The Drifters were one of the most important acts in establishing R&B as a dominant popular form of music in America. Their catalog of songs has become timeless, with several classic tracks that have been covered repeatedly over the past five decades. However, in retrospect, the rate of change in membership since its inception has made it difficult to identify a definitive version of the group.
Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records approached Clyde McPhatter to form a new group after he left the Dominoes. McPhatter first recruited several members of his former group, the Mount Lebanon Singers: William "Chick" Anderson (tenor), David Baldwin (baritone), and James "Wrinkle" Johnson (bass), plus David "Little Dave" Baughan (tenor). This aggregation only lasted for a single session (from which "Lucille" was the only song released), after which Atlantic asked McPhatter to form a different group. He finally settled on Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher on baritone and second tenor, respectively, Bill Pinkney on high tenor, Willie Ferbee as bass, and Walter Adams on guitar. This is the group on the second session, which produced the group's first major hit: "Money Honey".
After the session, Ferbee was involved in an accident and left the group and Adams died (to be replaced by Jimmy Oliver). Ferbee was not replaced and the voice parts were shifted around: Gerhart Thrasher became first tenor, Andrew Thrasher was now the baritone, and Bill Pinkney shifted down to bass. The group released several more hits ("Such A Night", "Honey Love," "Bip Bam," "White Christmas," and "What'cha Gonna Do") before McPhatter was drafted in May 1954 (after which he pursued a solo career). McPhatter had demanded a large share of the group's profits, which he had been denied in the Dominoes, but, upon his departure, did not ensure that this would continue for his successor. He sold his share of the group to George Treadwell, manager, former jazz trumpeter, and husband of legendary singer Sarah Vaughan. As a result, the Drifters cycled through copious members, none of whom made much money. McPhatter later expressed regret at this action, recognizing that it doomed his fellow musicians to unprofitability.
McPhatter was first replaced by David Baughn, who was on the group's first session. While his voice was similar to McPhatter's, his erratic behavior made him unsuitable in the eyes of Atlantic Records executives. Baughn soon left the group, and was replaced by Cleveland native Johnny Moore (of The Hornets). This line-up had a major R&B hit in 1955 with "Adorable", followed by several others ("Ruby Baby," "I Got To Get Myself A Woman," and "Fools Fall In Love"). Johnny Moore was drafted in November 1957 and replaced by Bobby Hendricks (who had briefly been with The Swallows), but to no success; the group was not able to break into mainstream markets.
In the mid 1950s, The Drifters began working with legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who eventually became the group's producers as well. This is widely considered the group's golden age, inaugurated by the 1956 hit "I Gotta Get Myself a Woman". Low salaries contributed to burnout among the members, particularly Bill Pinkney, who was fired after asking Treadwell for more money. Andrew Thrasher left as well, in protest. Pinkney formed another group, called The Flyers, with lead singer Bobby Hendricks (before he joined the Drifters to replace army-bound Johnny Moore).
Bill Pinkney was replaced by Tommy Evans (who had replaced Jimmy Ricks in The Ravens). Charlie Hughes, a baritone, replaced Andrew Thrasher. By early 1958, the line-up was: Bobby Hendricks (lead tenor), Gerhart Thrasher (first tenor), Jimmy Milner (baritone), Tommy Evans (bass), and Jimmy Oliver (guitar). By May 1958, both Hendricks and Oliver had quit, returning only for a week's appearance at the Apollo Theater. During that week, one of the members got into a fight with the owner of the Apollo. That was the last straw for manager George Treadwell, who fired the entire group. It would be thought that the group would therefore be no more.
But Treadwell was believed to have owned the rights to the name "Drifters". Left with a year's worth of advanced bookings for the Apollo, Treadwell recruited another group on the bill at there, The Five Crowns, with lead singer Ben E. King. They changed their name to the "Drifters" and went out on the road to tour for almost a year. This second group had no connection to the prior group of Drifters.
Meanwhile, Bill Pinkney and other "fired" Drifters once again joined with the Thrashers and David Baughan to begin touring as "The Original Drifters" (although their first recordings, for End in 1959, were as the "Harmony Grits"). Baughan left after a short time, leaving the group a trio. Bobby Lee Hollis joined in 1964 and took over the lead spot. Later that year Andrew Thrasher was out and Jimmy Lewis was in. Bobby Hendricks returned, making the group a quintet for a short time, before Lewis left. Andrew Thrasher returned, replacing Hollis. Hollis and Baughan bounced in and out through the 1960s. By 1968, the group was Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher, Hollis, and Hendricks. At this point, the group split.
