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Impressions

at last! the impressions at the jazz café camden  

Much to everyone’s disappointment and through no fault of their own, the Impressions had to cancel their gig at the Jazz Café earlier this year in July. But they returned to score a triumphant double whammy on Friday and Saturday the 7th and 8th of September 2012. The guys from the Curtom Orchestra set the scene with a few well-chosen numbers to put us all on our feet to welcome the best vocal trio on planet earth the Impressions. Decked out in cream suits the trio arrived to a thunderous welcome and went into their classic program beginning with ‘Gypsy Woman’ and moving majestically through ‘It’s Alright’, ‘Woman’s Got Soul’, ‘Mighty Mighty Spade & Whitey’ the incomparable ‘Choice Of Colors’ – “People must learn from the people a better day is coming for you and for me…” ‘If There’s A Hell Below’, ‘I’m So Proud’, ‘I’ve Been Trying’, ‘Keep On Pushing’, ‘You Been Cheatin’’, ‘We’re A Winner’, ‘Talkin’ About My Baby’, ‘Check Out Your Mind’ and of course two of their greatest anthems ‘People Get Ready’ and the irrepressible ‘Move On Up’ – we didn’t want them to stop but they had given a performance that will stay with us. As is their way, the guys spent time with their fans after the show chatting, signing autographs, photographs and album sleeves until they had to leave to make their mid morning return flight back home.

Impressions

The Impressions have honoured Curtis and his amazing music on a number of UK and US
concerts and there is a wealth of Mayfield songs that could and should be recorded by them in the near future - they should really commit their sincere appreciation to record. The Impressions get better with each performance. Sam Gooden and Fred Cash have been the heart of the group since the late 50s, steady and inspirational behind a number of great lead singers after Curtis – Leroy Hutson, Ralph Johnson, Nate Evans and Smokey Hampton, Willie Kitchens and Reggie Torian who sang lead with them on Curtom, Cotillion and ChiSound for over a decade from 1972. Since he was invited to return to the trio in 2006, Reggie came back stronger and this has enabled them to raise their game to a level where their power and vocal expression is at an all time high. Like a fine wine Reggie’s vocal style has matured and his range and depth coupled with his dynamic energy has contributed much to their recent re-emergence. Today they are the most soulful and elegant vocal group it would be your good fortune to see. For those of us who have followed them at length, each time they perform is a joyous spectacle to behold. We look forward to many more concerts and recordings from this perfectly balanced trio. Please don’t change a thing. (peter burns)

ben e king at the jazz café london

12 April 2012

Ben E King

I like the Jazz Café, it’s just the right size for an intimate show. The sound is good and you can drink at the bar or eat a meal while watching a wide variety of top quality artists. This time it was the legendary Ben E King. King has been touring the UK on a pretty regular basis since the mid ‘60s, so it’s not difficult for him to find a great pick up band as he has this time out. By the time he came on stage the club was full and ready for his set that was to include many of his hits with the Drifters - ‘Up On The Roof‘, ‘On Broadway’ (neither of which he recorded with them – but nobody minds) ‘This Magic Moment’ and the iconic ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ that received a near word perfect rendition from the audience. Ben was his element, idolised by the Jazz Café crowd who sang his songs back to him. They danced, they sang, they drank the night away as Ben gave them 60 minutes of magic. The band for this tour could be likened to a UK version of the Mar-Keys featuring guitar, drums, bass, keys, trumpet and sax plus two back up singers who provided King with a great sound frame. The centre funk section had me reaching for my zimmer as many a diner got down to a selection from ‘Supernatural Thing’ and tracks from Ben’s 1977 album with Average White Band Benny And Us such as ‘Get It Up For Love’ and ‘Keepin’ It To Myself’. Ben was always a master of the segway and outro so he weaved extracts from his Atlantic contemporaries like ‘The Midnight Hour’ and  ‘Mustang Sally’ into his songscape as well as his own ‘What Is Soul?’ the evergreen ‘Spanish Harlem’ plus his best known signature tune ‘Stand By Me’. All too soon it was over but after he had left the stage there was still a great atmosphere in the café. In the tiny dressing room after the show Ben and I caught up, he looked a little tired but was in good spirits and told me that his next stop was Glasgow, a tough town that he’d played many times before. I guess down the years he’s played most everywhere on in the UK. And now in the extended twilight of his career he must often revisit many of the European venues that he’s played before. It was another great evening - just one gripe, not one of us four enjoyed the Jazz Café food that in the past has usually been good. (peter burns)

