The Drifters Band History: From Lineup Changes to Legal Trouble

Are you the type of person that loves the oldies—not just the oldies but the do-wop oldies? Do you remember growing up and hearing your grandma playing an album from The Temptations, The Four Tops, or The Drifters? All three of those bands are worth their weight in gold, but I want to focus on The Drifters in this article.

The Drifters are not known for being the type of band that keeps their lineup together. In fact, there were over 60 artists that were part of The Drifters’ lineup after over a half-century of being a group. That wasn’t the only trouble they had either. Lengthy legal battles, substance abuse issues, and underpaid wages caused a ton of turmoil within the band.

Regardless of the band’s faults, The Drifters had a ton of hits, six of which hit number one on the charts. They also have a bunch of awards and honors to their name, like being inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This band is nothing to sneeze at. Pretty much everyone knows at least one of their hits like “Up on the Roof,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” or “Under the Boardwalk,” which proved to be three of their biggest selling hits. If you are a fan of The Drifters or just want to learn a little bit more about the band, this is the article for you. Read on to get all the facts about The Drifters.

A Little About Me

Now I know what you’re asking, “Why do you have the authority to tell us about The Drifters?” I have been a music writer for over seven years and have covered a wide array of genres. Not to mention, I have been listening to “the oldies” for as long as I can remember. The Drifters are one of those bands my dad would put on during long car rides; I grew up with this music and have a passion for writing about it.

Original And Later Lineups

Over the years, there have been many members of The Drifters. Here are all of the people that were part of the band.

Original Lineup

  • Clyde McPhatter
  • Gerhart Thrasher
  • Andrew Thrasher
  • Bill Pinkney
  • Jimmy Oliver

Additional Members

  • Charlie White
  • Willie Ferbee
  • Walter Adams
  • Ben E. King
  • Doc Green
  • Derek Ventura
  • Bernard jones
  • Lloyd Butch Phillips
  • Elsbeary Hobbs
  • Rudy Lewis
  • Tommy Evans
  • Johnny Lee Williams
  • Eugene Pearson
  • Johnny Terry
  • Harrell Dixon
  • J.T. Carter
  • Johnny Stewart
  • Terry King
  • Johnny Moore
  • Bobby Hendricks
  • Butch Leake
  • Rudy Ivan
  • Jimmy Lewis
  • Ray Lewis
  • Rick Sheppard
  • Bill Fredericks
  • Louis Price
  • Maurice Cannon
  • Glenn Dodd
  • Michael Williams
  • Jason Leigh
  • Phil Watson
  • Michael Raysor
  • Dave Revels

Current LineUp

  • Charlie Thomas
  • Louis Bailey
  • Stephen Brown
  • Jerome Manning
  • Jeff Hall

The Drifters’ Band History

The Early Years

The Drifters'
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The Drifters was all about Clyde McPhatter in the beginning. However, McPhatter was only with the band for one year, so it’s up to debate whether he was an instrumental influence on the direction of the band or if he just got the ball rolling for what was to come. McPhatter was the lead tenor for the band Billy Ward and His Dominoes for three years, and after achieving marginal success, McPhatter wanted to create a group that had a blend of gospel and secular sounds.

At first, McPhatter visited his church to get a group together, but this group was unsuccessful in his eyes. After the group disbanded, McPhatter found another group of guys, including first tenor Bill Pinkney, second tenor Andrew Thrasher, baritone Gerhart Thrasher, bass vocal Willie Ferbee, and Walter Adams as their guitarist.

The Rise to Success

In 1953, the band saw its first bit of success with the hit “Money Honey.” The band’s name at this time was Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, and McPhatter played the part of the band’s lead vocalist at this time. “Money Honey” was hugely successful and catapulted the band into the limelight.

Soon after, Ferbee left the group, and Adams passed away; the former was replaced by Jimmy Oliver, who many fans count as a founding member since he joined so early on. There were also some changes to the vocals during this time as well as Gerhart Thrasher moved to the first tenor, Andrew Thrasher moved to baritone, and Bill Pinkney went to bass vocals.

