145. The Drifters

The Drifters are a vocal group from New York, New York. Originally assembled in 1953 as a supporting group for singer Clyde McPhatter, the Drifters brand has one of the more complex histories in pop music history. After McPhatter’s brief tenure as lead singer, the group persevered with modest success until 1958, when manager George Treadwell replaced the entire group. Still recording with Atlantic Records, the second generation Drifters enjoyed a brief peak of popularity, which produced a memorable series of pop standards. By the mid-sixties, their star had faded, but the strength of the original material allowed The Drifters to become a perpetual nostalgia act, often with more than one version of the group in business.

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Wikipedia Biography of The Drifters
Soulwalking.co.uk Biography of The Drifters

Notable Lead Singers For The Drifters

Clyde McPhatter (1932-1972), vocals
Johnny Moore (1934-1998), vocals
Ben E. King (b. 1938), vocals
Rudy Lewis (1936-1964), vocals

Only In America

The Drifters have a few great songs that define their legacy. My favorite song may be the one they never released until over forty years later. The Drifters version of “Only In America” was shelved by Atlantic Records, while a cover version of the song by Jay & The Americans, was sold to United Artists and reached #25 on the pop charts in 1963.

Here Comes The Night, Joel Selvin’s book about the life of record producer Bert Berns, also serves as a comprehensive history of the New York pop music industry of the fifties and sixties. Selvin tells the story of “Only In America” as follows:

With “Up On The Roof” and “On Broadway”, Leiber and Stoller once again reprieved the Drifters from slipping off the charts entirely. It had two long years since “Save The Last Dance For Me”. In April 1963, they returned to the studio with the Drifters and another Mann-Weil song they had remodeled. Originally “Only In America” was more an angry, straightforward protest song (“Only in America, land of opportunity, do they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me”). The civil rights movement was reaching crisis proportions. New harrowing headlines came daily from the South. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and placed in solitary confinement on the day of the session a thousand miles away in Birmingham, Alabama. Leiber and Stoller, from their rarified, socially advanced perspective, as only two smart-ass, New York Jews could, recast the song as a coolly ironic send up (having black people sing lines like “Only in America can a kid without a cent get a break and maybe grow up to be president”).

(Jerry) Wexler was predictably blunt in his assessment. “Are you guys nuts?” he said. “They’ll lynch us.”

The world was not ready to hear black people sing “Only in America, land of opportunity.” Leiber was way too hip for the room. Leiber and Stoller still liked the track immensely. They took off the Drifters vocals and replaced them with Jay and the Americans. White people singing the same song eliminated all irony, turning the record into the kind of cornball sentimentality that Leiber and Stoller previously assiduously avoided. Wexler hated the record so much, he was happy to sell the track to United Artists for something he was never going to release and didn’t even mind as the thing scooted up the charts. Not much anyway.

— Joel Selvin

Also discussed in the Coasters profile, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had a knack for distilling the realities and dreams of young Americans into simple, uplifting songs. The brilliant “Only In America” was forty-five years ahead of its time. I recently shared this on Facebook, and one of my friends shared that his father played this song (the Jay & the Americans version) in the mornings as encouragement for his sons to pursue their dreams.

Amazon.com Link to “Here Comes The Night”, by Joel Selvin

“50 Years Later, A Drifters Song Has Its Day”, by Ryan Zummallen, Long Beach Post, November 2008

Save The Last Dance For Me

My father’s parents emigrated from Scotland around 1920, and never returned. My father had only met a couple of his Scottish relatives until he arranged a visit to Scotland in 1998, where they “rolled out the red carpet”, and cousins Ruby and Dick hosted a family get-together at their lawn bowling club in Clydebank. Dad also used the vacation as an opportunity to play golf, and brought me along with my then brother-in-law John. We traveled around Scotland for a few days before working our way back into town for family gatherings.

At the time, I was actively drinking, an on-or-off practice I never mastered, and eventually quit doing. My father was a teetotaler, and generally disapproved of my drinking habit. So we stayed away from night life for the most part, but John and I sneaked out twice during the vacation for drinks and laughs. Both times were memorable experiences, though the second one was a bit scary, with the potential for real danger. But the first night out was happy and fun, and maybe a little strange, too.