elkie

elkie brooks at the millfield theatre

18 April 2012

Elkie was magnificent - and her band were really great too! The small theatre rocked to their sound. Elkie looks and sounds much younger than her years and the power of her voice is amazing. There was no build up, no introduction, no substandard support act, she just walked out on stage and connected with the audience before going straight into the first number. Although Elkie had 13 hit singles in the UK and Europe and a run of 15 hit albums since 1977 her talents should have rewarded her with greater success and recognition that she more than deserves. From her earliest recordings with Vinegar Joe, Elkie shone like the star she deserves to be. Her work with Leiber & Stoller reached a superb high and gave her the first hit ‘Pearl’s A Singer’ (#8 and recently shown on BBC4 revisiting ‘Top of the Pops’) that later became her signature tune. Their album Two Days Away went to #16 on the UK album chart and featured great versions of  ‘Saved’ plus ‘Night Bird’ and ‘You Did Something For Me’. Two years later Elkie, Mike & Jerry joined forces again for her Live & Learn album that climbed to #34 on UK albums in October 1979.  This fine set contained a soulful reprise of Ben E King’s ‘On The Horizon’, Dino & Sembello’s ‘The Heartache Is On’, plus two singles ‘Falling Star’ and ‘He Could Have Been An Army’. They co-wrote ‘Not Enough Lovin' Left’ and ‘Dreamdealer’ with Elkie and other highlights included Allen Toussaint’s ‘Viva La Money’ and Johnnie Taylor’s ‘Who's Making Love’. These are two albums that really should be made available paired together on one CD - they are both classics. Elkie Brooks continues to shine as this two-part concert testified. This time out her programme included ‘Sunshine After The Rain’ (#10 hit from August ’77), the beautiful ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’  (#12 hit from November ’78), ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’, her version of ‘Nights In White Satin’, ‘Gasoline Alley’, ‘No More The Fool’ (#5 hit from November ’86 and also a #5 album), ‘We’ve Got Tonight’ and of course perhaps her best remembered record ‘Pearl’s A Singer’. If you get the chance to see Elkie performing live don’t miss the chance, she puts on a great show.

personal heroes # 10

ben e king - part 1
there goes my baby
The first time I heard Ben E King was in the late summer of 1959, when as a schoolboy I used to frequent an out of bounds café in South East London called the Hilltop. One of the big attractions of this establishment was their juke box that was home to a wide variety of music and was where I heard many records that would influence my future taste such as ‘April In Paris’ by Count Basie, ‘Only Sixteen’ by Sam Cooke, and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ by the Platters but the one that had the most indelible effect on me was ‘There Goes My Baby’ by the Drifters on London – American. I had never heard anything remotely like it before and it struck a chord deep inside me that would resonate for the rest of my life. It was a triple whammy for me, although I didn’t realize it at the time, because it introduced me to the Drifters, lead singer Ben E King (who was still Benjamin Earl Nelson at that time) and two of the greatest writer/ producers on the planet, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller. With the use of strings and the introduction of the Baion rhythm Leiber & Stoller created a totally original masterpiece that’s influence started a new wave of soul music which grew into the tsunami that became known as sixties soul. The song was written and sung by Ben, who delivered a sensational vocal for what turned out to be his very first issued lead recording. I was hooked and it started me on a quest to find out more and eventually write about the music that I love.

Benjamin Earl Nelson was born in Henderson, North Carolina on 23 September 1938. He moved with his father to Harlem, New York in 1946 (when Ben was 8/ 9 years old) who worked in the restaurant trade until he could open his own on 119th street in the early ‘50s. From an early age Ben helped out in the restaurant when he wasn’t attending James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School and Seward Park High on Delancy Street. His church was Walker Memorial Baptist on 116th Street and Lenox Ave. But although singing was second nature to Ben, he was not a member of the choir there, for him it didn’t have that down home feeling like those back in Henderson. While he was excited by the draw of the big city, Ben also missed his family and the relative tranquility of North Carolina. He tried out with a number of gospel quartets (no big names) in his early teens. Aged 15 he joined a quartet that included Robert Peacock, Charles Lawson and one other for about a year. Their performances at local churches and events earned them $20 a piece through donations. Meanwhile he formed the 4Bs with local boys Billy Davis, Bobby Davis and Billy Spigner and through her brothers, Ben met his sweetheart and future wife Betty Davis in the mid 50’s. The 4B’s sang at school programs and tried out on the Amateur Hour at Harlem’s Apollo, where they won a second place. Their song selections included Doo Wop covers of the Flamingos, Platters, Clovers and Orioles hits that Ben had often sung at his family gatherings. The 4Bs stayed tight but did not progress past high school and small club gigs. Ben auditioned successfully for the Moonglows but was too young to travel far on tour and left after a few months. His first real break and contact with the New York Music biz came through Lover Patterson, who dined regularly at the Nelson’s restaurant and ‘discovered’ Ben singing there. Patterson, who managed the Crowns, and other neighbourhood groups, invited Ben to join them when Wilbur Paul quit in early 1958.