Pinkney met with an existing group, The Tears, and recruited them as the new Original Drifters. The Tears were Benny Anderson, George Wallace, Albert Fortson, and Mark Williams. Shortly after recruiting them, they broke away from Pinkney and continued touring as the Original Drifters for over a decade (Pinkney filed suit and successfully stopped them at that time).
Pinkney then brought in new members Bruce Caesar, Clarence "Tex" Walker, and Bruce Richardson. The lineup changed rapidly. In 1979 the group was Pinkney, Andrew Lawyer, Chuck Cockerham, Harriel Jackson, and Tony Cook. Their 1995 album Peace in the Valley, on Blackberry Records, credited vocals to Pinkney, Cockerham, Richard Knight Dunbar, Vernon Young, and Greg Johnson. They appeared on the PBS special, Doo Wop 51 with Pinkney, Dunbar, Johnson, and Bobby Hendricks. The current lineup is Pinkney, Cockerham, Dunbar, Young, and Clyde McPhatter's son, Billy McPhatter. Greg Johnson is now in Bobby Hendricks' Drifters.
Treadwell had approached Lover Patterson, the manager of the Five Crowns. All but one member of The Five Crowns went along with the name change to become the Drifters. The new line-up consisted of: Benjamin Earl Nelson (known professionally as Ben E. King; lead tenor), Charlie Thomas (tenor), Dock Green (baritone), and Elsbeary Hobbs (bass). James "Poppa" Clark was the fifth member; he was not included in the new group.
This new line-up released several singles which became chart hits: "There Goes My Baby," the first commercial rock-and-roll recording to include a string orchestra, "Dance With Me," "This Magic Moment," "Save The Last Dance For Me," and "I Count The Tears." However, personnel changes started almost immediately. Lover Patterson (who had managed the Five Crowns and was now the Drifters' road manager) got into a fight with George Treadwell. Since Patterson had Ben E. King under personal contract, he refused to let King tour with the group anymore. Thus, King continued to record with the group for about a year before beginning a successful solo career. New member Johnny Lee Williams did the touring (although he can be heard leading "True Love, True Love"). Williams was subsequently replaced by Rudy Lewis (of The Clara Ward Singers), who led the Drifters on such hits as "Some Kind Of Wonderful," "Please Stay," and "Up on the Roof". While recording "Please Stay", songwriter Burt Bacharach met Dionne Warwick, a back-up singer, thus beginning a legendary partnership.
Bass Elsbeary Hobbs was drafted and eventually replaced by the returning Tommy Evans (from the 1958 group). Dock Green left in 1962 and was replaced by Eugene Pearson (of the Rivileers and Cleftones). Tommy Evans left again in 1963 and was replaced by Johnny Terry. After his military service and a failed solo career, Johnny Moore returned in 1964, making the group a quintet of Moore, Charlie Thomas, Rudy Lewis, Gene Pearson, and Johnny Terry.
Later that year, the group was scheduled to record "Under the Boardwalk" on May 21. However, Rudy Lewis died the night before the session, and Johnny Moore took over as the sole lead (he and Lewis had been alternating). Terry was replaced in 1966 by Dan Dandridge for a couple of months, then by William Brent, who had been with Johnny Moore in the Hornets in 1954. Gene Pearson was replaced by Rick Sheppard that same year. By late 1966, baritone/bass Bill Fredricks replaced William Brent. Charlie Thomas, the group's last "original member" (from the day the Five Crowns had become the Drifters), left in mid-1967 and was replaced by Charles Baskerville, a former member of The Limelites. Baskerville stayed only a short time, leaving before a session (which was done as a trio). Baritone Milton Turner was added by the end of 1967. In late 1969, Milton Turner left and was replaced by another singer named Charlie Thomas (who took the nickname Don Thomas to avoid confusion with the former member). This lineup only lasted a few months. By March 1970, the Drifters had broken up. Johnny Moore and Bill Fredericks reunited in January 1971 (along with two unknown singers) to do an independently-produced session which was subsequently sold to Atlantic. "A Rose By Any Other Name" and "Be My Lady" became the Drifters' last Atlantic release.