A few sketchy details have emerged recently about ex Drifters singer Billy Lewis, who passed away sometime in the summer months 2010. Lewis who was originally from Jacksonville, Florida, first joined the Drifters in mid 1975 to replace Grant Kitchings. He was in the line up that cut two singles for Epic in 1979/ 80 with Clyde Brown, Ray Lewis and Joe Blunt. Billy toured with the group until 1980 when he left. However he returned again in 1986 and stayed a further three years. After leaving the Drifters the second time in 1989 Billy formed his own version of the group with another ex Drifters Tony Jackson, also with Chuck Thomas and JJ Marshall called the ‘Sound Of The Drifters’. Over the years the line up changed to include
Gillie Leroy Jones, Mike Henry, Milton Brown plus a few others and they spent some time located in Northern Ireland. Their name also evolved through the Billy Lewis Drifters, the New Drifters and in 2004 they became the Nu Drifters who cut a cover album of Drifters hits for Prestige under the title KeepingTheLegendAlive. The Billy Lewis’ Nu Drifters at that time featured David Black, Mark Conlin. For a while Billy had his own website and got plenty of bookings that irritated the Drifters of the time who tried a number of times to outlaw his activities. Recently I emailed Billy’s eldest daughter Erica who lives with his ex-wife and the rest of the family in Newark, New Jersey. I had been in touch with Erica in 2008 when we exchanged an email or two. She had promised to contact me with a few more details about her father but has not done so this far. However if she does in the future I will pass on the info via this column. peter burns may 2011
Faye Treadwell who acted as manager for the Drifters between 1967 and 2001, died on 23 May 2011. Faye was the second wife of George McKinley Treadwell, who became famous in New York City playing trumpet firstly for the House Band at Monroe’s in Harlem in the early ‘40’s. He then worked with Benny Carter, Tiny Bradshaw and Cootie Williams. During the ‘40s he accompanied several singers while playing with JC Heard including Etta Jones and Sarah Vaughan, who he married in 1947. In the late ‘40s he moved into management and quit playing altogether. In addition to Vaughan he also managed Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown. He became Atlantic recording artists the Drifters manager in 1954 and when Clyde McPhatter went solo George bought the remaining shares to the rights of the Drifters Incorporated name/ mark. He managed the Drifters through their most successful period in the 1960s and died suddenly on 14 May 1967. His widow Faye took over his managerial duties and inherited the legal rights to the Drifters name. But their popularity had peaked in America and in the early ‘70s she signed them to a UK deal with Cookaway Productions and Bell Records and they moved their operational base to London, England. After several hits in Europe the Drifters re-established their international reputation. As with her husband before her, Faye fought several court cases in America and the UK to protect her legal rights to sole ownership of the Drifters name/ mark. In the mid ‘70s Charlie Thomas won a lawsuit that allowed him to use the Drifters name in America but Treadwell held on to the rest of the world. After Drifters talisman and long time lead singer Johnny Moore died in December 1998 the Drifters fortunes went into something of a decline, Faye seemed to lose interest and bookings dwindled. In 2001 she left for America and never returned. After a short period of inactivity the Drifters decided to continue under new management and by 2003 when they celebrated their 50th year in show business they were riding once again and were awarded a Gold Record for their successful Definitive Drifters double album. Faye moved out to California to live with her daughter Tina and was later diagnosed with dementia. In true Treadwell tradition Tina transferred the Drifters Name/ Mark under her control and in early 2008 put the existing Drifters out of business and replaced them with an entirely unrelated new group of her own. And so the legend began another chapter. Yesterday (26/05/11) Erica Lewis, daughter of the late Billy Lewis emailed me the details of Faye Treadwell’s death. Services will be held for Mrs Treadwell on 2 June in Pasadena, California and 4 June in Englewood New Jersey.
peter burns may 2011
Bill Pinkney’s death on 4 July 2007 marks the end of a significant era in Drifters history. He was found dead at the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort.
Pinkney was scheduled to perform with the Original Drifters for Fourth of July festivities there. Bill Pinkney was 81 years old.
When he returned from World War II Bill was decorated with four bronze stars for action in France & Germany. He had his own Army gospel quintet in Europe, the US Friendly Five, then after his return home Bill formed the Singing Cousins and also sang with the Wandering Four. A move to New York provided Pinkney with an opportunity to play in the Negro Baseball League for the New York Blue Sox and he also sang with the Jerusalem Stars (with Benjamin Peay - lka Brook Benton) then moved on to the Southern Knights before crossing the secular divide to the Drifters.