The 5 Crowns as they were originally known, came together as a vocal group in early 1952 when the first line up included brothers James, Claude and John Clark, Wilbur Paul and Dock Green, who were all local boys from the 115th street area of New York. Dock and Wilbur had recently been singing with another local group the Dovers, who changed their name to the 5 Willows after they left. The 5 Crowns have been cited as the epitome of the New York street corner sound of the early 50s. They signed to Rainbow Records in July 1952 but none of their off keysingles (issued on 78rpm) did not register on Billboard’s R&B charts. ‘You’re My Inspiration’ did go to #9 on the Cashbox listings but they could not build on this success and the sales of their subsequent singlesdwindled. By early 1958 their line up consisted of Charles Thomas lead, Dock Green tenor, returnee James Clark tenor/ lead, Elsbeary Hobbs bass and new member Benjamin Earl Nelson, baritone. Patterson was looking for a new recording deal for his group and took them to RnB records office at 1650 Broadway.

ben e

Doc Pomus, a washed up ex blues singer turned songwriter had been offered a strange opportunity to run a fictional record company, through an ex girlfriend. RnB Records acted as a sanctuary for its owner Fred Huckman, who needed an escape from his elderly rich wife. Pomus had seen a chance to foster some music biz contacts, a place to perhaps write songs and an office address to operate out of. Despite a few reservations he jumped at this chance. This small office was housed at 1650 Broadway, two blocks from the Brill Building. Pomus was made label president with stock options and Mort Shuman, his songwriting partner, was employed as a shipping clerk at $20 a week. Their sole job was to cover for the owner when his wife phoned trying to find him. With ten grand in the company bank account, the duo saw possible opportunities in the scam and with no artists or masters at RnB they had plenty of time to write and shop their songs. One afternoon Patterson and the Crowns, walked in off the street looking for an audition. When Doc and Morty heard them sing they were impressed with their genuine ability and decided to turn RnB into a real record company signing them on the spot. The Crowns hung out at the office and after hours they would rehearse with the writers at the piano. Charlie Thomas sung most of the leads but the writers were also taken with the soulful ballads like ‘Danny Boy’ sung by the new boy Benny Nelson, who to them seemed to be a more promising singer. Pomus produced the Crowns on one New York session in March ’58 when they cut ‘Kiss And Make Up’ an uptempo R&B/ Doo Wop styled song, not unlike a Robins/ early Coasters record in construction. Thomas provided a good steady lead vocal on the ‘A’ side and Clark was the high tenor lead on the flipside ‘I’ll Forget About You’ a ballad that he co-wrote with Patterson. Neither side created much public interest in New York but it was more contemporary vocalizing than their earlier recordings and according to a DJ who called the office, sold well in Pittsburgh. This surprising news gave them some encouragement but when Pomus tried to cut a follow up, he discovered that no further funds were available to RnB - which soon went bust. Near future fate had more in store for both the writers and singers of this now obscure side, which has recently been reissued more than once on UK CD.

