Born: Mobile, AL

R&B Tenor Vocals Drifters

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame

George Treadwell owned the rights to the name "Drifters", and still had a year's worth of bookings for the Apollo when he fired the group. In the summer of 1958, he approached Lover Patterson, the manager of the Five Crowns featuring lead singer Ben E. Nelson—better known by his later stage name of Ben E. King—and arranged for them to become the Drifters. The new line-up consisted of King (lead tenor), Charlie Thomas (tenor), Dock Green (baritone), and Elsbeary Hobbs (bass). James "Poppa" Clark was the fifth "crown"; he was not included due to an alcohol problem, which Treadwell had considered to be a problem with the first group. The group went out on the road to tour for almost a year. Since this new group had no connection to the prior Drifters, they often played to hostile audiences.[4]

When Atlantic decided to send the new Drifters into the studio, Ertegün and Wexler were too busy to produce the sessions, so they enlisted Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had been successful producing the Coasters. With Leiber & Stoller producing, this new lineup—widely considered the "true" golden age of the group—released several singles with King on lead that became chart hits. "There Goes My Baby", the first commercial rock-and-roll recording to include a string orchestra, was a Top 10 hit, and number 193 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. "Dance with Me" followed, and then "This Magic Moment" (number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960). "Save the Last Dance for Me" reached number 1 on the U.S. pop charts and number 2 in the UK. It was followed by "I Count The Tears". This version of the Drifters was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000 as Ben E. King and the Drifters. The write-up indicates an award primarily as a tribute to Ben E. King with a nod to his time in the Drifters, only one of five paragraphs being exclusively devoted to the Drifters, although Charlie Thomas was also cited by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame's induction of the original Drifters, which technically was only through 1958).

With this brief golden age lasting just two years, personnel changes quickly followed. Lover Patterson (now the Drifters' road manager) got into a fight with George Treadwell. Since Patterson had King under personal contract, he refused to let him tour with the group. Thus King was only able to record with the group for about a year. Johnny Lee Williams, who sang lead on "True Love, True Love", the flipside of "Dance with Me", handled the vocals on tour along with Charlie Thomas. When the group passed through Williams' hometown of Mobile, Alabama, Williams left the group. (Williams died on December 19, 2004, at the age of 64.[11]) When King asked Treadwell for a raise and a fair share of royalties, a request that was not honored, he left and began a successful solo career. Williams left at the same time, and new lead Rudy Lewis (of The Clara Ward Singers) was recruited. Lewis led the Drifters on hits such as "Some Kind Of Wonderful", "Up On The Roof", "Please Stay" and "On Broadway", which reached number 5 on the U.S. pop singles chart and number 4 on the U.S. R&B singles chart in 1963. Lewis was also named in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Drifters induction.


johnny lee williamsJohnny Lee Williams, who was hired to replace Ben E King as lead singer with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vocal group the Drifters, died at a Mobile Alabama hospital on 19 December 2004. Johnny was just 18 years old when he joined the Drifters in mid-1959 after King fell out with the groups management over royalties due from their first world wide hit ‘There Goes My Baby’. Williams, whose vocal style was closer to the earlier Drifters hits of Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Moore and Bobby Hendricks, recorded lead with the group just once in July ’59 on ‘(If You Cry) True Love, True Love’. Briefly this Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman classic sold well and by October ’59 had reached #5 US R&B/33 Pop. However within a month ‘Dance With Me’ (the flipside) outsold it and went to #2 US R&B/ 15 Pop.

Even with split sales this single became a huge international success. It went to #17 Pop in the UK in January 1960 (and re-entered the chart again in March, this time reaching #35). Ben E King sang lead with the Drifters on four more international hits that established the later baritone/tenor sound of the Drifters. Johnny Williams felt redundant as the high tenor lead and quit in May of 1960 returning to his hometown of Mobile to pursue a career with the Embraceables where he sang lead for them on ‘My Foolish Pride’/’Don’t Call For Me’ issued by Cy records in ’62. He then left to record a couple of solo singles for Kent (‘You Got It’/’Don’t Ever Forget It’) in ’64 and later ‘I Got A Feeling’ for Cub. Temporarily James Poindexter was drafted in to tour with the Drifters but cut no records with them. He stayed a few months until Rudy Lewis joined to continue their stream of hit singles for Atlantic.

Funeral services took place for Johnny on 23December at Small's Mortuary on South Broad Street in Mobile with burial in the nearby Gethsemane Cemetery.



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