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When Every Night Was A Saturday Night Fever With the Drifters

Remember the Drifters? Sure you do: tin pan alley, highly arranged first r&b and then pop vocal band. First with Clyde McPhatter leading the way they were covering stuff like “Money Honey” and later with mainly Ben E. King they had a string of crossover hits. From 59 to 64, from “Dance With Me” to “On Broadway” and seemed all set for the nostalgia circuit when… they went to the UK and became a disco band.
Johnny Moore, who had been the lead singer since 64 signed with Bell records. Bell records were a hit single machine in the early 70s. Their clients included the Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter, the Partridge Family and Barry Blue. Can you see the name behind it yet? Well, they got bought by Arista: Now can you see it? Take a bow Clive Davis. This was essentially the hit job Davis does on the charts: single after single after single mushing its way into your bloodstream.
So why bother with the Drifters? They were the greatest doo-wop group of all time, so fuck em in the 70s, right? I’ll explain by changing the subject: In the 90s I used to argue that R&B was better than pop because when you have crap pop all you have is crap pop but when you have crap R&B you’ve still got a backbeat. Crap Barry Blue is just crap Barry Blue but crap 70s Drifters still has Johnny Moore. Bell records were a hit machine and the Drifters were in the 70s what they are in the 00s –interchangable vocalist singing specialized arrangements, except Moore was so much Moore and the songs from the 70s were nearly as special as the string of hits from the 60s.
Let’s take a quick peek at some earlier hits:
1959 -There Goes My Baby
1959 – If You Cry True Love, True Love
1959 – Dance With Me
1960 – This Magic Moment
1960 – Save The Last Dance For Me
1960 – I Count The Tears
1961 – Some Kind Of Wonderful
1961 – Sweets For MY Sweet
1961 – Please Stay
1963 – Up On The Roof
1963 – On Broadway
1964 – Under the Boardwalk
1964 – I’ve Got Some Sand In My Shoes
1964 – Saturday Night At the Movies

That is a very impressive string of singles that stand up straight today. Who wrote em? Pomus and Shuman, Leiber and Stoller, Mann and Weill and Goffin and King. Brill builders each and every one. I am not suggesting the (new) Drifters owed their success to being handed stand out material (I mean, beyond standout -right? Each song is its own greatest hits collection) but I am suggesting the MATERIAL, THE ARRANGEMENTS AND THE LEAD VOCALIST combined is the reason for the hits and once those three aspects of the songs were in place, the back up singers were could be any old pro. When Johnny Moore died in 98 (not dissimilar to David Ruffin and the Temptations) the arrangements went on but the band was lost.
The change with the Drifters can be seen between “Sand In My Shoes” and “Saturday Night At the Movies”. “Shoes” has the ache of a summer romance and also the ache of the end of the Drifters and R&B stalwarts, “Saturday Night At The Movies” was a bellweather for the Bell recordings still eight years in the future. The date song as dance song still flickering into the future. But first there was eight years of flops till Ertegun finally dumped em and they went to the UK.
The UK had its own form of disco going on in 72. A mix of glam rock, teeny bop and production option. We are talking a country where JIMMY OSMOND was a superstar.
Let’s take a look at the Drifter’s UK 70s hits:
1973 – Like Sister and Brother
1974 – Kissin‘ in the Back Row of the Movies
1975 – There Goes My First Love
1975 – Can I Take You Home Little Girl
1976 – Every Night’s a Saturday Night With You
1976 – You’re More than a Number in My Little Red Book”
These came singles lead off three seriously good Bell albums Love Games, There Goes My First Love and Every Night’s A Saturday Night. The Drifters had gone from New York pros like Leiber and Stoller to UK pros Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook writing songs like “I’d Lke to Teach the World To Sing,” ( you know, the Coke song) “You’ve got Your Troubles” and “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”. A hit making making machine washed away by punk. The songs are very good, pure hook machines and the production is a fascinating hybrid of doo wop and disco: everything is so anonymous, everything is industrialized and stocked and synthed and yet it doesn’t sound like product. Moore and the back up singers never seem to struggle against the very anonymous orchestra: horns that sound like synths, drummer like a drum machine, an anonymous addictiveness so in keeping with Greenaways commercial jinginess where they can’t wait more than 30 seconds before they throw in the first hook. Sure it aint the 60s Drifters but it proves how even product can transcend its limitations.
There is a vulnerability and an anonymity to Moore’s vocals. No he is no McPhatter or Ben E. King but he can impart dignity on trifles. There is no reason why a line like “It’s funny but I don’t miss them any more, though they were fun days babe for sure…” should tug at your heart strings, the words are flat but the sound where everything falls out but keybs and cymbals before returning to the verse is like an indecision in the song: he had fun, and, here’s the indecision-the which way is he taking the song- so it quiets down for a moment. Moore was a King of that -the arrangements were all about an everydayness saved by the arrangement, by the tentativeness ordinariness of the party. It seems both fallow and classless (I mean: without a class barrier, a sort of everyman pop standardization which is influenced, perhaps sublimally, by the Drifters ethnicity) and rich in a joyful baubly popness. You can point to Greenaway, who made a career doing this for folks like Cliff Richard, as to the musical ingredient but it is mostly because the Drifters were still the Drifters. They were playing fine product with a steely eyed professionalism that comes from having spent twenty years, in various permutations, as a top flight doo woppin‘ pop band.
It is the Drifters that bridge the gap between “Kissin‘ In The Back Row Of the Movies” and “Some Kind Of Wonderful” because there is no comparing song quality as good as “Kissin‘” is it aint even a kissin cousin to the masterpiece but they feel of a piece: they belong in the same breath and that is almost an act of magic… a testament to the power of how time can teach us what to do to make a song even more than it is.
Johnny Moore died in 1998 but the Drifters are releasing another great hits in September. Because long after we are all dead a Drifters group of some sort could still be playing these songs together. Yes they can. But the last time they were a pop phenomena was in the 70s.

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