The Drifters – We Gotta Sing!
Released 22 October 2021
Subtitled The Soul Years (1962-1971), this new 3CD compilation captures the ever-changing rhythm and blues vocal group The Drifters at arguably the height of their powers. This set features all of their recordings for Atlantic Records between 1962 and 1971 and includes many big hit singles like Up On The Roof and Under The Boardwalk. Ian Canty’s gotta hear this…
By the time of the period documented by We Gotta Sing! The Drifters, who formed back in 1953, were almost a decade into their career. Or rather, the band name was, as a complete change of group members had occurred during the intervening years. As manager George Treadwell had gained total control of the name in 1955, he also had total control of the purse strings and personnel. Clyde McPhatter had led the first line up which established the vocal group as a musical force, but the last original member of the band Bill Pinkney bowed out in 1957 and since the beginning a revolving door of system of membership meant many had passed through their ranks. Ben E. King for one briefly fronted The Drifters to much acclaim at the turn of the decade.
But as 1962 dawned the band featured lead singers Rudy Lewis and Charlie Thomas, deep bass voice from Tommy Evans (who had a previous spell with the group in the mid-1950s) and baritone vocalist Dock Green, plus Abdul Samad on guitar. Away from the ever-altering physical make up of The Drifters, there were changes afoot in popular music which would favour their skillset. Rhythm & blues’ modern offshoot soul was becoming big news in The United States and The Drifters, with their four-pronged vocal format, were well-placed to profit from this development. This was just, as in many way they can be said to have been among the founders of soul music.
However for the first CD of We Gotta Sing!, things were pretty much business as usual for The Drifters, bar some more gutsy horn arrangements. They applied their blues, gospel and doo wop roots to the mainstream just as effectively as the band’s previous incarnations had. In 1960 during King’s time with the band they charted with a massive hit in Save The Last Dance For Me, making number one on the US listings and nearly repeating the feat in the UK, stopping just short at the number two position. King was now gone, but with the Brill Building folk and other songsmiths providing tunes of the highest quality and a crack team of instrumentalists behind them, The Drifters were able to flourish and more than that, attain a wide pop appeal that few could rival.
This all means that this disc is a lovely, hugely evocative listen. Simple, universal lyrical themes underpin those great voices and skilful, expansive arrangements. The Drifters’ world is one of love and heartbreak, but always served with a huge helping of soulful vigour, pure pop music that almost anyone could enjoy. The best of their work here has a truly timeless quality and have become recognised as classics for the form. This is something that makes you forget that Up On The Roof, On Broadway and Under The Boardwalk made little or no impact initially in the UK and Saturday Night At The Movies only reached the top ten over here as a reissue in 1972.
Regardless of their chart performances at the time, they’re truly great 45s and despite their familiarity are always worth another listen. Under The Boardwalk shows up three times, as a single, a LP version and from a live performance which also includes another take of Up On The Roof. From the blasting horns of Another Night With The Boys’ lovelorn melancholy, there is a deep warmth on display that certainly charmed this listener for the duration of this platter. Let The Music Play is a tour de force of orchestrated soul and Baby I Dig Love, actually a Rudy Lewis solo tune, is a fast, danceable treat.
Rat Race neatly takes The Drifters a step away from their usual tales of romance, being a fine socially conscious Leiber, Stoller and Van McCoy song that addresses the hateful nature of the daily grind. It is incredible in a way that the single If You Don’t Come Back completely failed, as it is really the vocal strengths of the band writ large. A zesty Didn’t It? brings their blues and gospel influences so sweetly into focus. It is a shame in a way that this was just the flipside of the delightful One Way Love 7 incher, but it did make for a great combination. Beautiful Music follows cast in the same mode and very agreeable it is too. The exotic flavour to He’s Just A Playboy helps to shape an elegant groove and it is good to hear the two big US hits Under The Boardwalk and On Broadway in a live context, even if you have to strain a little to hear The Drifters among the palpable crowd hysteria.
Over on disc two of We Gotta Sing! we find ourselves in the final months of 1964. The Drifters’ line up had almost completely changed over the past two years, with lead vocalist Johnny Moore (who featured briefly in the Clyde McPhatter era of the band), joined by baritone Eugene Pearson and bass Johnny Terry, with the sole survivor Charlie Thomas completing what was now a quartet. The other side of the Saturday Night At The Movies single Spanish Lace and a pair of pleasant but inessential Christmas songs start off this disc.
