RIP Charlie Thomas, Who Anchored the Vital Legacy of the Drifters
If you stepped onto the sidewalk of any decent-sized American city and randomly tossed a pebble, odds are at least 50–50 that you would hit someone who used to be a member of the Drifters.
A rhythm and blues vocal group that began in 1953 and established a remarkable legacy that ranged from “White Christmas” and “Save the Last Dance For Me” to “Money Honey” and “Under the Boardwalk,” various “Drifters” groups over the years have gone through singers like a barbeque joint goes through wings on Super Bowl Sunday.
Amidst that swirl of personnel stood Charlie Thomas. Thomas, who died Tuesday of liver cancer at the age of 85, was a Drifter from 1958 until 1967, an eternity in Drifter Years, and then in 1971 he formed a new group sometimes billed as The Charlie Thomas Drifters and sometimes as The Legendary Drifters.
For more than four decades, he sang lead with that group, maintaining an authentic 1950s and 1960s connection that has diminished over the years in the oldies world as original members of early vocal groups have passed on.
Tracing the Drifters’s whole story is a Herculean exercise. R&B historian Marv Goldberg chronicles it beautifully and exhaustively on his www.uncamarvy.com website.
The very short version is that Atlantic Records created the Drifters in 1953 to showcase Clyde McPhatter, who was leaving Billy Ward’s Dominoes. McPhatter’s singular tenor and the group’s distinctive backing electrified the R&B vocal group world with releases like “Money Honey,” “Honey Love,” “Bip Bam” and “White Christmas.”
After McPhatter left in 1955, the group kept making fine records, including “Ruby Baby” and the tour de force “Your Promise To Be Mine,” led by former gospel singer Gerhart Thrasher. But by 1958 the hits had stopped and while the group was still popular on the road, drinking problems were compounding attitude problems in the mind of manager George Treadwell, who owned the Drifters name. After a gig at the Apollo Theater in late May 1958, Treadwell fired them all and replaced them with another group from that same bill, the Crowns.
The Crowns, who descended from a marvelous but obscure New York group called the Five Crowns, included bass singer Elsbeary Hobbs, baritone Dock Green and three lead tenors: James “Papa” Clark, Benjamin Nelson and Charlie Thomas.
Thomas told interviewer Craig Morrison in 2013 that he and Nelson had been hanging out in Nelson’s father’s liquor store on Eighth Avenue in New York when Crowns manager Lover Patterson asked if they would like to join his retooled vocal group. Thomas told Goldberg that singing sounded pretty good for someone who had been “pushing a hand truck in the garment district.”
Benjamin Nelson, who soon after he became a Drifter changed his name to Ben E. King, told Rolling Stone that the original plan was for Thomas to be the group’s main lead singer. But Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler didn’t like the way “There Goes My Baby” was sounding, and he had King sing it instead.
The song was a huge hit, not to mention a rare example of strings on a rhythm and blues record, and thus did King become the lead singer on subsequent records like “Save the Last Dance For Me,” the Drifters’s only №1 pop hit.
Thomas did sing lead on several subsequent records, including “When My Little Girl Is Smiling” and “Sweets For My Sweet.” His voice had some down-home in it, but it was smooth enough so that in later years he could sing the tunes whose original lead vocalist was McPhatter, King, Rudy Lewis or Johnny Moore.
After the Drifters stopped having new hits in the late 1960s, their old classics made them mainstays on the embryonic and then blossoming oldies circuit. Splinter groups proliferated, as did the predictable rivalries and lawsuits.
Thomas kept singing.
“I love myself singing with the Drifters,” he told Morrison in 2013. “A lot of people tell me I can’t sing with the Drifters, I can’t do this and they don’t want me to do that. Guys [in Drifters tribute acts] say they’re Drifters at 27, 28 years old. I have no fear against whatever they’re doing, but I know what I got in my heart and I know what I got in my soul. I know what God told me to do. I know what I’ve been doing for the last 55 or 60 years: I’ve been traveling and singing.”
In fact, he was singing for God before he was singing “Up On the Roof.” Born in Lynchburg, Va., he learned to sing in the choir of the church where his father was what he called “a Holy Roller preacher.”
What he enjoyed most, though, he said, was listening to the singing of his mother. At her funeral, he sang “Nearer My God To Thee.”
Thomas left the Drifters in late 1967 for the same reasons many of his fellow Drifters had departed over the years: frustration with management, which was probably tied to frustration that a group with so many hits that had had so much influence didn’t seem to get the respect accorded to, say, the Platters or the Motown groups.
He told Goldberg that after he quit in 1967 he bought a gypsy cab.
But four years later he formed his own Drifters group with Hobbs and Green, and he didn’t stop until he just couldn’t sing any more.
When the Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, the Hall didn’t fill the entire Waldorf-Astoria with ex-members, but somewhat arbitrarily selected seven: McPhatter, Thrasher, original bass Bill Pinkney, Moore, Lewis, King and Charlie Thomas.
Thomas was the most visibly excited. Before the show in the press room, he exclaimed, “This is it! This is it!”
Charlie Thomas wasn’t the most distinctive voice ever to sing with the Drifters. That designation has aalot of competition and a high bar. But in a sea of drifters, Charlie Thomas held steady.