When Lover Patterson came to New York from Cuba in the ‘40s he started working for the Orioles as their chauffeur. He learned a great deal out on the road touring and taking care of the group and soon moved up to tour manager. When he met up with the newly formed 5 Crowns in 1952, he’d learned enough about the music business to become their personal manager. Lover wrote and co-wrote many songs for the Crowns and even stood in when they were short handed on stage and is present in a couple of their group photographs. But much as he would have liked it, he never actually sang with the line up on record. He expanded his management sphere to include the Cadillacs, Millionaires, Duvals, Drapers, and Swans, as a sideline he also doubled as a boxing promoter. When approached by George Treadwell with the Crowns/ Drifters deal in mid ’58, Lover was shrewd enough to sign the four members of his group to individual contracts, before agreeing to George’s plan. As it turned out his reservations seemed to have been well founded. There is no doubt that Lover was disappointed about his lack of influence over the Drifters (Crowns) on Atlantic because after he quit, he created a number of Drifter sounding groups. The first was the Drapers (who contained four ex Drifters in their line up). The Draper’s only session for Gee Records was produced by Richard Barrett and the excellent topside '(I Know) Your Love Has Gone Away' was written by Ben E King, Lover Patterson and Dock Green, who also supplied the superb lead. Bass man Elsbeary Hobbs cut the record whilst on leave from the US Army. The flipside was also of interest, as it featured Johnny Moore on 'You Got To Look Up'. This venture turned out to be a short- term operation but put Moore in the frame to rejoin the Drifters again in April 1963. Patterson put together at least three more Drifters groups, between 1961- ’64 but neither of them lasted long or made any recordings. He also co wrote songs for the Jarmels in 1962, who made records with Bert Berns that came very close to the Drifters sound. After Ben E King left the Drifters, Patterson stayed with him as personal manager, mentor, co writer and friend. Ben and Lover worked as a team until he died from a heart attack in 1965. Ben later said of Patterson - “It was Lover who got me into singing in the first place. He managed the Crowns and put me into that group. He believed in me as a singer and always encouraged me. He was very influential and when the Crowns became the Drifters, Lover was part of the deal and played a big part behind the scenes. For a while we had a tough time as the Drifters, because the old Drifters fans at venues like the Apollo crowd had known them very well and we were a younger group and a totally different line up. It took what seemed like a long time before they accepted us. When I left the Drifters Lover came with me and stayed as my advisor – that surprised me because the Drifters were right at the top and he might have been safer with them. I hit a bad patch later and wanted to quit but Lover and my wife Betty (who had to take a job to make ends meet) stuck by me until I got back on my feet again.” Consequently, Ben greatly missed Lover after his premature death.

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When Clyde McPhatter first created the Drifters as his backup group way back in mid 1953 he had incorporated the Drifters name-mark (Drifters Inc.) to protect himself from management and record company manipulation. The reason he did this was because, for the past two years he had sung lead vocals with the Dominoes, who scored half a dozen big hit singles on the US R&B chart (between 1951- 53). Once the Dominoes began having hits, Clyde realized just how naive he had been when signing a contract with Billy Ward, the Dominoes manager and owner of their name-mark. McPhatter and the rest of the Dominoes were employees, on low wages and they received no further financial share in their own success, which had been huge in America up until his departure. He was determined not to have this happen to him again but his safeguard was to rebound on the rest of the Drifters in a way he had not foreseen. When Clyde unexpectedly quit the Drifters before finishing his two-year stint in the US Army, he sold his interest in Drifters Inc. to their manager George Treadwell. According to Clyde, assurances had been made to the contrary but with 100% control, Treadwell got himself some new partners and turned the Drifters into a franchise and their future fate was just like the Dominoes or the Platters. This move set up a chain reaction of decent within the Drifters and prompted future sackings and walkouts. Bass man Bill Pinkney had become the group’s spokesman and road manager since Clyde’s departure. He took their concerns to their management and was fired for his trouble. Despite scoring eight big American R&B hits after Clyde left, the Drifters who were on a weekly wage received none of the profits. Group members came and went but the dispute rumbled on for three long years until Treadwell came up with a radical solution. The Drifters were booked to appear at Harlem’s Apollo on 30th May 1958, with other hot R&B acts such as Ray Charles, the Cadillacs, Solomon Burke, the Heartbeats, Tiny Topsy, Ann Cole, the Cookies, and way down the bill the Crowns. As Treadwell took in the show, watching the Crowns perform he suddenly had a bright idea. When the concert was over, he went backstage and offered them (and their manager) a management deal that he promised would take them to Atlantic Records. Naturally the Crowns were enthusiastic at this bright new prospect and agreed. The next day George set up a meeting with the Drifters, confronted them with the situation and when they still remained unwilling to agree to his demands, he sacked them en masse (actually current lead Bobby Hendricks had already signed a solo contract with Sue Records). He signed the Crowns to a management contract and gave them a new name - the Drifters. However James ‘Poppa’ Clark declined the opportunity to become a Drifter and went solo.

