Many of us will have seen The Drifters at various venues around the world at some time or another and, more often than not, they were not the original Drifters. So how did that happen?
Since the 60’s band members have changed so much that very few now have any of the original members. The Drifters take that to the extreme and I will try to unravel what happened. Whist there is no doubt that there has been a huge number of incarnations of this vocal group and some of its members have gone on to have very successful solo careers after leaving this group, notably Ben E King. There have been in excess of 60 members since the group’s inception in 1953 and in some cases they were simply another vocal group repackaged and renamed to appear as The Drifters.
The group was formed in 1953 with Clyde McPhatter featured as the lead vocalist. They were signed by Ahmet Ertegun, President of Atlantic Records who released their first record later that year.
After the initial success McPhatter demanded a fair share of the group's profits, which was refused, so in 1955 he sold his share in the group to George Treadwell, who was their manager, before he left the group.
George Treadwell now the owner of The Drifter’s name continued to pay what was understood to be a very low basic wage, rumoured to be $100 a week, to each member. Other members soon became dissatisfied and went on to form splinter groups which included, "Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters" and "Charlie Thomas' Drifters". Neither of these was able to achieve the success of the original band.
Over the ensuing years various formations of The Drifters recorded 13 Billboard Hot 100 top 30 chart hits and were a force on the US R&B charts, notching six number one R&B hits: "Money Honey" (1953), "Honey Love" (1954), "Adorable" (1955), "There Goes My Baby" (1959), "Save The Last Dance For Me" (1960) and "Under The Boardwalk" (1964).
With a decline in their success in the US, in the mid-1970s the group moved to Britain and they had a revival, with both old and new material, which strangely was not repeated in the America. With hit songwriters, that included Roger Cook and Greenaway and Tony McCauley, they went on to achieve numerous UK hits with their biggest success peaking with the number two hit, "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies".
George Treadwell still retained ownership of the Drifters brand, and despite the merry go round of members he believed that they were in fact the real Drifters and he was determined to keep the group alive. (I will come back to this strand and continue later.)
Bill Pinkney left first and when he received exclusive and irrevocable ownership of the name, "The Original Drifters," in a binding arbitration. He linked up with another vocal group, The Thrashers along with David Baughan began to tour under the name of The Original Drifters. Members continued to change and when Pinckney also left the band it continued to tour under the name he owned. He eventually reformed the group using an existing group, called The Tears, and they carried out a short tour under the guise of The Original Drifters. At the end of that tour, The Tears continued to tour under the guise of The Original Drifters until Pinckney successfully sued them. In 1979 he reformed the group once again with ever changing personnel.
Pinckney died in 2007 but with his legacy as the owner of the trademarked name, “Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters” still continue to tour.
As mentioned earlier George Treadwell had the rights to use the name “Drifters” so in 1958 he approached the manager of a vocal group called The Five Crowns, which had Ben E. King amongst its members. Their manager agreed and they were repackaged and renamed The Drifters but unfortunately the new group met with hostility from many of the audiences as they toured across the US. However, still signed to Atlantic Records and their association with the successful songwriting team of Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller, the recording career of the new group, with Ben E. King on lead vocals, resulted in them having numerous hit records. Once again payment reared its head and following a dispute over a share of the royalties King left the group. Throughout the next decade members regularly came and went and the line-up was unrecognisable and in 1972 the Drifters left the Atlantic roster and moved to the UK.
The group continued to change personnel and, with a number of different lead vocalists, they had hit records including, "Like Sister & Brother", "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies", "There Goes My First Love", and "You're More Than a Number in My Little Red Book".
However, litigation was not far away and over the next two decades ownership of the Drifters name was in dispute when in December 2006 writs were served in the High Court on the directors of Drifters UK Limited. And in July 2008, the Treadwell family and Prism Music Group Ltd won their legal battle. The court order prohibited the directors of Drifters UK Limited from using the Drifters name.
Ownership continues with the Treadwell family in the form of George Treadwell's daughter, Tina, and the UK-based company Prism Music Group Ltd.
The Drifters performed at the London Indigo O2 Arena in 2009 with special guests the Drifter Legends, made up of some of the most prestigious former members of the group.
Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented at this concert to Joe Blunt and Butch Leake by Neil Martin from Sony Music and songwriter Roger Greenway. In 2012, gold discs (100,000 units sold of Up on the Roof, The Very Best Of) were awarded by Sony Music to Butch Leake, Joe Blunt, and Clyde Brown.
The late fifties and early sixties was considered to be a golden age for the group and according to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame: "Through turmoil and changes, the (original) Drifters managed to set musical trends and achieve 13 chart hits, most of which are still widely played today." Ironically, this version of the Drifters which included Ben E. King was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000 as “Ben E. King and the Drifters.” The induction was primarily aimed at Ben E King with a nod to his short time with the group.
For more information on The Drifter’s musical career a great deal of information and photographs can be found in Butch Leake’s full colour book “On Broadway” published by Blurb.
Graham Sclater is a music publisher, record producer and author and is the CEO of Tabitha Publishing Limited.