It is sad to note the passing in January 2023 of Charlie Thomas at the age of 85. Thomas was the last surviving member of the second generation of the Drifters, the soul and R&B vocal group that scored many hits in the 1960s.
Thomas was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as a member of the Drifters. He was the lead singer of two of the Drifters’ Top 40 hits, “Sweets for My Sweet” and “When My Little Girl Is Smiling.”
“Sweets for My Sweet (live)” by Charlie Thomas’ Drifters
Thomas, with fellow Drifter Ben E. King, who died in 2015, and Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, was a tireless fighter against the spate of phony groups with no original members that performed around the country as the Drifters, the Coasters, the Platters and others.
In later years, Thomas kept the Drifters legacy alive with his group Charlie Thomas’ Drifters.
In this excerpt from the book New York Groove: An Inside Look of the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock, the Five Crowns, with Thomas and King, are recruited at the Apollo Theater to become the next generation of Drifters.
The Drifters, Apollo Theater, June 1958
Most know the Drifters as the smooth and soulful group of the early 1960s that featured singers like Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas, Johnny Moore, and Rudy Lewis. “This Magic Moment,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and “Up on the Roof” were all Top 10 hits for the group.
But an entirely different collection of singers, led by tenor Clyde McPhatter, formed as the Drifters in 1953. Backed by Bill Pinkney, Willie Ferbie, and brothers Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher, the original Drifters topped the R&B charts with songs like “Money Honey” and “White Christmas.” In the early 1950s, racism prevented black groups like the Drifters from getting airplay on radio stations with white audiences.
"Money Honey" by the Drifters
By 1958, hits were hard to come by for the Drifters. Lead singer Clyde McPhatter had been drafted into the Army. Some members had a drinking problem, which caused a rift between the group and its manager, George Treadwell, who owned the Drifters name.
In 1958 the Drifters were booked for a week-long engagement at the Apollo Theater as part of disk jockey Dr. Jive’s show. Because they had won the amateur contest the week before, the Five Crowns, with Ben E. King (then known by his real name, Ben Nelson) and Charlie Thomas, also performed.
Things came to a head when one of the Drifters, who had been drinking, argued and cursed at Dr. Jive and Apollo owner Frank Schiffman. Treadwell fired the entire group backstage and offered the four of the Five Crowns the opportunity to become the new lineup of the Drifters.
The transition was difficult, as fans did not accept the new members of the Drifters. “We got booed off the stage for a year almost before getting into the studio to record,” King told Marv Goldberg.
Fans soon warmed to the new Drifters lineup after King co-wrote and sang their crossover hit, 1959’s “There Goes My Baby.” Teamed with songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, the Drifters’ hits continued with “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “I Count the Tears.”
"There Goes My Baby" by the Drifters
Despite the string of hits, the Drifters were paid a meager weekly salary by Treadwell. “We were making maybe a hundred dollars a week,” said King. “That hundred dollars would have to keep us alive on the road, and of course we tried to send some money home.”
As lead singer, King in 1960 was tasked to represent the group and request a raise from Treadwell. “We got to the office to discuss this problem that we were having as far as salary. He told me instead of me standing up to speak for the group to speak for yourself, and I did so. And he fired me.
“I walked out of the office assuming that the other guys would follow, and they didn’t.”
Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022.
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