The Drifters: 'We know that the audience love the old classic songs so we respect that'
The Drifters have one of the most illustrious back catalogues in pop history. Ahead of their Belfast concert next week, current lead singer Michael Williams tells Chris Jones about the daunting task of filling the legendary Ben E King’s size nines
For six decades, The Drifters’ name has been synonymous with sharp suits, smart moves and honeyed harmonies. With tracks such as Under The Boardwalk, Saturday Night At The Movies and Save The Last Dance For Me, their back catalogue contains some of the all-time classics of pop, doo-wop and soul music. And the group’s legacy lives on today, even if most of those songs were recorded before anyone in the current line-up was born.
Next week, The Drifters’ latest incarnation returns to Belfast for a second successive year with a show full of songs that are part of just about everyone’s lives.
That’s certainly true of lead singer Michael Williams, for whom it’s been a lifelong love affair. The 41-year-old grew up listening to The Drifters because of his parents, who were huge fans of gospel star and founder member Clyde McPhatter.
“I used to sing and dance with the music, not realising that I would one day be a part of this massive legacy,” he says. “It’s a real thrill. When my parents come to the show and I see them, it brings me back to those early days of listening to those records.”
Michael has been with The Drifters since being recruited as an understudy 11 years ago, which makes him the longest-serving current member. In a group that rivals Mark E Smith’s The Fall for staff turnover, it also means he has been a Drifter for much longer than most, including star names such as Ben E King, who was a member in the Fifties and again in the early Eighties. His introduction to the group is a romantic story in itself, the archetypal tale of a jobbing musician being in the right place at the right time — and singing the right songs.
“I was spotted in Europe,” says Michael. “I had my own band and I was singing a lot of Motown music — I’m a big fan of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and The Four Tops, all those great Motown guys. I had all those songs in my set as well as a few Drifters songs, and The Drifters’ management happened to be in the same club that I was performing in. They came over to me after the set and asked if I wanted to be an understudy with The Drifters. I thought someone was pulling my leg. I thought, ‘This can’t be real’.”
But real it was, and what followed sounds like a kind of vocal group boot camp. “I spent a year as an understudy learning everything about The Drifters,” Michael recalls. “The back catalogue, all the guys that had gone before me, the history of The Drifters. Learn how to dance, how to walk and talk like a Drifter, how to sing like a Drifter. Everything. That was 11 years ago and I haven’t looked back since.”
With all that history and the requirement to sing those classic songs on stage every night comes a great deal of responsibility, and not surprisingly that’s something Michael takes very seriously.
“When I first started, I felt the pressure of carrying that legacy, but it’s one that I thrived on,” he says. “I wanted to be at the forefront of this, being mentioned in the same breath as Johnny Moore, Rudy Lewis and Bill Fredericks, Ben E. King and Clyde McPhatter, all those great guys.
“For the first couple of years I really did struggle, and it wasn’t until talking to guys like Butch Leake, Joe Blunt and Clyde Brown, who were Drifters members during the Seventies, that I settled into my role. They kind of mentored us younger guys and said, ‘You guys are The Drifters now. Here’s the baton — run with it’. It was a great responsibility, and one I took with both hands.”
Tales have been told, passed down the generations, of a group that has known turbulent times. “The only thing that really surprised me was some of the stories,” Michael says. As a matter of fact, early manager George Treadwell fired the entire line-up in 1958.”
"The Drifters were appearing at the Apollo Theatre, and there was a group on the bill called The Five Crowns. Treadwell hired them to become the new Drifters. That's how Ben E King joined
"Rudy Lewis was an unsung hero with The Drifters - no one really mentions him - but he sang songs like Up On The Roof and On Broadway and Some Kind Of Wonderful. He died at the age of 27. He was due to record Under The Boardwalk, but he was found dead on the morning of that session. But The Drifters still had to go in and record, so Johnny Moore ended up singing lead - and what a classic that is today. Hearing stories like that is heartbreaking."
Sadly, Michael never had the opportunity to thank those great men for setting up the legacy. Long-time lead singer Johnny Moore died in 1998, while Ben E. King passed away in April this year, before Michael had the chance to meet him.
"We were scheduled to perform together on a couple of occasions, but Ben E King got ill and wasn't able to perform," says Michael. "I was heartbroken over that. And when I found out he had passed away, I couldn't believe it.
"It's a great honour to be able to say that I sing for the same group that he sang with all those years ago. He was a gentleman by all accounts and a great songwriter, singer and entertainer. He'll be sorely missed by everybody."
Since Michael joined the group, they have made some new recordings, including five new songs on a recent compilation, Stand By Me.
But he is only too aware that when it comes to the shows, Drifters fans expect to wallow in nostalgia. "We know that the majority of the audience love the old classic songs, so we stay respectful of that," he says.
"If it wasn't for those songs and that period, none of us would be here today. Even when we sing a new song, we keep respectful of The Drifters' sound, the harmonies. We try to keep it the way it was, which is tough. You've got to move with the times, but at the same time you can't go too far ahead without the past.
"We've had offers of re-recording some of The Drifters' classics and we've turned it down because we can never ever make the sound that those guys put across on those fantastic tracks. We'd feel that it would be disrespectful. They've stood the test of time. That's very important to us."
Indeed, after dozens of different singers, legal battles, the odd tragedy and the ever-changing whims of musical fashion, The Drifters are still packing them in all over the world, all year round.
According to Michael, the secret lies in the songs. "Everybody talks about the talent that we've had - Clyde McPhatter, Ben E King and all those great guys - and rightly so, but nobody ever talks about the songwriters," he says. "I think they definitely need to be credited as far as The Drifters' history is concerned.
"We've had some great songs given to us over the years, songs that will never get tired and never get old. And these songs still have a magical appeal. We look out to the audience and we see teenagers singing Up On The Roof and On Broadway. Some of these songs are 30 years older than they are. It's a fantastic thing to see."
After more than a decade of carrying the legacy, Michael is looking forward to another "crazy night" in Belfast and a lot more touring in the years ahead.
"Most of my family is in New York, and I have a lady in New York as well," he says. "It gets kind of tough sometimes, living out of a suitcase, but I'm kind of used to it now. I've been on the road for 11 years as a Drifter, and that's the way it is. You've got to take the rough with the smooth, but I wouldn't change it. I have the best job in the world."
The Drifters play the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, next Friday, October 23. Tickets are available online at www.waterfront.co.uk or by telephone on 028 9033 4455