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Go back to the boardwalk with The Drifters' Charlie Thomas

From rehearsal to showtime, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Drifters member Charlie Thomas shares an evening in his life.

By Todd Baptista

It's nearly 5 o’clock as Charlie Thomas steps onto the stage of the vintage New England theater where he’ll be performing on this warm spring evening. Despite the fact that the 74-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has only had four hours of sleep to recover from the previous night’s show 1,100 miles away, he and his Drifters — Lou Bailey, Stephen Brown and Jeffrey Hall — eagerly take the stage with keyboardist Jack Colombo and his band to rehearse some new material Thomas has asked his musical director to prepare.

The other acts have finished their sound check early, and The Drifters now have a rare hour to themselves. The band sets a thumping R&B groove for a rocking medley of the Bill Pinkney chestnut, “Steamboat,” segueing effortlessly into “Drip Drop,” originally led by Bobby Hendricks. The chart works well, and the two-dozen lucky individuals watching the rehearsal mirror Thomas’ smile as the final chord rings out.

The Drifters in May 2011

The Drifters — Jeffrey Hall, Louis Bailey, Charlie Thomas and Stephen Brown — performed May 21, 2011, in Cranston, R.I. Todd Baptista photo.

Someone mentions “Kiss and Make Up,” Thomas’ first lead committed to wax with The Crowns on Doc Pomus’ tiny R&B label in 1958.

“We were at the Apollo Theater on the amateur show,” the Richmond, Va., native recounts. “We took the amateur show, and they kept us there for two weeks, opening for Ray Charles and Duke Ellington’s band. Clyde McPhatter had gone into the Army, and George Treadwell, the manager of The Drifters, was looking for a new lead singer. That ended up being Ben E. King, who was singing with me and Dock Green, Elsbeary Hobbs, and Poppa Clark, who ended up leaving. So Benny told George he would take the job if he would give us, The Five Crowns, the backup. He took the job and wrote ‘There Goes My Baby,’ and that’s what put us on top as The Drifters.”

The Drifters

The Drifters in 1963 (clockwise, top center): Charlie Thomas, Rudy Lewis, Johnny Moore, Johnny Terry, Gene Pearson. Photo courtesy Todd Baptista.

Thomas brushes off the offer of a lyric sheet and remembers most of the words to “Kiss and Make Up” from memory. “Don’t go away, come back and stay where you belong,” he repeats as the band vamps the ending, waiting for Charlie’s cue to end the tune.

“I haven’t done that one since I was a kid,” he laughs before jumping into “Baltimore,” a rarity from the group’s initial 1959 Atlantic session. Scanning a fat, three-ring binder bulging with close to 50 charted tunes is a collector’s dream. From the original group’s heyday — “Ruby Baby,” “I’ve Gotta Get Myself A Woman,” “Bells of St. Mary,” even “The Way I Feel,” are ready should Thomas call them out, which he frequently does. An authentic, driving “At The Club” is next, followed in rapid succession by “Please Stay.”

“If I got on my knees, and I pleaded with you …” Charlie implores, his soulful tenor augmented solely by a mellow guitar and auxiliary percussion. “We’ll do that one tonight,” Colombo affirms.

On occasion, Charlie selects the emotional flip of “Under The Boardwalk.” “I Don’t Want To Go On Without You,” recorded in tribute to one of the group’s greatest lead voices, brings back memories.

“Rudy Lewis was supposed to record that song,” he explains, remembering his close friend who died unexpectedly in a Harlem hotel room on May 20, 1964, at age 27. “Rudy had a heart attack. When he died, I was the one who closed his eyes. They gave me the song to record after he passed on. I really do love that song because that one, in particular, brings back a lot of memories.”

During a quick pause, a fan asks Thomas about “Only In America,” whose line about growing up to become president became a reality in 2008.

The Drifters

“We recorded that first, but that was back in the time when they had a lot of prejudices,” he explains. “They told us it wouldn’t be right for a black group to sing it because people might take it as a racial thing, so they gave it to Jay and the Americans. I think it was truly a beautiful song. I didn’t care who did it. It was about the United States. It was about our hometown, whether we were black or whatever, you know. We should record that again.”

Bringing a bit of theater to the group’s stage show, the auditorium’s lighting technicians spot a round card table at stage right with Bailey, Brown, and Hall easing into three of four nondescript chairs encircling it.