Though Bill was not present in the first line up of Clyde McPhatter’s Drifters in June 1953 when they recorded their first Atlantic session (Who were in fact Clyde (lead), William Anderson, David Baughan (tenors), David Baldwin (baritone), James Johnson (bass)), he was present on the next famous session in August ’53 when the iconic ‘Money Honey’ was recorded. This time the line up was Clyde (lead), Gerhart Thrasher, Bill Pinkney (tenors), Andrew Thrasher (baritone) and Willie Ferbee (bass) and by the third session Ferbee was gone and Pinkney had taken over his more familiar role as bassman. Bill’s biggest claim to fame came in February ’54 when he recorded a shared lead with Clyde on the Drifters sensational version of ‘White Christmas’. The group remained unchanged until McPhatter was drafted into the US Army in October ’54. At that time Pinkney became ‘leader’ of the group, handling their organisation and finances when they were out on tour. As spokesman for the group he went to the Drifters manager George Treadwell in mid ’56 on their behalf to try to negotiate a better wage deal for them. Treadwell owned the Drifters name-mark under ‘Drifters Incorporated’ and paid them each a low weekly wage. A row broke out, Pinkney was sacked and Andrew Thrasher quit. New members were recruited and they continued to tour. Pinkney formed a new group the Flyers with ex Swallow and McPhatter sound-alike Bobby Hendricks but their Atco single didn’t chart and when Treadwell needed a new lead for a Drifters session in April ’58, Hendricks was in place. The money troubles rumbled on and Treadwell sacked the Drifters in May giving their name to the Crowns, another group he had under contract. This was the group that cut ‘There Goes My Baby’ which took the ‘new’ Drifters to the top of the pop charts in June 1959.
Meanwhile Bill had cut the single ‘After the Hop’ in Memphis on Sam Phillips ‘Phillips International’ label as Bill Pinky & the Turks. He then formed the first group of Original Drifters but they couldn’t get a recording deal in New York under that name and Treadwell brought actions against them at venues when they performed. They made two singles for End in ‘59 as the Harmony Grits, though neither sold well but by ’64 Pinkney had managed to get legal recognition for the Original Drifters. James Brown produced ‘Don’t Call Me’ / ‘I Do The Jerk’ (featuring Jimmy Lewis and Bobby Hollis) for Fontana. The Original Drifters first came to the UK in 1966 and they returned here several times with various line-ups. They cut a series of one shot singles for Veep, Game, Southern Charisma, S&J and Christopher, over the following 20 years, then in 1988 they signed to Marion Carter’s Ripete records who issue several singles and two albums (‘Christmas With The Drifters’ and ‘The Anthology’). For almost 50 years Bill performed with the Original Drifters as they toured the world. Many fine singers passed through their ranks including David Baughan, Gerhart Thrasher, Chuck Cockerham, Benny Anderson, Ali/ Oli Woodson, (who Joined the Temptations) and more recently Richard ‘Knight’ Dunbar, Vernon Young (died February ’05), and Ron McPhatter, Clyde’s son.
For many years it was a struggle but more recently Bill Pinkney had begun to gain some recognition for his many years of pioneering and tireless performing. In the past few years he was represented by Maxine Porter and Superstar Unlimited, who run a website (www.originaldrifters.com) that lists the group’s upcoming gigs, photos and many salient facts about this extraordinary man. Pinkney has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame ('88), Vocal Group Hall Of Fame (2000) and the Beach Music Hall Of Fame. In February '99 he was honoured by the R&B Foundation as a Pioneer. South Carolina awarded Bill its highest civilian honour 'Ambassador Of Entertainment' and established a state park in birthplace of Dalzell, Sumter County, SC. Pinkney was also awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by Coastal Carolina University in May 2001. He even received a letter of recognition from Nelson Mandela and the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame for its ‘Legends’ series has filmed an oral history of his life for archival inclusion. In addition to those mentioned above there are other Original Drifters CDs available and a DVD ‘Doo Wop 51’ (US format) which features Bill and Bobby Hendricks. In 2003 he published his autobiography ‘Drifters 1: Bill Pinkney’ himself. In recent years Pinkney ran the Original Drifters on a rotational basis to cover the countrywide appearances. Like the Drifters themselves BPO had there copyists and spin off groups. No doubt the Original Drifters will continue without Bill, but he was the man that made it all happen. He was the last of the ‘Money Honey’ line up to die and only Bobby Hendricks remains from that first Drifters incarnation.
The Original Bill Pinkney - born 15 August 1925 in Dalzell, Sumter County, South Carolina,
Died 4 July 2007, Daytona Beach, Florida.
Peter Burns, July 2007
Ex-Drifter, Johnny Lee Williams dies aged 64
Johnny 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
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
South Broad Street in Mobile with burial in the nearby Gethsemane Cemetery.
Nu Drifters - Keeping The Legend Alive CD - Prestige
The latest persona for Billy Lewis and his group of bogus Drifters, The
Nu Drifters have issued an album Keeping The Legend Alive on Prestige
Records. Lewis has a pretty goods voice and this group does make a reasonable
job of emulating the Drifters sound on stage. But everything else is pretence
and damaging to the real Drifters reputation. The release of this album
is an insult to the Drifters legacy, it sounds like disco Karaoke.