In 1954, the band released a slew of hits, including “Such A Night,” “Honey Love,” “White Christmas,” and “What’cha Gonna Do.” Unfortunately, McPhatter was drafted into the military at this time, forcing him to leave the band.

McPhatter did not go quietly, though. He demanded a large share of the band’s profits, although he was no longer part of the group. McPhatter did not get the money he felt he deserved, and the conflict caused the band to go into somewhat of a tailspin. During this time, the members of the band frequently came and went because they were only getting paid a mere $100 a week.

The Band After McPhatter

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McPhatter was replaced by David Baughan, who, in a few words, was very difficult to work with and caused significant rifts within the band. He did not last long and was replaced by Johnny Moore. However, this did not mean the waters were now calm for the band because Pinkney was fired for asking for more money.

Because of this, Andrew Thrasher also left the band. The rest of the band saw diminishing popularity and were forced to work only the club circuit under the band names “The Coasters” and “The Ravens.” Soon after, the band’s manager, George Treadwell, fired the entire group because of a dispute leading the band’s founding members to form their own group.

The Split Between the Drifters and The Original Drifters

Although the band’s original manager, George Treadwell, owned The Drifter’s brand, the original members of the band felt they were entitled to the brand and to keep the name alive how they saw fit. The band and their former manager went into arbitration to receive exclusive and irrevocable ownership of the name “The Drifters,” which is the name the band used when touring. This is the band we all know and love today. The original band members went on to form “The Original Drifters,” which is not the same as The Drifters.

From Top of the Charts to the Lows of the Drama

If you think the drama ends there, you are wrong. Treadwell still owned the rights to “The Drifters” brand and still had a year’s worth of bookings at the Apollo, so he recruited another group to fulfill his contracts. This did not go over well as there were many internal issues like alcoholism within the band, and the fans did not react well to the new group. They were often hostile when they stepped on stage.

There Goes My Baby

However, this seemed to change in the upcoming years (from the late 1950s to the early 1960s). This was known as the golden age of the band. They were seemingly producing hit after hit, including “There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” This rendition of The Drifters was inducted into the Vocal Hall of Fame in 2000, which is a huge honor. However, they were inducted as “Ben E. King and The Drifters” as Ben E. King stepped in at this time to take over lead vocals.

Even though the band was seeing major success, Treadwell was still not paying the band what they felt they deserved leading to a rotating door of band members, but the hits kept coming, including “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Please Stay,” “Up on the Roof,” and “On Broadway.”

In 1964, the band saw some tragedy as they were preparing to record “Under the Boardwalk,” One of their key members, Rudy Lewis, passed away the night before recording, forcing the band to scramble to quickly find the right replacement. Soon after, The Drifters decided to pursue other ventures outside of Atlantic Records.

The Band Leaves Atlantic Records

The Drifters decided to pick up and move to England as they were seeing much success on the charts, and they continued to see success through the mid-1970s with hits like “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, they still couldn’t nail down a lineup as many people continued to come and go. In 1986, the band saw a completely new lineup yet again.

In 2001, Treadwell left the United Kingdom and abandoned the band entirely, leading the new managers to create the company “Drifters UK Limited” to run the group. The courts declared Treadwell had abandoned the group and claimed he no longer owned the rights to the brand. However, the drama continued as Tina Treadwell, daughter of George Treadwell, took the management company to court again and won back the rights to the band, bringing them back to the Treadwells in 2008.

The Drifters

At this point, you know the band has gone through its fair share of legal troubles. Here are a few cases they went through.

In 1969, magazine editor, Larry Marshak, planned a bunch of concerts to be performed by The Drifters, which brought on legal action from Treadwell, who was managing The Drifters at the time and did not approve these bookings. Marshak attempted to gain sole rights to the band’s brand in 1976, which ended up being granted by the courts. However, it was revoked in 2000 by the federal courts. This led to The Truth in Music Advertising laws to be created in 34 out of 50 states to stop promoters like Marshak from coming in and stealing The Drifters’ band name again.