“Looks like I’ll spend another night with the boys,” Thomas sings alone, as his Drifters play a mock poker game a few feet away. “Deal ’em,” Charlie barks, taking the lone empty chair at the table at the song’s end as the stage lights fade to black.
Before time runs out, discussion turns to “A Midsummer Night In Harlem,” an often overlooked 1974 gem that the group is working to bring back to the stage.

“That was the last big one we had,” Charlie states. “We were going back to The Apollo Theater, because they were thinking of tearing it down. This was before they did the Motown special in the ’80s. A guy named Freddie Anisfield wrote that song for me to sing on the stage. It was a beautiful song, but it seemed like he disappeared off the map after we recorded it, and we couldn’t put it out the way we wanted. Maybe we can put the song out like it’s supposed to be put out, because it was a truly beautiful song.”

From the mid-’70s into the 21st century, new recordings by Thomas have been few and far between.

“We are trying to go forward, but we were standing still for a long time,” he explains. “We’ve been standing still for years doing the great songs that The Drifters have recorded. It didn’t seem like we could go into the studio to bring out anything new or fresh. The music of the day didn’t seem to agree with us. I don’t know what was wrong with it, but I made more money off radio stations and studios calling me back in to do my songs over again. But I would like to have a No. 1 hit again so the people would know that The Drifters are still around and kicking.”

“Take Me Back To The Boardwalk,” the first all-new studio recording by Thomas’ Drifters in years, is the title track from the CD the group sells at its performances. A nostalgic look at The Drifters’ golden years, it’s an authentic piece that blends nicely with the live show highlights that fill the remainder of the disc.

The Drifters Saturday Night At The Movies

“Jack Colombo wrote that one for me,” Charlie explains. “Jack runs across the globe with me, and he really does help me a lot. He’s younger than I am, but when he first came to me he said, ‘Charlie, I don’t want to play with anyone but you. Please let me play with you.’ I took him on, and he hasn’t failed me yet. He’s been with me almost 11 years. He learned everything The Drifters did, and he’s helped me put it out to the people on the stage. He’s a magnificent gentleman.”

A native of Brockton, Mass., Colombo initially refined the group’s existing arrangements. “There wasn’t anything fresh or new,” Colombo, a Hammond enthusiast explains. “It was routine. Individual parts in the arrangements got lost over time, so I went back and listened to the recordings and rewrote all the charts. I felt Charlie’s legacy and show needed more thought, so we added new material that no one ever bothered to tackle. The set list is different every night. I always ask, ‘How can I keep the audience on a constant roller coaster ride? How do we keep the energy constant and climbing, taking into account the tempos, balancing the hits with the B-sides, what to hit hard, what works unplugged and when to hit lightly and emotionally.’ For those who have seen us before, the challenge is how do we keep surprising them and making it a new show?”

“Some of my old friends have gone, but they’re still singing for me … and the song we sang together is still part of my best memories,” Thomas sings in the last verse of the new tune, his voice filled with emotion and pride. “Even though we weren’t born from the same mother or father, we called each other brother, and that’s love right there,” he relates, glancing at images of his old singing partners. “All my childhood friends I loved: Elsbeary Hobbs, Dock Green, Johnny Moore — I used to call him ‘pie’ because of his bald head — Rudy Lewis, and Bill Pinkney. I loved them like brothers.”

With the exception of his longtime friend Ben E. King, who left the group to go solo in 1960, Thomas is keenly aware that all the men who sang the hits with him have passed away. His attention quickly turns back to the task at hand.

“But life goes on. We can only pray for each other, and when we meet each other again, we’ll hug each other and love each other in the name of God.”

Asking Thomas about any of the non-original Drifters groups trading off the name elicits genuine distaste — the revulsion of someone who’s been robbed.

“It takes jobs away. People are getting the phonies. I realize that the world is a small place and people need money, but we’ve got a whole lot of friends across the country that get disappointed, and it hurts our hearts when I get mail saying ‘We went to see The Drifters, but it wasn’t you, Charlie’. That makes me feel bad, makes them feel bad, and I have to explain and explain. I hate it when my friends in the public go someplace and see faces they’ve never seen before. I’d tell these people, ‘Don’t hurt my friends.’”

A radio interviewer asks Thomas what he thinks of today’s music, and where The Drifters fit into the modern music scene.