For those of you interested
in how it really went down - When the recently deceased Grant Kitchings
completed his five-year stay with the Drifters and returned to New York
in mid ‘75, Billy Lewis from Jacksonville, Florida, stepped in to
fill his place and remained until 1980. He returned in ’86 and continued
touring with the group until October ’89. When Lewis left, he still
had not had enough Driftin’ to his satisfaction, so despite promises
to the contrary, he set up ‘Sound of the Drifters’ with another
ex Drifter Tony Jackson, Chuck Thomas and JJ Marshall. Over the years
that followed, Lewis has been a constant thorn in the side of the real
Drifters with his bogus groups, exaggerations and false claims. There
has been an ongoing court case against Lewis. Like no doubt all the other
bogus Drifters groups, their line up has changed and their name has evolved
through the Sound of the Drifters, Billy Lewis Drifters, the New Drifters
and more recently the Nu Drifters. The Billy Lewis’ Nu Drifters
currently feature David Black, Mark Conlin and the irrepressible Billy
Lewis himself. In early interviews given after joining the real Drifters
in 1980, Lewis stated examples of his previous solo work on Roulette and
Columbia. After fairly extensive research, none of these alleged recordings
have been traced to those companies mentioned. During both his periods
with the real Drifters, Lewis only performed with the group for live shows.
Although he appeared in many group photos, he did not record with them
or sing lead at any time. He was employed as a background singer and as
such served them well. But he has no right to use the Drifters name after
leaving their company. If he has to the Dodgy Drifters might be closer
to the truth. But don’t take my word for it. If you can find a copy,
give this album a listen and let me know what you think.
The real Drifters are still in great public demand check them out on:-
or simply click on the drifters button on our homepage
NEWS DECEMBER 2004
Drifters back in the West End
The Drifters played their first gig in Central London for 12 years on
25 October at the Bloomsbury Theatre. The four lead singers Rohan Turney,
Patrick Alan, Vic Bynoe and Peter LaMarr took turns to entertain and educate
us all with songs from the Drifters star-studded past. Their great songs
rolled out one after the other highlighting many of their hits between
‘Adorable’ and ‘You're More Than A Number In My Little
I was particularly glad to hear them perform some of the lesser-known
classics like ‘Let The Music Play’ and ‘Harlem Child’
(which should have been a single). The small theatre rocked, as many larger
venues do up and down the country week in, week out. They were obviously
glad to be back in London and the audience reciprocated with equal enthusiasm.
In the dressing room the guys were wondering when they might get a holiday
as they are booked right through until the end of 2005. There were still
plenty of fans on the street outside as the Drifters and their associates
climbed into their white stretch limo and purred off into the night. Their
‘Definitive Drifters’ 2CD album is still selling well and
has now gone platinum. This new generation of Drifters ooze talent and
vocal magic – some creative producer should put them back in the
studio and move on to the next phase, with this many fans they could still
be around for another fifty years. Target 2053, you up for it Phil?
Between their last session for Atlantic and the Cookaway/Bell
deal, tenor Grant Kitchings joined the Drifters in May ‘71. Born
in Dayton, Ohio, Grant began singing with the Corvettes back in '52 right
after his demob from the US Army.
Then in '56 he joined the Kingtoppers, moving through the
ranks of Sonny Til's Orioles and the Ravens before joining the Adriel
McDonald’s Ink Spots, one of the Ink Spot groups who'd been responsible
for the whole black vocal group scene.
By the time
Grant joined however the personnel had probably changed more times than
the Drifters. "Then I hustled around New York for a while" said
Grant. "On modelling jobs, solo singing, until I met Faye Treadwell
and joined the Drifters". After Kitchings joined the group they enjoyed
a lengthy period of stabilization. Grant performed with them for a five-year
period but he rarely made it into the studio. He left in late ’75
and returned back home to New York where he was soon reworking the routines
with a number of NY vocal groups. By the mid 90s he had joined yet another
version of the Ink Spots – This time headed by Harold Winley. Grant
performed with them until his health finally gave out. He died in New
York 5 April 2005.
Vocal group singer Vernon Young, who joined ‘Bill
Pinkney’s Original Drifters’ in the early 90s (and has performed
with them ever since) has died aged 56, while on tour with the group in
Georgetown, Grand Cayman (17 February ’05).
He was born 13 January 1949 in Houston, Texas and when he
finished high school became a member of the Outlaws, who often opened
for Archie Bell & the Drells.
In the early 80s he moved over to the Touchstones who cut
‘Closing In On My Mind’ for Outfront in ’81. After he
joined BPO, Vernon was a regular member in a group of great singers that
Pinkney still rotates for his Original Drifters tours. He also made records
with them on Ripete and 601 Music.