After Treadwell made the Crowns/ Drifters switch, he had a younger, more dependable group to fulfill his many pre-booked tour dates and could also now comfortably honour his bi-annual contract with the Harlem’s Apollo theatre. But this new situation was tough on the ‘new’ Drifters, who had to learn the whole ‘original’ Drifters stage act and adopt a programme of songs and routines that were not their style (and even tougher for the originals who after five years work had no recording contract and could no longer legally use their name). When they started touring the venues booked for the originals, the new Drifters got a rough ride, especially in New York. The graft was hard and relentless and their wages were lean. Ben remembered the new Drifters first tour “On the very first tour we did as the Drifters, we caught a lot of flack from the original groups fans, they knew who the Drifters were in New York - they knew the members by name. We were ten years younger than the original group and we didn’t look or sound anything like them. We were stuck in the middle of a tough situation and it was a testing time, then after a few tough months, we had a big hit with ‘There Goes My Baby’ and that changed everything”. Ben had written ‘There Goes My Baby’ while on the road touring. His initial inspiration sparked after hearing Dee Clark’s ‘Hey Little Girl’ that triggered something and he began to write. He wrote all the lyrics (a few changes were made later) and the music but his earliest version was set at a faster tempo. Though Ben never dreamed it at the time, writing this song would become the lynch pin to the new Drifters and his own future solo success.

The first time that most UK and European record buyers became aware of the Drifters was in 1959 when ‘There Goes My Baby’ was released on London – American Records. In the US, it had already become the Drifters biggest hit to date, when it went to #1 R&B /2 Pop on the Billboard Charts of June ‘59. UK sales were also good and the record just bubbled under the British pop charts but it didn't quite make the listings. However, its popularity did pave the way for the follow-up ‘Dance With Me’ to register #17 on the NME Top Twenty in January 1960 and become the group’s first UK and European hit. It was only then that the British music press began to show any interest and a few articles and press releases began to appear. For years most UK soul fans had been blissfully unaware of the Drifters earlier American hits, we knew next to nothing of their previous incarnation and even less about the Crowns and how they had inherited their name in mid 1958.

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On 6 March 1959 the new Drifters went into Coastal Studios, New York with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to cut their first Atlantic session. Rehearsals had gone well but when they arrived for the session they were surprised by the amount of equipment and number of musicians present. In the middle of the studio floor stood a tympani flanked by four violinist and a cello player as well as the conventional piano, bass drums and horns. This was like nothing any of them had ever experienced before. In those days there were no overdubs, there was just the take. So when the tapes began to roll for ‘There Goes My Baby’ lead singer Charles Thomas was swamped by a wall of sound and faltered with the lyrics of the song. All four songs slated for recording that day, had recently been written by Nelson & Patterson. After two or three attempts, the expensive studio minutes were ticking away and it was suggested by Jerry Leiber, that Nelson, who had already supplied the lead for ‘Hey Senorita’, should sing lead on ‘There Goes My Baby’ too. Thomas was comfortable on ‘Baltimore’ and supplied an insistent lead vocal on that song and Ben completed the session with ‘Oh My Love’ that became the singles flipside.

Nelson (who was about to get married) went to Treadwell shortly after the session to negotiate himself a better wage deal. Treadwell turned him down flat but offered to buy his song-writing credits on all of the four songs the Drifters had just cut. When the folks at Atlantic and Leiber & Stoller heard about this they thought it was ignoble behaviour (L&S had contributed much to ‘There Goes My Baby’ but didn’t take a credit until much later) and Ben said “I know it was a naive move but I was desperate for cash at the time and $100 was a lot of money then”. But when ‘There Goes My Baby’ was such an unexpected hit, it changed everything. Suddenly everybody wanted the Drifters and being on wages didn’t seem such a hot deal to any of them. Nelson was unhappy receiving a wage cheque each week, when he had played such a big part in this success and the group elected Ben to approach Treadwell once again but Mr T was adamant – No new deal! (After all this was why he got rid of the original Drifters). “Lover told me”, ‘We wrote the songs and you are singing them to No 1 hits – Hey, we deserve better than hand outs.’ Ben said in an interview in the mid 60s. “And he was right. I was singing in the hottest group on the charts for low wages. It seemed to me that the only thing that we could all agree on was that we all wanted more hits.” At this point Patterson produced the contract that he had previously drawn up with Ben as a solo artist and Treadwell showed them both the door. As one can imagine, neither Atlantic nor Leiber & Stoller were overjoyed with this situation. In a later meeting with Ben and Lover they offered him a solo contract with Atco records on the understanding that he record with the Drifters until a suitable replacement was found.  Ben agreed but would not tour with the group again. Thomas sang his songs on future appearances and mimed for TV. Drifters Incorporated - Treadwell and business cohorts, accountant Louis Lebish and Irv Nahan, put their name on all four songs. Fortunately for Ben, Jerry Wexler who heard about the deal intervened and bought Ben’s credit back on ‘There Goes My Baby’ returning it to him after he’d left the group and begun making solo records for Atco. While Treadwell was sharp enough to buy Nelson’s song-writing credit on ‘Dance With Me’, he still hadn’t realized how massive and influential a change had occurred inside the Drifters and had hired Johnny Williams as Ben’s replacement. Williams, a high tenor in the tradition of McPhatter and Hendricks, recorded only one issued Drifters lead ‘True Love, True Love’.