A fast moving Quando, Quando, Quando sets off a run of the remaining eleven tunes from The Good Life With The Drifters album of 1965. Saturday Night At The Movies was the only single track included on the LP and it has to be said that is a pretty laidback, easy listening collection, with the show-stopping Bernstein/Sondheim song Tonight and the groovy jazz of Desafinado being the highlights for me. Though the LP was of course well put together and adept at focussing on the skill of The Drifters’ voices to wring every last cent out of some pretty hoary old chestnuts, it left the band at the risk of sounding a little behind the times as the 1960s progressed.
However the singles issued around the same time do feature The Drifters in more contemporary light. At The Club and its flip Answer Your Phone even have “beat” style guitar lines. Come On Over To My Place was reissued in 1972, very much like Saturday Night At The Movies, and as a result scored another sizeable UK hit. This success gave the band a new lease of life in the 1970s. But going back to when these records were recorded, Looking Through The Eyes Of Love may be a little rough sonically, but it is a pleasing and concise piece of 1960s soul music. Follow Me is good too, despite not making a big splash on single release. I really enjoyed the vocal performance on Chains Of Love, the reverse of the Come On Over To My Place single and the topside is a jolly, rootsy r&b romp too. This disc is finished off by album takes of Spanish Love, At The Club and Answer The Phone.
The final selection of this set begins with seven offerings from the same version of The Drifters that featured on the previous disc. This hints at the mid-1960s possibly being a more stable period for the band and the minor US hit single, a gem of a feelgood groove called I’ll Take You Where The Music’s Playing, gets things underway on a high. The title track to this boxset has just the rhythm to make a mark on the dancefloors of the mod clubs of the time and even the northern soul nightspots a few years later on. A dramatic Up In The Streets Of Harlem was another good single that didn’t land and a cover of oldie Memories Are Made Of This similarly did not do the business for The Drifters.
The cheerful but disposable exotica of My Island In The Sun is the final item here prior to Terry and Pearson being replaced by Eddie Bowen and Jesse Ferguson respectively. It was something of a rarity in The Drifters’ archive, in that is self-penned, being written by Moore and a returning Abdul Samad. The state of the art soul of It Takes A Good Woman had the band a long way from their original sound and sounding the better for it.
As the 1960s wore on The Drifters’ label Atlantic Records began to look away from their soul base and favour the rock scene more. A lot of artists suffered as a result and The Drifters themselves were not immune. Their chart career was in freefall after the excellent and energetic Baby What I Mean and Ain’t That The Truth, which is enhanced by some cool keys, both made a decent impression on the US r&b listings. Though the pop fans had abandoned them and despite more comings and goings, there was no let up in the quality the band offered. The unreleased I Dig Your Act has a breezy, carefree momentum that powers is along and the raw funky gospel sound of Still Burning In My Heart should surely have fared better on single release.
Country To The City has a driving rhythm that sounds custom built for northern soul and another unissued at the time effort You And Me Together Forever is dreamy and creamy lovers’ soul. There’s a definite funk influence that comes in here, it’s discernible on the fine single Steal Away and its flip Your Best Friend. You Got To Pay Your Dues, co-written by Rupert “Pina Colada” Holmes, is an excellent upbeat dance number with real verve. After A Rose By Any Other Name (Is Still A Rose)/Be My Lady failed to make any impression in 1971 as a single despite its obvious strengths, The Drifters were admittedly at a low ebb.
Soon though the Bill Fredericks/Johnny Moore Drifters built a second chart career in the 1970s after the success of their reissues, being very successful in the UK in the middle of the decade. The final offering on We Gotta Sing! is a creditable run through of Arthur Alexander’s oldie You Better Move On (also recorded by punk pop trailblazers The Boys), cut when Ben E. King returned to lead the band in 1982. Various line ups of The Drifters have performed over the years, with litigation over the ownership of the name going on into 21st century.
Apart from the odd occasion where the schmaltz factor is overpowering (which is something the many singers of The Drifters themselves were hardly responsible for), We Gotta Sing! is as a fine example of the art of the vocal group as it is possible to get. Both the Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore-led formats of the band delivered many excellent soul sides, just as that music was at a crucial stage of its development. We Gotta Sing! for the most part demands the attention of anyone with even a minor interest in rhythm & blues’ development during the 1960s or soulful dance music as a whole.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here