Our first destination was Inverness, the northernmost city in the United Kingdom. Golfers generally travel there to play the famous golf courses in nearby Nairn and Dornoch. We stayed at a bed and breakfast inn in downtown Inverness for three nights, while driving each day to play golf. On one of those nights I dragged John out for beer, cigarettes and a little local flavor.

We found a pub nearby with live music and settled in. The band performed on a stage about ten feet above the pub floor, and were quite loud, making small talk a bit cumbersome, especially for west coast Americans trying to decipher the Scottish brogue. Nevertheless, we soon struck up a conversation with four Scots, two unattached men and a married couple. They were friendly and talkative, and in the case of the married husband, very drunk. We learned he had been on a bender for over twenty-four hours, but to begin with, he was still pretty lucid when we started to chat. He was a successful businessman, and helped manage a significant local establishment. He was a nice fellow, but in bad shape. Early in the evening, we talked about golf, where he admitted that though he was not an accomplished player, he felt he could “putt for Scotland”.

His wife was charming, and quite attractive. As her husband’s energy started to fade, she stayed close by, but seemed rather unconcerned, as if this was a common occurrence. He was really drunk, and starting to list, but was hanging in there as best he could for the conversation with the visiting Americans.

I had given up worrying about the fading husband, and was chatting with the others when over the din of the music, I heard him sneeze with a mighty “Whoosh!”. Looking over, as he pulled himself back upright, I noticed his nose now featured the longest snot string I had ever seen in my life. And neither he nor his friends seemed to notice. I expected that his wife or friends would notice, but they were enjoying themselves, and had kind of tuned him out. And for two or three minutes that seemed to last an eternity, this poor man stood there drunk and unaware that he had snot hanging from his nose down below his waist. I casually turned to my brother-in-law and whispered “I think that might be the grossest thing I’ve ever seen”, and we shared a private laugh between ourselves. I can’t remember whether he fixed the problem, or it just dropped eventually.

Although he managed to stay upright, at that point of the evening he was politely coexisting while the others yelled at one another over the music. By then the center of attention was the man’s lovely wife, who was holding court while everybody stood around her in a circle. At some point, it occurred to me that their friends were perhaps a bit too friendly and attentive, and inspired by the spirits of the night, I did something I rarely do — I broke into song:

“So don’t forget who’s taking you home,
And in whose arms you’re gonna be,
So darlin’, save the last dance for me.”

I must have done well, because afterwards all three of them applauded enthusiastically, and urged me to keep singing. I demurred, as I was overcome by shyness, plus I didn’t know the words and melody well enough to sing the whole thing. By midnight, we left our friends for the evening, and walked back to the inn, but I’ll never forget the night I serenaded the beautiful woman with the great song that came to mind and means so much.

The Drifters Songs:

On Broadway, The Drifters ★★★★
Up On The Roof, The Drifters ★★★★
Only In America, The Drifters ★★★★

Save The Last Dance For Me, The Drifters ★★★
White Christmas, The Drifters ★★★

Under The Boardwalk, The Drifters ★★
This Magic Moment, The Drifters ★★
Ruby Baby, The Drifters ★★

Money Honey, The Drifters
The Bells Of St. Mary’s, The Drifters
There Goes My Baby, The Drifters
Whatcha Gonna Do, Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters

Related Songs:

A Lover’s Question, Clyde McPhatter ★★
Lover Please, Clyde McPhatter ★★

Stand By Me, Ben E. King ★★★
Spanish Harlem, Ben E. King ★★★
I (Who Have Nothing), Ben E. King ★★
Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), Ben E. King
Amor, Ben E. King

On Broadway, Neil Young

Only In America, Jay & the Americans ★★

White Christmas, Bing Crosby ★★
White Christmas, Darlene Love

This Magic Moment, Jay & the Americans ★★

Ruby Baby, Dion ★★★

Money Honey, Elvis Presley

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