The Drifters’ manager George Treadwell had fired the entire band in May 1958 after an incident at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Left without a group, but with a years worth of contracted appearances to fill, the resourceful (and ruthless) Treadwell had no option but to put together an entirely new band. As fortune would have it, he saw a ready made act that fit the bill at the same Apollo show – the Crowns.
The Crowns started out in 1952 as the Five Crowns, a Harlem-based quintet consisting of Dock Green, Wilbur “Yonkie” Paul and brothers, James, Claudie and John Clark. In July of that year they signed with New York independent Rainbow Records for whom they were to release four singles. The Rainbow contract lasted just a year, and the following July they were with an even smaller operation, Old Town. One by one, all three of the Clark brothers left the group, and by the time the Crowns re-signed to Rainbow in 1955, Green and Paul were accompanied by Richard Lewis, Jess Facing and William Bailey. The group lasted long enough to record one single before splitting. A new line-up emerged and cut one single for Gee before they too disintegrated.
Dock Green was nothing if not determined, and in 1956 he managed to get four fifths of the group from the second spell with Rainbow back together. The missing member, William Bailey, was replaced by Leroy Brown. This line-up recorded one single for Essex subsidiary Trans-World, but then spent two years drifting without a deal and with a membership that changed almost weekly. Eventually, by 1958, the group had established a more stable line-up and were now just called the Crowns. They signed with a new label called RnB that had been set up by songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. At this point the tenacious Green was working alongside James Clark (from the Five Crowns mark one), Charlie Thomas, Elsbeary Hobbs and Benjamin Earl Nelson. The single “Kiss And Make Up” came out in March and sold quite well locally. As a result, the Crowns found themselves invited to play at the Apollo that May.
Impressed by what he had seen, Treadwell approached the group and offered them the chance to become the new Drifters, but with one proviso: that the hard drinking Clark would be dropped. The manager had had too many problems with a number of the previous group members and their predilection for the sauce to wish to hire another potential problem. The Crowns and their label bosses Pomus and Shuman readily agreed the deal. The writers knew that they would get more opportunities to work with artists at Atlantic if this went through. Clark was duly jettisoned and an agreement was struck, and after hardly any time for rehearsal, the new four-piece Drifters went on the road, where they would stay for the best part of nine months.
When the group finally got a chance to record in March 1959, Benjamin Nelson had reinvented himself as Ben E King (in homage to blues legend BB King). The four new Drifters, accompanied by guitarist Reggie Kimber who’d been touring with the group, made their studio debut on March 6th 1959, recording four songs. “There Goes My Baby” (Atlantic 2025) was chosen to be the first single. According to Jerry Leiber, who was a member of the production team, the whole sound of the record was the result of things generally falling apart in the studio, leaving them with no option but to experiment. Charlie Thomas, who had sung most of the leads for the Five Crowns, found that the song didn’t fit his natural vocal range. King also had to sing in a key above his range, but his vocals worked better. The Latin beat and out-of-tune tympani were in a different key to the singers, and everything was swamped by a huge, multi-tracked, orchestral swell. King later claimed that he was trying to sing like Sam Cooke, but it didn’t really sound like that at all.
On paper, it sounds a mess. But out of the chaos, something triumphant emerged. King’s vocals soared pleadingly over a grandiose backing that resembled nothing that had ever been done before. And all in two minutes eleven seconds. Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler was appalled, and thought the whole thing was incoherent garbage! Label boss Ahmet Ertegun was scarcely more impressed, but Leiber and Stoller talked him into releasing the record and it took off. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to understand how anyone could not have been thrilled by the record. But groundbreaking recordings often have a divisive effect, and it takes a long time for a positive consensus to form. “There Goes My Baby” was an R&B #1, and missed the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 by a whisker (it went all the way to the top in August 1959 according to the Cashbox sales-based chart). In a stroke, the new Drifters had eclipsed everything that their illustrious predecessors had managed.
(edited version of a piece from the forthcoming book Atlantic Singles 1947-77)