Over the years, the Treadwells battled a few different groups for the rights of The Drifters brand, and in 2008 they finally won the complete rights of the band and this prohibited anyone from using The Drifters’ name in any sort of band. Tina Treadwell continues to own the rights to the band to this day.

Awards and Honors

Although there has been a lot of drama over the years, The Drifters have won many awards. In 1988, The Drifters were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted both The Original Drifters and Ben E. King and The Drifters in 2000. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked The Drifters as number 81 in their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list. Additionally, they were inducted into The Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in 2018.

The Drifters’ Discovery

Save The Last Dance for Me

  • 1956: Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters
  • 1958: Rockin’ & Driftin’
  • 1960: Greatest Hits
  • 1962: Save The Last Dance for Me
  • 1964: Under the Boardwalk
  • 1965: The Good Life with The Drifters
  • 1966: I’ll Take You Where the Music’s Playing
  • 1968: The Drifter’s Golden Hits
  • 1971: Their Greatest Recordings: The Early Years
  • 1973: The Drifters Now
  • 1975: Love Games
  • 1975: There Goes My First Love
  • 1976: Every Nite’s a Saturday Night
  • 2017: An Introduction to: The Drifters

Notable Studio Albums

Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters (1956)

Clyde McPhatter
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This album was the very first studio album The Drifters recorded, but they weren’t The Drifters quite yet. Instead, they were called Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, as McPhatter founded the band and found the talent. McPhatter did not stay with the band very long, but his work with the band is that of legend.

Their first studio album, Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, was a hit and catapulted the band into the limelight. Not only was McPhatter part of this lineup, but Bill Pinkney was too, and he was a huge player in the founding of The Drifters.

Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters had a bunch of the band’s early hits on it, including “White Christmas,” “Money Honey,” and “Honey Love,” which made the band a household name.

This is a really solid album, and it shows the beginnings of this amazing group. Their early hits were great, but this isn’t my personal favorite. Their big hits are still yet to come, but this album really is an amazing listen. “Money Honey” and “Honey Love” are definitely on my list of great hits put out y The Drifters.

Hits on This Album

  • “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)”
  • “White Christmas”
  • “Money Honey”
  • “What’cha Gonna Do”
  • “Such a Night”
  • “Honey Love”

Rockin’ and Driftin’ (1958)

Rockin' and Driftin'

Rockin’ and Driftin’ was The Drifters’ second studio album, and it was the first studio album where the band went by The Drifters rather than Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters. McPhatter only spent one year with the band and left because he was drafted into the military, leaving the band without a lead singer.

This album really made the band a household name, even if Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters were already pretty famous at the time.

Rockin’ and Driftin’ showed that The Drifters didn’t really need a lead singer in the band, and they functioned well as a quartet. Many of the group’s original members were also part of this album (minus McPhatter), so it is a classic album of the band.

This is a really great album and has hits like “Fools Fall in Love,” “Adorable,” and “I Gotta Get Myself a Woman,” but it isn’t my favorite album by the band. I don’t think The Drifters quite yet found their stride with this one; none of their really huge smash hits are here.

Hits on This Album

  • “Moonlight Bay”
  • “Ruby Baby”
  • “Drip Drop”
  • “I Gotta Get Myself a Woman”
  • “Fools Fall in Love”
  • “Hypnotized”
  • “I Know”
  • “Adorable”
  • “Steamboat”

Save the Last Dance for Me (1962)

Save the Last Dance for Me

Save the Last Dance for Me is the beginning of the true era of The Drifters. Unfortunately, there were a ton of lineup changes up until this point, and many of the founding members of The Drifters really weren’t part of the band anymore, or they spun off to create new groups (such as The Original Drifters).

However, they did have the talents of Ben E. King on this album, and he was somewhat of the lead singer on this album. The Drifters were seeing a lot of success at this point, and this album is when the huge hits The Drifters are known for started coming.

Some of the big hits on Save the Last Dance for Me were “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and “Room Full of Tears.” Before this album, The Drifters did have good success, but this album is really where the band started to hit its stride, and the hits kept on coming for quite a while.