Leiber and Stoller had hired Stanley Applebaum to supply most of the arrangements for the first session and between them they cut ‘There Goes My Baby’ putting it through some incredible changes. For years Jerry and Mike had been improving their production techniques, using better and more vivid arrangements, selecting ideal musicians, working for vast amounts of time on single songs in order to perfect the finished product to their own high standards. These techniques had never been used before in Rhythm & Blues. The performance itself and the ‘feel’ of the accompaniment had previously been the yardstick for success. The overall result of the Leiber-Stoller techniques had been to create a unique framework inside which the R&B artists still had some freedom of expression. Jerry and Mike’s own background in R&B, they had been working with black music since 1950, enabled them to maintain the ‘feel’ on even the most sophisticated product. Concerning their sessions with the Coasters, the other Atlantic/ Atco group that they exclusively produced, Jerry said: “They were very carefully worked out, those arrangements of Mike’s, every note and lick that King Curtis played. Actually, the truth about those records is that they really were NOT at all spontaneous. They were the absolute antithesis of spontaneity. They were absolutely worked out. The thing that WAS spontaneous was that final performance... after many weeks of rehearsal and we’d all almost been living together during that time”. “After the basic session when we got all the instruments down”, said Mike, “we’d put it all together again and polish it all up, so that every line was just as crisp as we could get it”.

It has been reported in the past that ‘There Goes My Baby’ had resulted from a session that went awry. Not so, but when Mike and Jerry took the finished product to Atlantic bosses Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun they got a mixed reception. Given the benefit of hindsight and the indelible imprint that the record has left since it was made, it doesn’t seem surprising that ‘There Goes My Baby’ had caused some conflict of opinion between its producers and the record company, simply because it was the very first and probably the very best, of a new kind of popular music sound. It featured strings and a climatic multi-tracking effect, a devastating atmosphere and above all, a dominating vocal performance from Ben E Nelson.  Mike Stoller described the unusual string work on the side: “There are basically two string lines on the record and a legato line - a line which I wrote and gave to Stanley (Applebaum) and said “Use this line” which he did, and then he created another line after it, which compliments it and builds the record beautifully. They all sound like Rimsky Korsakov, or Borodin or one of those Caucasian (composers)... and if I remember correctly it was only five strings on the record; four fiddles and a cello - they were just playing unisons and octaves. “There was also one tympani on that session, and it only played one note because the drummer (Sticks Evans) was not a timpanist. He played the beat but he didn’t tune it - up, down, sideways it, or anything, which is also an interesting part of the record since the bass changes but the tympani is playing, I think, an eight”.

Practically everyone around him (except Lover Patterson) thought Benny Nelson had been crazy to quit the Drifters just as his first recorded lead vocal went to the top on both the R&B chart and the Hot 100 in July ’59. ‘There Goes My Baby’, the first song Ben and Lover had written for the Drifters had gone ballistic and no one at Atlantic wanted Ben to quit the group. It seemed like a suicidal move to them. ‘There Goes My Baby’ became the Drifters’ first top three hit in America, and sold well over a million copies. It broke through the R&B market and struck pop gold. Music critics of the time found it hard to categorize the record and in the US it was tagged ‘Beat Concerto’. With ‘There Goes My Baby’ on top of the charts, the Drifters bookings soared and they rapidly became Atlantic’s hottest act. Lots of press attention followed, TV shows and radio interviews kept them all pretty busy. Naturally enough Atlantic was anxious to keep the momentum going and wanted a sequel to repeat their current success. Somehow Treadwell kept the lid on the fact that Nelson, their stellar lead singer was no longer performing with the group even though his voice would lead on their next five hit singles.

Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote ‘True Love, True Love’ the song that brought them back into contact with the group and was intended as the ‘A’ side for their follow up single. It sold well on release and went to #5 R&B/ 33 pop (A UK cover was cut by the Mudlarks) but it was swiftly eclipsed by the flipside ‘Dance With Me’ that reached #2R&B/ 15 pop in November ’59 kept off the apex by Presley’s ‘It’s Now Or Never’. For ‘Dance With Me’ Leiber & Stoller recreated the Banion beat that they had introduced on ‘There Goes My Baby’ but this time with a more pronounced Latin tinge. Even with split sales this record became a huge international success. It went to #17 pop in the UK in January ‘1960 (re-entering the chart in March). Once again the Drifters Inc shareholders names appeared as songwriting credits on this huge hit but it was the last time Ben would sell one of his songs.

The Drifters had really hit the big time and now it was clear that their records would no longer be contained within the confines of the R&B market. Demand for personal appearances and big venue bookings were greater than ever. Thomas's baritone/ tenor was similar to Nelson's, but with less range. He could adequately deputize on stage, but the powers that be at Atlantic thought that with this kind of success, Ben should rejoin the Drifters. However, feelings on both sides of the dispute were still running too hot for any reconciliation. Not many R&B artists had a clue when it came to things like the promotion or management of their careers and despite their differences with Treadwell, down the years, many Drifters thought him an excellent manager, if a tough negotiator, and often returned to work for him when required. Nelson promptly changed his name by deed poll to Ben E King and cut his first solo sides in December 1959, five days before the next Drifters session. Pomus & Shuman returned with ‘This Magic Moment’ and ‘Lonely Winds’ and they became the Drifters next two ‘A’ sides. Doc and Morty were particularly excited about ‘This Magic Moment’. Applebaum, Leiber & Stoller had created their most symphonic treatment yet that was the perfect compliment to Kings achingly expressive vocal. The writers knew they had created their first Drifters masterpiece as it glided into the top five. A couple of years down the line Phil Spector would borrow Applebaum's arrangement on ‘This Magic Moment’ for his own production of Gene Pitney's ‘Every Breath I Take’, with uncanny similarity.  When it was released in May 1960 ‘Lonely Winds’ was not quite as big a hit as the previous three singles, but still came in at a respectable #9 R&B/ 54 pop (an unreleased alternate take was issued for the first time by Sequel in '96). The third song on the session was Brown/ Freed standard ‘Temptation’ sung by Johnny Williams. Atlantic held this one back until 1964 when Tom Dowd edited it for use on the Good Life album replacing the vocal with one by Johnny Moore. Pomus and Shuman enjoyed working with the Drifters with whom they had remained good friends since their ‘Kiss And Make Up’ days. This team would go on to write several big hits for the Drifters and Ben over the next couple of years.

ben e

Ben E King’s final Drifters session came in May 1960 at the new Atlantic 8 track Studios that had recently been designed and built by technical wizard Tom Dowd and it produced ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, the biggest hit that the Drifters would ever have. It went right to the top just about everywhere it was released. ‘Save The Last Dance…’ was a very special record that had an indefinable but irresistible quality that touched millions of us, no matter what our cultural or racial backgrounds. Doc Pomus the song’s lyricist was confined to a wheelchair and in 1957 he had married the actress/ dancer Wilma (Willi) Burke.  At their wedding reception her wedding dress shimmered as she glided effortlessly in the arms of one guests after another out there on the dance floor as Doc sat and watched. He could only share her joy from a distance, never knowing for sure that she was thinking of him. There was nothing he could do but wait patiently for that last dance of the evening. These vivid memories subconsciously stayed with him until 3 years later when he put his reactions down in the song ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ - written from the heart. The song, the production, the arrangement, the harmony and the amazing Ben E King lead vocal blended to create the perfect ballad. This recording became an instant classic, a standard that will remain indelible in popular music for all time. It is a pop masterpiece that has seminally influenced every one of the hundreds of versions that have been recorded since. Besides the covers of the song there were also a number of answer records including ‘I’ll Save The Last Dance For You’ by Damita Jo and Billy Fury’s ‘You’re Saving The Last Dance For Me’. The other cuts on that legendary session were ‘Sometimes I Wonder’, written by Ben and Lover and intended as a sequel to ‘There Goes My Baby’ and the superb ‘Nobody But Me’ that was originally slated as the ‘A’ side. Ben’s records with the Drifters had been immeasurably successful, both artistically and financially. ‘Dance With Me’ had helped Latin rhythms catch on in R&B in a bigger way than ever before, and the use of strings was continued with precision and finesse.

