Friday, 02 October 2015

Never to drift

Formed in the early 1950s, The Drifters are as old as pop music and are part of its DNA. Katrina Schollenberger talks to singer Michael Williams before the group’s UK tour this month

Written by Katrina Schollenberger
The 1950s saw the birth of some of the greatest musical influences of all time. The Drifters, an American doo-wop, soul and R&B group that were originally put together by Clyde McPhatter in 1954, are no exception to this. Over 62 years, 65 members have passed through the group. The current line-up includes Michael Williams, Ryan King, Daniel Bowen-Smith and Damion Charles. Through the peaks and pits of the music industry, The Drifters have reinvented themselves and remained a stronger brand than ever. So much so, they're going on tour next month with the legendary likes of Dionne Warwick, Mary Wilson and Roberta Flack.

So how do British audiences measure up against American ones?

'It's a major difference, simply because the Drifters history is kind of split in half,' Michael Williams says, the current longest-serving member of the new Drifters line-up.

'We have the Atlantic Records period of the 1950s to 1960s. So songs like Up On The Roof, On Broadway, At The Club and Saturday Night At The Movies are more popular with American audiences. We moved over to the UK in the 1970s and signed with Bell Records, which is under the umbrella of Sony music. Songs like Kissing in the Back Row, There Goes My First Love, Like Sister And Brother were all released here first. You can feel the difference in reception [when we perform them]. So anytime we play those songs here, UK audiences go wild.'

Michael continues to explain that the UK has become their adopted home, and they frequently return to tour here, usually starting rehearsals at beginning of the year.

'We find a house, or somewhere that we can all stay where we can rehearse the choreography, go over the harmonies, pick which songs are going to be in the tour, and which ones aren't. We decide all of that in the space of two weeks. Then we go out and have a tester show and if it feels good we know the audience will appreciate it.'

The group are still in contact with former members like Butch Leak, Joe Blunt, and Clive Brown from the 70s era. With such a long history, one would assume producing new Drifters music would be quite challenging.

Although previous members have acted as mentors for the new line-up, they don't have input in any of the newly recorded music. As for choosing the members, that's up to the management. This was a process that started right from the group's inception, when songwriter and famed Jazz trumpeter George Treadwell began managing the group in 1954. Treadwell knew right from the beginning, that he would lose members to the military draft. This meant he had to bring new members in, and keep moving with the times musically.

'He was a smart guy,' Michael says.

The Drifters of 2015 have found their sound by remaining respectful of the past, while using Treadwell's initiative to move the brand forward.

'I'm a fan of the Drifters; my parents are big fans of the Drifters. I used to sing along to all these songs when I was a kid. It's weird because although I'm a Drifter, I'm still a fan. We started out singing doo-wop, Latino, pop, soul, we've even done rock music. We've touched on a lot of different genres, we've never been pigeonholed in that way.'

Keeping the music interesting, fresh, and most importantly relevant, is the key to longevity. Their new album, Stand By Me – The Best Of, released on 11 September, features classic Drifters tracks as well as five new songs. The album includes the special song Stand By Me, written by Ben E King for the Drifters, but never picked up and recorded by the group until now. Michael explains how they changed the song slightly, remaining respectful to the composition, while 'trying to move it into a new era'.

The Drifters have been through several eras of musical style, band members, and choreography. What's held the group together is undoubtedly the love for what Clyde McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher, Gerhart Thrasher and Willie Ferbee had brought to life so many years ago.

The Drifters album, Stand By Me, is out now. Their Legends Live tour features Dionne Warwick, Roberta Flack and Mary Wilson from the Supremes. For tickets visit:

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