With the possible exception of the Dells, the Drifters were more successful in adapting to stylistic changes within the pop music scene than any other doo-wop group. Beginning as a rhythm and blues act in the early 1950s, they shifted to a more pop-oriented sound to remain leading hitmakers throughout the classic rock ‘n’ roll era, and were still regularly denting the charts at the peak of the British Invasion, folk rock, and Motown Soul.

Clyde McPhatter, formerly lead singer with Billy Ward’s Dominoes, formed the Drifters in 1953 with second tenor Gerhard Thrasher, baritone Andrew Thrasher, and bass Bill Pinkney. Before McPhatter entered the Army in the mid-1950s, the group enjoyed a strong of R&B hits featuring his smooth, sexy tenor voice, most notably "Money Honey" (Atlantic 1006; 1953; #1 R&B 11 weeks), "Such A Night"/"Lucille" (Atlantic 1019; 1954; #2/#7 R&B), "Honey Love" (Atlantic 1029; 1954; #1 R&B 8 weeks, #21 pop), "Bip Bam" (Atlantic 1043; 1954; #7 R&B), "White Christmas" (Atlantic 1048; 1954/1955/1956; #2/#5/#12 R&B), "What ‘Cha Gonna Do" (Atlantic 1055; #2), "Adorable"/"Steamboat" (Atlantic 1078; 1955; #1/#5 R&B), and "Ruby Baby" (Atlantic 1089; 1956; #10).

Following a period of diminished record sales—and various personnel changes—the group disbanded in 1958. Because the Drifters had signed a multi-year contract with New York’s Apollo Theater, their manager recruited another group, the Five Crowns, to fill the void. Assisted by the songwriting/production team of Leiber and Stoller, the new Drifters quickly outstripped their predecessors with releases like "There Goes My Baby" (Atlantic 2025; 1959; #2), reputedly the first R&B recording to utilize a sophisticated string arrangement, "Dance with Me" (Atlantic 2040; 1959; #15), "This Magic Moment" (Atlantic 2050; 1960; #16), "Save the Last Dance for Me" (Atlantic 2071; 1960; #1), and "I Count the Tears" (Atlantic 2087; 1960; #17).

When lead singer Ben E. King—who would record the solo hits "Spanish Harlem" (Atlantic 6185; 1960-1961; #10) and "Stand By Me" (Atlantic 6194; 1961; #4)—departed, the Drifters remained successful with recordings such as "Up On the Roof" (Atlantic 2162; 1962; #5) and "On Broadway" (Atlantic 2182; 1963; #9), which featured Rudy Lewis singing lead. Following his death in 1963, Johnny Moore became the frontman for bestsellers such as "Under the Boardwalk" (Atlantic 2237; 1964; #4) and "Saturday Night at the Movies" (Atlantic 2260; 1964; #18).

By 1967 the hits had stopped coming, although the group continued to perform well into the 1970s. The act was revived in the mid-1970s to capitalized on the oldies circuit. Releases of both new material and updated versions of the group’s old hits, however, failed to compete with regular reissues of the classic Drifters recordings.

Back to Doo-Wop Back to Table of Contents