The Vault of Soul: The Drifters

A black and white photo of four members of the Drifters in suits is overlayed on a yellow background with text reading: "The Vault of Soul: The Drifters"
Graphics by Grace Kinney

Each week of Black History Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul with profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into the Drifter’s incredible legacy.


By Caitlin Molloy, Staff Writer



The Drifters vocal group was officially created in New York, New York in 1953. The sweet and memorable voices of the Drifters have stayed strong and recognizable since the band’s creation, despite a consistent shifting of members throughout the years. While the Drifters fit several genres of music (Doo-wop, rock and roll, and soul, to name a few), the quintet has continued to perfectly meld it’s gospel roots and classic R&B sound with ease. These artistic pioneers created an iconic and notable sound that is still honored in the industry today.

Originally a part of the R&B group Billy Ward and his Dominoes, Clyde McPhatter was pursued by Ahmet Ertegun after his departure from the Dominoes. Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, signed McPhatter and so the Drifters were born. McPhatter set out in New York, New York to find the rest of the vocals for the group.

McPhatter was born in Durham, North Carolina but by the age of 14 was living and singing in New York as a part of the gospel choir at 132nd Street Mount Lebanon Church. Using his connections from the Mount Lebanon singers he knew, McPhatter was able to pull in the original members of the Drifters. These singers included
David Baughn, William Anderson, David Baldwin, and James Johnson. 

As time went on, more primary members of the Drifters included Bill Pinckney,
Andrew Thrasher, Johnny Moore, Elsbery Hobbs, Gerhart Thrasher, Charlie Thomas and most notably Ben E. King. The many members of the Drifters all kept the quintessential R&B and soul roots of the music, and lead vocalists Clyde McPhatter,
Ben E. King and Johnny Moore all contributed to the gospel and R&B fusion that the Drifters are known for. 



The single “Money Honey” was the first song the newly formed Drifters released in 1953. It topped the Billboard charts for a strong 11 weeks, and later reached the 21st slot as a pop hit. Their next hit, “Such a Night,” hit number two on the charts for three weeks. The Drifters had several more Billboard hits throughout the 1950s and 60s, with members consistently leaving and joining the vocal group between some of their biggest hits. The Drifters iconic cover of the classic Christmas song “White Christmas” chartered both as a pop and R&B hit. The group ultimately had a total of 13 songs that charted as top hits.   

The Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Billy Joel in 1988. The seven members that were chosen to be inducted were Bill Pinkney, Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, Charlie Thomas, Gerhart Thrasher, Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore. The Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Drifters ten years later, in 1998.



Over the years, the Drifters toured with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sugar Ray Robinson, Alan Freed, LaVern Baker and many more. Although, not all of their tours went smoothly, with them once falsely accused of a crime by police and taken in for questioning, and another time having to work unscheduled to pay for unexpected car troubles. 

Many of the members went on after their time with the Drifters to have successful solo careers. Some of these members included Clyde McPhatter, Bobby Hendricks, and Ben E. King. 



Many of the Drifters, since their creation in 1953, have been from the south, including but not limited to North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia. Gospel music was embedded in their R&B and soul renditions. Vocal groups which preceded them and had influence on their career included the gospel infused group the Orioles, popular smooth group the Ink Spots and rhythm influenced group the Mills Brothers.


The Temptations
Dionne Warwick
The Neville Brothers
The Beach Boys
The Beatles
Otis Redding
Marvin Gaye



  • Grammys, Best Rock & Roll Recording nomination for “Up on the Roof” (1963)
  • Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988)
  • Inducted into Vocal Group Hall of Fame (1998)
  • Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards given to Bill Pinkney, Charlie Thomas and Johnny Moore (1999)
  • Inducted into Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame (2018)




Originally written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, this honey sweet and playful song was recorded by the Drifters in 1962. The then-lead Rudy Lewis performed this charming hit. As someone who grew up listening to this in South Carolina (and watching a childhood friend karaoke it in the third grade) it always reminds me of home. The more pop-inspired side of the Drifters can be heard throughout this hit. 



The memorable Ben E. King recorded this sweet love song, written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, for the Drifters in 1968. This soulful track features strings that really create a magic moment for the listeners and make the song sound effortless and irresistible to the ears. “This Magic Moment” ranked number 16 on the 1960s Hot 100’s list, and for good reason. 



This is one of the first recorded songs by the early Drifters in 1953, and the gospel style singing influence is the star of the show in this track. With lyrics about love and McPhatter’s memorable falsetto voice, it makes this since this was one of the first hits of the Drifters. It was written and performed by McPhatter, originally under the name Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters. It was later changed to “Lucille (with Clyde McPhatter)” by The Drifters. The name Lucille would go on to play a huge role in blues, R&B and rock & roll successes for artists such as Little Richard, B.B. King and the Beatles.


The Drifters have left their mark of genius in the R&B, soul, pop, and rock & roll worlds, long after the original members dispersed and their time together came to an end. Their unique sound is still one that can be heard today, and current members of the Drifters are still performing shows in both the United Kingdom and the United States. There are no original members still living, but their sound and legacy live on in music history. 


You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more. 

Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.

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