May 29, 1996
The Drifters, Rockin' & Driftin': The Drifters' Box (Rhino 1996) - On this three-disc set, Rhino Records has assembled 79 tracks from the R & B group once described by Atlantic Records President Ahmet Artegun as the "all-time greatest Atlantic group." That statement looms large, considering the many talented acts that have been on the Atlantic roster, including Led Zeppelin, ELP and Foreigner.
But Artegun has a point. The Drifters charted 34 songs with Billboard and enjoyed nine number 1 singles, all of which are featured in this collection. And the key to their success was talent.
The majority of the Drifters' smooth-as-silk vocals were guided by the unmatched talents of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The group was also fortunate enough to record material penned by some of the industry's most respected songwriters, including Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Jerry Goffin, Carole King, Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, and Irving Berlin.
The Drifters career divides into several distinct segments, starting in 1953 when lead singer Clyde McPhatter ended his stormy three-year relationship with Billy Ward and the Dominos. When Artegun arrived to see The Drifters at a show in 1953, Billy Ward told him that McPhatter was gone and boasted that, "I fired his ass!" Artegun then searched New York for the young McPhatter, and offered to build a new group around him.
That new group became The Drifters. Instead of a mass-produced, two-takes-and-you're-out recording approach (in the 50s, R & B acts were often treated as fungible commodities), Artegun had the group practice before the sessions. And the results were big.
Before McPhatter was drafted into the Army in 1954, the group recorded such classics as "Honey Love," "Such A Night," and "Money Honey." Although the Army allowed McPhatter to record on weekends during his service, the group sputtered along for the next several years.
After his discharge from the Army in 1958, McPhatter went on to chart several songs as a solo act. However, he drifted into alcoholism and lived out his last years a broken talent.
Thus began the second great phase of The Drifters, when the original group was fired and replaced with The Crowns, featuring a teen-aged Ben E. King. During the Ben E. King era, the group recorded such classics as "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand By Me".
After King left the group in the early 60s, The Drifters recorded with two other lead singers: Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore. Lewis contributed lead vocals to "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Please Stay," and the pop standard, "Up On The Roof." Moore, following Lewis' death just before a 1964 recording session, sang lead on "Under The Boardwalk" and "Saturday Night At The Movies."
In addition, Moore contributed the great lead vocals to "Fools Fall In Love," which was recorded during the Clyde McPhatter era (and which is my favorite song on this set).
The Drifters eventually evolved into more of a franchise than a group, having employed more than 30 vocalists at different times. Furthermore, the back-up band consisted mainly of session players, so that little is known about their identities (despite the extensive 46-page liner notes, which are chock full of biographical information and rare photographs).
The group continued to record for Atlantic Records until 1971, when they (or at least one version of the band) relocated to England and recorded for Bell (UK) and Arista (UK). But for intents and purposes, The Drifters 25-year recording career ended sometime in the late 70's.
The liner notes were written by Billy Vera, leader of Billy & The Beaters, and include an excerpt from Jerry Wexler's (the other titan at Atlantic) book, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in America, together with essays by James Austin, Randy Poe, Peter Grendysa, and Chris Beachley.
The package also features one track previously unavailable in the United States, the ironically-titled "Only in America." The Drifters' original 1963 version was not released because it was believed that it would spark too much controversy. Instead, the song was later released with Jay & The Americans singing over the same Drifters' instrumental track.
While a slough of acts, such as The Five Satins, The Platters, and The Coasters, recorded this kind of doo wop/R & B material in the 50's, no group ever had the polished production or tremendous skills of The Drifters. For a wonderful immersion into this sound, try Rockin' & Driftin'.
Golden Smog, Down by the Old Mainstream (Rykodisc 1996) -- Golden Smog is a one-off collection by some of L.A.'s best country rockers. Although each of the artists records under a pseudonym, and while the booklet features fake references to other albums by Golden Smog (there are none), this six-man band knows how to lay down a groove.
Recorded at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, Golden Smog includes Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Soul Asylum second banana Dan Murphy, and a pair of former Jayhawks. With their loose and easy style, Down by the Old Mainstream recalls such acts as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Parsons.
Thus, songs like "Pecan Pie" have a distinct country rock flavor, while "V" has more of a rock 'n roll feel. Golden Smog has a solid Minneapolis connection (both the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum originally hail from the Twin Cities), but has transported its music to Los Angles. Down by the Old Mainstream will please fans of the harmony vocal/country-rock sound.
-- Randy Krbechek
Copyright (c) Randy Krbechek
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