The Drifters have one of the most convoluted histories of any major R&B or soul group ever to top the charts -- you can sort of tell that by the fact that the 1960 Drifters' Greatest Hits album, released seven years into their 15-year history with Atlantic Records, contains songs that, with two possible exceptions (and one of those in a version by a completely different artist), would scarcely be recognized by seven-eighths of the people counting them as fans of the group. They did chart records with amazing regularity for 21 years, placing 37 singles on the R&B charts, 25 in the Top Ten, and five that hit the top spot, but in the process, they also traded in two very different sounds in two different major eras, characterized by five distinctive lead singers (one of whom, Johnny Moore, bridged both). So it's not entirely surprising that it's taken 40 years for someone to get together a comprehensive history of the group's hits on Atlantic.
Formed in Harlem in 1953 by lead singer Clyde McPhatter (after quitting Billy Ward & the Dominoes), the Drifters roared out of the starting gate with the R&B classic "Money Honey," and over the next four years were among Atlantic Records' most successful groups. With McPhatter as lead, followed by Johnny Moore, they generated a superb array of hit R&B-harmony singles, among them "Such a Night," "Lucille," "Honey Love," "Bip Bam," "White Christmas," "What'cha Gonna Do," "Adorable," and "Ruby Baby" (which was also later a huge pop hit for Dion). The first 12 cuts on disc one of this set cover the group's early history, from 1953 through 1958 -- which has ended up being neglected because of subsequent events -- when their sound was basically a hard yet romantic brand of harmony-based R&B. The group all but collapsed in 1958, between personnel problems and the greed of their manager, George Treadwell, and the Atlantic label decided to make one last-ditch effort to record a new lineup of the Drifters, recruited by Treadwell's signing an existing group of no seeming special merit, the Five Crowns, to fulfill a performing gig, pairing them with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who were already doing great things with the Coasters). The result of that session, "There Goes My Baby," impressed few people and confused others (including Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, who felt its mix of soulful vocals and dense strings and percussion sounded like "a radio tuned to two different stations"), but it topped the R&B charts and opened a whole new era for the group and its new lead singer, Ben E. King, as well as his successors Rudy Lewis and -- returning to the fold -- Johnny Moore.
From that record forward, the Drifters' sound under Leiber & Stoller and their successors (principally Bert Berns) mixed R&B with a somewhat smoother brand of harmony singing and orchestral-style strings, horns, and percussion accompaniment, much of it flavored by South American rhythms. The result was a slightly exotic soul sound that regularly made the pop charts as well as the R&B listings. "There Goes My Baby," "Dance with Me," "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "I Count the Tears," "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Please Stay," "Sweets for My Sweet," "Up on the Roof," "On Broadway," "Under the Boardwalk," and "Saturday Night at the Movies" all charted high in both categories, and by 1964 the "new" Drifters had very much eclipsed the work and memory of the earlier incarnation of the group. Indeed, until the end of the 1980s, Atlantic hardly saw fit to acknowledge that earlier version of the Drifters at all, and it's only in the couple of years leading up to this release that the label -- this time working through Rhino Records -- linked the two catalogs in the same anthology for U.S. release (Europe was a different matter, as one version of the group relocated there and continued scoring hits, in a much more pop-oriented mode, into the 1970s).
The Drifters were ultimately more a brand than an actual group, with some 35 members passing through the ranks during their Atlantic run -- this was certainly true of their post-Clyde McPhatter era, when Treadwell ran the group and did all the hiring and firing, and even more so from 1959 onward, especially after Ben E. King (who did write songs) left the lineup, and when their studio sound as well as their recorded output was very tightly controlled by their producers. But the quality of the music always remained high, and singles like "Money Honey," "Ruby Baby" "There Goes My Baby," "This Magic Moment," "Sweets for My Sweet," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Up on the Roof," and "Under the Boardwalk" are undisputed classics. All of these are included on this fine two-disc overview from Rhino Records, which moves chronologically through the group's impressive singles catalog. The liner notes by Billy Vera are a plus here, delivering a concise -- sometimes too concise -- history of the Drifters (which has been the subject of an entire book) and adding in some interesting anecdotes from the most telling moments in their history. It's also a little more limited than WEA International's Definitive Drifters, but as a survey of their prime years in the U.S., this is the anthology to get, short of the Rhino triple-CD box, with state-of-the-art mastering and a nice, broad overview that will probably whet one's appetite for more from this group. ~ Bruce Eder & Steve Leggett