The Drifters

The Very Best Of The Drifters (Rhino '93) Rating: A
With the recent passing of legendary Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun, it seemed fitting to review The Drifters, who Ertegun called “the all-time greatest Atlantic group,” no small praise when you consider some of the groups (Led Zeppelin, Yes, and The Rascals, for starters) who have graced Atlantic’s roster. Now, I’m not going to get into the group’s convoluted history and ever-changing roster (for more information, read Marv Goldberg’s fascinating articles The Drifters (The Early Years) and The Later Drifters), but I will note that this collection starts in 1959 with the second incarnation of the Drifters, the one (briefly) led by Ben E. King, who of course would later find solo success with classics such as “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me.” The original Drifters were led by Clyde McPhatter, whose creamy falsetto would greatly influence the likes of Smokey Robinson, Eddie Kendricks, and Al Green, among many others; to hear the McPhatter years, I’d recommend the 2-cd, 40-track Let the Boogie-Woogie Roll: Greatest Hits 1953-1958 or the 3-cd box set, Rockin’ & Driftin’, which covers the group’s entire history and hits most of the necessary high points. The box set and the 2-cd, 40-track All-Time Greatest Hits & More: 1959-1965 expertly cover the later Drifters, but for those unwilling to make such a pricey investment, the single cd, 16-track The Very Best Of The Drifters provides an excellent starting point and contains most of the songs for which they are remembered, and for which they are justifiably legendary today. Among the King songs, “There Goes My Baby,” “Dance With Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Save The Last Dance For Me” (their lone #1 hit) stand out. For one thing, The Drifters always had stellar producers (such as Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller) and songwriters (such as Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Leiber & Stoller, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weill) at their disposal, and King was a strong, soulful, distinctive lead vocalist. So, obviously when you combine great singing performances with terrific songs and imaginative production (among the rock ‘n roll crowd, Latin rhythms and lush string arrangements were first heard on Drifters records) you’re going to get outstanding overall results. “There Goes My Baby” is notable for its doo wop backing vocals, lush strings, and a great heartbroken lead vocal from Ben, while “Dance With Me” is unerringly sweet, and “This Magic Moment,” and “Save The Last Dance For Me” both perfectly capture puppy love in ways that only Phil Spector could currently compete with. Jay and the Americans scored big with “This Magic Moment,” while The Grass Roots ripped off “I Count the Tears” wholesale for “Let’s Live For Today,” one of several lesser known gems here; another is “Please Stay,” which you can't not sing along to. Perhaps a song such as “Sweets for My Sweet” is too sweet by today’s standards and hasn’t aged all that well, but timelessly romantic soul pop classics such as “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway” exude class and style, as per usual boosted by excellent lead vocals (by Rudy Lewis) and imaginative musical accompaniment. Then there’s my personal favorite, about which I’ll quote David McGee’s excellent entry in the otherwise largely underwhelming 2002 Rolling Stone Album Guide: “In a history studded with so many highlights, one of the most memorable moments came in 1964, when Lewis died of a heroin over-dose on the day of a recording session. Johnny Moore, who had been with the group from 1955 to 1957, following McPhatter's departure, had rejoined in 1963. He stepped up to take the lead on the Bert Berns-produced "Under the Boardwalk," and in the midst of mind-numbing grief, Moore delivered one of the most nuanced and poignant performances in rock & roll history.” I love anecdotes like that; the show must go on, after all, and no one person was ever bigger than The Drifters, who in the years chronicled by this collection could do little wrong when it came to their singles. To quote Marv Goldberg in summing up the group: “The Drifters weathered drastic changes in the music industry. They began as one of the greatest of the r&b groups, easily transformed themselves into a rock 'n roll group, switched to pop stars in the early '60s, and finished up as soul singers in the later '60s. The Drifters could do it all. The Drifters did it all.”

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