One of my favorite albums from The Drifters is Save the Last Dance for Me. Even the songs that aren’t hits are a really great listen. In my opinion, this is where the band really took off and created some of their best work.

Hits on This Album

  • “Save the Last Dance for Me”
  • “I Count the Tears”
  • “Sweets for My Sweet”
  • “When My Little Girl is Smiling”
  • “Some Kind of Wonderful”
  • “Please Stay”
  • “Room Full of Tears”

Under the Boardwalk (1964)

Under the Boardwalk

Everyone knows the song “Under the Boardwalk.” It’s a classic that has really stood the test of time. The album Under the Boardwalk is perhaps the most notable album by The Drifters, as it houses some of their biggest hits.

At this point, The Drifters were pretty famous but had a lot of internal turmoil. They couldn’t nail down the lineup, and band members constantly came and went. Mainly because they weren’t making a livable wage, so people didn’t stick around long or were fired because they dared to ask for more money.

However, despite the turmoil, The Drifters produced some of their biggest hits on Under the Boardwalk, including “Under the Boardwalk,” “On Broadway,” and “Up on the Roof.” These were some of the most notable songs the band has ever produced and have gotten many nods from the industry. Not to mention pretty much everyone knows these songs, even if you don’t know the band responsible for them.

Under the Boardwalk is probably my favorite album recorded by The Drifters. I feel like the band really came into their own here, and my favorite songs they produced are represented on this album. Who doesn’t like “Under the Boardwalk” or “Up on the Roof?” In my opinion, this is really where the band climaxed.

Hits on This Album

  • “Under the Boardwalk”
  • “On Broadway”
  • “Up on the Roof”
  • “Let the Music Play”

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What genre do The Drifters play?

Answer: The Drifters are a compilation of several doo-wop and R&B/soul vocal groups. The band was originally created as a backing vocal group for Clyde McPhatter, who was the lead tenor of Billy Ward and his Dominoes. Initially, they were a very low-paid group hired by George Treadwell, who actually owned the name The Drifters after McPhatter left the group. The band spun off to become its own entity that produced many hits after simply being a backing group.

Question: Is anyone from the original lineup still living?

Answer: Unfortunately, none of the original members of The Drifters are still living. The last member of The Drifters, Bill Pinkney, passed away in 2007 at the age of 81. Pinkney was quite a person. In fact, he was both a World War Two veteran and a former pitcher for the New York Blue Sox of the “Negro Baseball League” as well as one of the original members of The Drifters.

Question: Who were the founding members of The Drifters?

Answer: The Drifters have had quite a lot of lineup changes over the 65 years of their existence. There have been a whopping 60 different vocalists, including a few splinter groups involved with The Drifters lineup. However, the original lineup of the band was Clyde McPhatter, Gerhart Thrasher, Andrew Thrasher, Bill Pinkney, and Jimmy Oliver.

Question: How many number one hits did The Drifters have?

Answer: During the 1950s and 1960s, The Drifters were quite a force to be reckoned with. They had an incredible amount of hits. Six of The Drifter’s singles reached number one on the United States R&B charts, including “Money Honey,” “Honey Love,” “Adorable,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and “Under the Boardwalk.”

Final Word About The Drifters

The Drifters definitely had a lot going on when it came to internal turmoil and lineup changes over the years, but they really saw a lot of success despite all of the drama. The Drifters saw six of their hits reach number one on the charts, including “Money Honey,” “Honey Love,” “Adorable,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and “Under the Boardwalk,” not to mention many other hits throughout their time as a band.

In short, this band is worth a listen. Although there are many lineup changes, and it is difficult to keep track of the band’s sound over the years, their staple hits are amazingly soulful and should be included in any car trip or party as they are easy to listen to and dance to as well.

“Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Under the Boardwalk” are probably two of my favorite hits by The Drifters, but there is a little something for everyone to listen to. Even their songs that did not become hits are worth tuning into. If you are looking for a trip down memory lane with your grandparents and parents, listen to The Drifters with them. There is always a memory behind at least one of this notorious band’s hits with those generations.



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