“They told me from the beginning that rock ’n’ roll will never die, and I believe that, because I think in my heart there are a lot of kids out there that love it,” he says. “I would hope that some of the kids today would pick up on some of the good old rock ’n’ roll. We had good times back in the day. I miss people like Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. I miss those kinds of guys, and it’s a shame to see that legacy fall apart. The kids today are walking around McDonald’s with their hats turned backwards and their britches falling down. They’ve got to pull their britches up and be somebody. I can’t see myself walking around pulling up my britches. You’ve got people whose waist is 28 and they buy 38 pants. Maybe I can teach them how to wear a belt. And they’re hitting me left and right with these names. Who is Lady Gaga? Hootie and the Blowfish? I respect the entertainer, but these names get me. I love the singing, don’t get me wrong. I do love the music.”

By now, it’s past 6, and the theater staff is beginning to prepare to open the theater doors for the evening’s performance.

“Let’s do a little bit of ‘Boardwalk’,” Thomas tells Colombo, drawing a puzzled look. It’s the set closer at all the group’s performances, and a tune they all know in their sleep. Still, the bassist begins the familiar six-note pattern and Charlie sings, “When the sun beats down and burns the tar up on the roof…” Slowly, it starts to dawn on the band and the singers that Thomas is not rehearsing — but performing the group’s signature classic especially for the theater staff and those who have stayed to watch his rehearsal. Not surprisingly, he takes the tune to its conclusion, smiling and singing to a wheelchair-bound guest before retiring to his hotel room for a quick pre-show nap.

It’s just after 9, and The Drifters, decked out in red, white and black, stand just off stage in the wings, watching Colombo and the band kick off the group’s overture.

“I don’t eat too much before I go on,” Charlie explains. “I drink a couple of bottles of water to keep my nerves down, and then we’re on stage for an hour. After I do my show, I start snacking on whatever I can: grapes, yogurt, maybe cake. I try not to eat too many sweets, but I love cakes and pies. Maybe I’ll eat a little lasagna.”

Hall, Brown and Bailey harmonize to the familiar passages emanating from the overture, smiling and loosening up with a few precision dance steps. Thomas stands apart, closest to the curtain, intently watching the band and studying the audience’s reaction.

“Back in the day, Pigmeat Markham and Ruth Brown told me if you don’t get nervous on the stage, you won’t do a good show. Every night before I hit the stage, I get a little nervous. Then, I look up in the air and say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for the blessing,’ and I walk out on the stage.”

As the band begins vamping the familiar opening of “On Broadway,” Thomas purposely emerges to claim the spotlight, his Drifters following closely.

“Hey, hey, hey ... we’re here to have a party today ...” he sings with an equal blend of joy and attitude. For nearly 90 minutes, the group breezes from one Drifters favorite to another. While the first three or four tunes are unchanged nearly every night, Charlie rarely knows what’s coming next. He and Colombo understand and trust one another. The singer never asks to see the set list. Thomas picks up on the band’s vamp and jumps into “Saturday Night At The Movies” and “Sweets For My Sweet” without missing a beat, honors requests for “When My Little Girl Is Smiling” and “Drip Drop,” and calls for Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” when someone special in the audience touches his heart. The new material draws raves alongside staples “Up On The Roof,” “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “This Magic Moment.”

“Drifters is all we do,” Charlie explains. “We have so many songs, we don’t need to do other people’s material. We do all of them from ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Money Honey’ on down.”

Minutes after the finale, the group members slide into four waiting chairs in the theater lobby. For nearly 30 minutes, they sign autographs, pose for pictures, chat with fans and thank their audience. Fans remark that Thomas and his group sound better than ever.

“For an old man, 74 years old, I’m still loving rock ’n’ roll, and I’m still doing what I used to do,” he sums. “I love my audience. The connection with my audience is memories and love. I appreciate it, and I love what God put me here to do. I’m a Drifter, and I’m proud to say that, because I’ve been a Drifter ever since I was 20 years old. I’m still going, and I’m not thinking of leaving here for a long while.”

After five short hours of sleep, the fellows are waiting to board an early-morning flight back to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They’ll have the week to rest before resuming their touring schedule. Gigs in Biloxi, Miss.; Detroit; Little Rock, Ark.; New Jersey and even Deadwood, S.D., lie on the road ahead. Fifty-three years into his career, the veteran road warrior seems indefatigable. If Charlie’s tired, he doesn’t show it.