Obituaries: Bill Fredericks

BILL FREDERICKS was one of the many featured vocalists with the Drifters. While he never reached the heights of success of the group's founder member Clyde McPhatter or a later lead vocalist Ben E. King, who both went on to solo careers, Fredericks's presence enabled the Drifters to survive the late Sixties and find a new audience in Britain in the early Seventies. Most famously, Fredericks's rich, smooth baritone propelled the soulful, yearning "Like Sister and Brother" into the British Top Ten in 1972.

Born in Harlem in 1941, Fredericks was one of six children. His father worked as head chef in a New York restaurant; the family was relatively well off and the young Bill grew up in a middle class part of the black neighbourhood. He recalled:

Growing up in New York City was an education in itself. In the area where I lived there were two groups to every block; all making music, all having fun and all hoping that one day they might break out of the rut and make it to the top of the tree. Only a few went on to better things: the Flamingos, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Moonglows and the Coasters.

It was a hard struggle to gain any sort of recognition outside of the black community because music and styles were very much segregated into black and white. One of the groups I was with - the Packards - actually got to make a record called "Ding Dong" on the Playback label. It was a fairly substantial hit in the New York negro community but no further afield.

Following the 1956 release of that single, Fredericks left school and landed a job as a shipping clerk for a clothes company. But he had caught the show-biz bug and, after two years in the army, spent most of his spare time as an entertainer in cabaret and at cocktail parties. "We sang all types of material but we did tend to specialise in Drifters songs. The band had three singers and somewhat imitated their style," Fredericks said later. "Then I heard through the grapevine that the Drifters were looking for a singer. So I went along for the audition and was offered the job on the spot with the proviso that I could start straight away. Well, no one turns down a chance like that!"

By 1967, when Fredericks joined the Drifters, the group had sold over 15 million records as "There Goes My Baby", "Dance With Me", "Save the Last Dance For Me" and "Under the Boardwalk" crossed over from the rhythm 'n' blues to the pop market. Masterminded by the formidable impresario George Treadwell, who owned the rights to the group's name and wasn't averse to sacking the entire line-up if they requested a pay rise, the Drifters had been through a procession of vocalists including Clyde McPhatter, Gerhart Thrasher, Bill Pinkney, Bobby Hendricks, Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis.

At first, Fredericks's tenure coincided with something of a fallow period for the ensemble which also comprised Johnny Moore on lead, the tenor Rick Sheppard and the bass vocalist Charles Thomas. Until the mid-Sixties, the Drifters had been a priority act for Atlantic Records who afforded them the best songwriters and producers (including Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Gerry Goffin and Carole King). However, the label's founder Ahmet Ertegun now spent more time on solo artists and rock acts.

Subsequently, the Drifters were shunted between various arrangers and in the space of four years issued only five singles ("Ain't It the Truth", "Still Burning In My Heart", "Your Best Friend", "Black Silk" and "Be My Lady"). Fredericks sang lead on a couple of those and decided to stick around, even though the group had been through yet another reshuffle, the baritone Butch Leake and bass vocalist Don Thomas coming in alongside Fredericks and Moore.

When George Treadwell died in 1971, his widow Faye took over the Drifters' affairs. The following year, reissues of "At the Club" and "Come On Over To My Place" made the British Top Ten and the Drifters relocated to London. Their fortunes enjoyed a further revival when they signed to Bell Records in 1973 and released "Like Sister and Brother". Fredericks was the featured vocalist on that classic single but was restricted to a harmony role on the easy listening soul of "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies", "Down on the Beach Tonight" and "Love Games" which charted in the next two years.

In 1975, after a conflict between Fredericks and the Drifters' management, he went solo but remained in London. "Britain seemed the ideal place for me," he explained. "I love the country and I was determined to build a new career by playing the cabaret clubs up and down the country. I've not regretted the move one little bit." In the late Seventies, he signed to Polydor Records and issued three singles, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?", "Lovers" and a stunning cover version of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody", and also contributed to the soundtracks of the films Black Joy (1977) and The Stud (1978).

Fredericks still performed with his former colleagues on the odd occasion and released a fine solo version of the Lou Rawls tune "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" on the Unigram label. But mostly he worked the supper-clubs of Scandinavia and Germany, and also appeared at the Dorchester, the Ritz, Blazers, Baileys, Jimmy's and the Cafe Royal in London. As well as performing Drifters' hits, he did impersonations, of John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jnr and even Jackie Mason.

In the last few years, Bill Fredericks found a lucrative niche doing voice-overs. His warm, velvety tones were heard on television and film commercials (for Marmite, Radox and various Walt Disney projects) and radio stations. In the course of a 45-year span, the Drifters have had many incarnations and a version of the group is still performing up and down Britain.

William Fredericks, singer: born New York 23 August 1941; died London 28 April 1999.