There may be no musical group with as high a rate of turnover and success as The Drifters. Founded in 1953 as a backing group for Clyde McPhatter (who left two years later), the group - comprised entirely of new members - gained a second wave of success with new frontman Ben E. King from 1958 to 1960, and again in the early-to-mid '60s with a mostly solid line-up of singers and a brace of sweet Brill Building pop songs. It's a lot to keep together: the Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted two versions of the group, while the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame feature a mix of inductees from multiple eras, some of whom never sang together.
The Drifters' Golden Hits, a 1968 collection that featured a dozen sides from the post-McPhatter years, may be the best place to start with the group. (And, fortuitously enough, it's coming out on vinyl this week as part of Rhino Records' Black Music Month campaign.) This record is rich with hits across its two sides, but here are five you might know - or, if you don't, you absolutely should.
"There Goes My Baby": Being in The Drifters was a tough game - manager George Treadwell kept salaries low and wasn't afraid to fire those he considered not up to snuff. In 1958, he wiped the slate clean entirely, hiring a group called The Five Crowns to assume his better-known band name. With a brilliant tenor named Ben E. Nelson (who'd later change his last name to King), the new Drifters struck gold with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who oversaw the soul/pop/orchestral hybrid "There Goes My Baby," a No. 2 pop hit.
"Save the Last Dance for Me": King's time with The Drifters was brief, all things considered, but his last hurrah before leaving for a solo career was a blockbuster. "Save the Last Dance for Me" was written by the legendary songwriting duo of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and was reportedly inspired by Pomus' wedding day, as the groom, stricken with polio and using a wheelchair or crutches to move, watched his bride on the floor. The song's instantly catchy melody offset any hints of darkness in the lyrics, and it gave The Drifters a No. 1 pop hit in 1960.
"Up on the Roof": After King's departure, The Drifters - now led by new tenor singer Rudy Lewis - continued releasing hit soul singles with modest pop crossover. Those fortunes changed again when they recorded "Up on the Roof," a wistful song written by a rising team at the Brill Building, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The evocative tune, which cast the top of a tenement building as a haven from the ills of the world, struck a chord with audiences in 1963, who propelled the song to No. 5 on the pop charts.
"On Broadway": For once, The Drifters had a string of consecutive hits thanks to "On Broadway," a song written by two powerful behind-the-scenes teams: Lieber and Stoller as well as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. (An earlier version was released by The Crystals in 1962, and that version's producer, Phil Spector, played guitar on The Drifters' recording.) By now, the group knew a thing or two about the drama of making it in the business; that urgency shone through in their version, which followed "Roof" to the Top 10 of the pop charts, settling at No. 9. (More than a decade later, a live version by George Benson would beat their chart ranking by two places.)
"Under the Boardwalk": "Boardwalk," a harmony-rich love song about a beach rendezvous, was instantly pegged as a hit, but its genesis came out of tragedy: the night before The Drifters were due to record the track in 1964, Rudy Lewis died of a suspected heroin overdose. Stepping in for their fallen singer was Johnny Moore, who had in fact been a part of the group between the McPhatter and King eras. With its dramatic key change in the chorus, the song was another can't-miss record, and gave The Drifters their final Top 10 pop hit. Moore would lead the group through the '70s, with rights to the band's name still maintained by George Treadwell's heirs.