Atlantic issued The Drifters Greatest Hits in September 1960 a curious mixture of tracks that included five of the current group’s hits (and flipsides) but also featured four songs cut by the original Drifters. ‘Sadie My Lady’ and ‘Souvenirs’ led by Johnny Moore, ‘Honky Tonky’ from Bill Pinkney and ‘Suddenly There’s A Valley’ featuring Bobby Hendricks and Tommy Evans, none of them issued before. During this highly successful Drifters period, a lot of the original group’s unissued tracks were released on the flipsides of theirs and Clyde McPhatter’s solo singles. No less than eight sides found release this way between ‘There Goes My Baby’ and ‘Sweets For My Sweet’. The cover pictured the very latest group line up Elsbeary, Rudy Lewis, (but there were no Lewis led tracks included) Charlie and Dock. The Drifters Greatest Hits was their debut album in Britain, where they began building a large and faithful fan base. ‘I Count The Tears’ their next hit, paved the way for European acceptance of the Drifters, and the remarkable voice of Ben E. King - it reached #6 US R&B/ 17 pop in January ’61 and went to #28 pop in the UK two months later. ‘I Count The Tears’ was another fine Pomus/ Shuman song cut at ‘Save The Last Dance…’ session. King and the group combine most effectively and the hook line “Na Na Na Na Na Na late at night” will stay forever in our memories. Once again Leiber, Stoller and Applebaum worked the magic that contributes much to this classic track. King, whose voice had established the Drifters at the very top of the US charts with six incredibly successful singles in a row, despite some opinions to the contrary and like McPhatter before him, was going to be a hard man to replace. His departure was inevitable despite all the hits, there would be no going back now, sure Charles Thomas could imitate him on stage and mime convincingly on TV but in the studio his baritone just didn't have the required timbre or flexibility to replace him on record (though clearly Charlie thought otherwise). For Johnny Williams, who had initially been hired as Ben's first replacement, the situation was becoming untenable. After a promising start with ‘True Love, True Love’ he must have been in high tenor heaven but the consistent popularity of King’s baritone lead had relegated him to the status of a road Drifter. Williams’ services were no longer required in the studio. Legend has it that one night while the Drifters were touring in Alabama, Johnny, who came from that part of the country, skipped out - never to return. James Poindexter came on board to keep the numbers up on stage but to Atlantic and especially the Drifters management it was important that they find someone who could perform a seamless transition and keep those hits a comin'. They had to get it right this time, if they were to keep the Drifters at the very top. A gospel singer Rudy Lewis, who previously sang with Clara Ward, was found to make the seamless transition. (peter burns)

acknowledgements
Ben E King quotes taken from several interviews in the UK and USA as follows - ReadySteadyGo, London - 15 Oct '65/ Flamingo, London -20 May '66/ Tiles, London - 23 May '66/ ManorHouse, London - 28 May '66, Marquee, London - 31 May '66 / Ram Jam, London - 5 June '66 / KlooksKleek, London -11 Nov '66 / Starlite,Greenford, 20 Nov '66 / Tiles, London -22 Nov '66/ WhiteHouse - 23 Nov '66/ LocarnoStreatham, 24 Nov '66/ Heathrow - March '67/ Starlite,Greenford, April '67/ RikiTick, 12 April '67 /LocarnoStreatham, 13 April '67/ Uppercut, London - Oct '67 / Marquee, London - 31 Oct '67 / StarliteGreenford - 5 Nov '67 / TottenhamRoyal - 18 Aug '68/ NewYork - September ’72/ VenueLondon -26 Nov '79/ Wyllyotts Theatre 5 February ‘11/ Jazz Café April ‘12/ Telephone - London May ‘03, July ‘07, March ‘08, Raleigh NC May ‘07
Research sources ‘Rhythm & The Blues’ by Jerry Wexler & David Ritz (Knopf 1993), Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles 1942-88 (Record Research Inc 1988) and ‘Lonely Avenue’ the Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt (Da Capo 2007)
Sections of this series were originally written for a Drifters biography ‘Keep On Driftin’’ (2005) that as yet remains unpublished and a planned Ben E King biography ‘Stand By Me’ (2007) that was not completed.

ben e sessions

Ben E King Sessions Part 1 compiled by Peter Burns

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