Obituary: Johnny Moore
Wednesday 06 January 1999
Over the course of a 45-year career, the ensemble had many line-up changes but, though he never attained the fame of the founder Clyde McPhatter or the lead singer Ben E. King, Moore was one of the few regulars. Indeed, he was the frontman when the Drifters hit a purple patch with eight British Top 10 hits in the mid-Seventies.
Originally formed in 1953 around the ex-Dominoes Clyde McPhatter and masterminded by George Treadwell as manager (then married to Sarah Vaughan), the Drifters were signed by the shrewd Ahmet Ertegun to Atlantic Records - already the home of the Coasters, Ray Charles, Joe Turner and LaVern Baker.
Having established themselves on the R&B scene with "Money Honey", "Such a Night" and "Honey Love", they stalled when their lead vocalist was drafted into the army in 1954 and his replacement David Baughan didn't work out. Bringing in Johnny Moore to take over proved a masterstroke.
Born in Selma, Alabama, in 1934, Moore moved to Cleveland when he was a teenager. After singing in the church choir, he made his name with the Hornets, a doo-wop and gospel group. When the Drifters came to town, the young Johnny introduced himself backstage, showed off his falsetto and was hired on the spot.
He was first heard with the group on "Adorable", a single recorded in September 1955 under the supervision of Nesuhi Ertegun (Ahmet's brother) in Los Angeles. The song was a big hit and Atlantic soon released "Ruby Baby", a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composition culled from the same session. Backing Moore at the time were Gerhard Trasher (tenor), his brother Andrew (baritone) and Bill Pinkney (bass).
By the time the Drifters recorded "Fools Fall in Love" in New York the following year, Andrew Trasher and Pinkney had been replaced by "Carnation" Charlie Hughes (baritone) and Tommy Evans (bass). They lost momentum and were soon eclipsed by the discharged McPhatter as Moore was in turn was also drafted.
By 1958, major surgery was needed and Treadwell, who owned the rights to the group's name, sacked the entire line-up and hired the Crowns - whose lead singer was Charlie Thomas - to fulfil the Drifters' contractual obligations; they also assumed their name. Ben E. King was only in the studio to teach them his "There Goes My Baby" when he was asked to take over from Thomas (who continued to sing with the group) by the engineer Jerry Wexler.
Using soaring strings and a symphonic approach that prefigured the Spector wall of sound, Leiber and Stoller helped the Drifters cross over from the R&B market and hit No 2 on the pop charts. Following "Dance With Me", "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance For Me" (a US No 1), Ben E. King argued with Treadwell over salaries and royalties and left for a solo career which started on a high. The immortal "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand By Me" (which Treadwell had turned down) looked like overshadowing the Drifters but, thanks to Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's "Sweets for My Sweet" (a British No 1 for the Searchers in 1963) and Gerry Goffin and Carole King's sublime "Up on the Roof" the group came back in 1962.
After the gospel-like "On Broadway", the Drifters, now comprising Rudy Lewis, Charlie Thomas, Gene Pearson, Johnny Terry, Abdul Samad and the returning Johnny Moore - who had briefly attempted a solo career as Johnny Darrow - were due to record with the producers Bert Berns and Mike Leander in June 1964. When Lewis suddenly died of a heart attack on the day of the session, Moore stepped into the lead role once again and the Drifters cut the poignant "Under the Boardwalk", which reached No 4 in America.
On another roll, the Moore-led Drifters worked with the finest writers from the Brill Building, the New York song factory. They cut Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann's "Saturday Night at the Movies" and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich's "I'll Take You Where the Music's Playing" before losing direction as Atlantic made inroads into the rock market.
By 1971, the Drifters were relying on compilation albums and the cabaret circuit to earn a living. George Treadwell died and Faye, his second wife, assumed managerial control of the group still led by the trusted Johnny Moore (she later documented her trials and tribulations in Save the Last Dance For Me: the musical legacy, a book written with Tony Allan and published in 1993). The following year, Clyde McPhatter died but the Drifters came back stronger than ever.
Reissues of "At the Club" and "Come On Over to My Place" had been unlikely UK Top 10 hits in 1972 and the Drifters signed a deal with Bell Records the following year. Moving to Britain, they soon found another great bunch of songwriters in Roger Cook, Roger Greenaway, Geoff Stephens, Barry Mason, Les Reed and Tony Macaulay who proved apt at recreating the group's classic ballad sound.
Starting with the soulful "Like Sister and Brother" and carrying on with the bouncy "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies", "There Goes My First Love", "Can I Take You Home Little Girl", "Hello Happiness" and "You're More Than a Number in My Little Red Book", the Drifters' easy-listening incarnation became regulars on Top of the Pops in the mid-Seventies. However, none of the singles charted in America and the advent of disco saw the group retreat into nostalgia again.
In early 1982, the exhausted Moore quit and, with Joe Blunt and Clyde Brown, launched his own outfit, Slightly Adrift, based in London, where he had settled and married. Confusion reigned as Faye Treadwell ended an 11-year-old agreement with Henry Sellers, the group's British promoter.
Various former members of the Drifters (by then numbering a conservative 50 plus) toured under the group's name, incurring the wrath of supper- club promoters and punters alike who would see the act billed in different cities on the same night. Reuniting briefly with Ben E. King in 1984, Moore re-established his claim to the mantle but King left again when "Stand By Me" reached number one in 1987 after being featured in a Levi's television commercial.
By then the Drifters had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of only three vocal groups at the time. Their huge repertoire of perennial million-sellers had become a staple of golden oldies stations and Bruce Willis thought nothing of impersonating Johnny Moore when covering "Under the Boardwalk" with the Temptations.
Beaming and smiling, Johnny Moore remained at the helm of the Drifters to the end. This versatile vocalist and supreme interpreter could claim to have sung on more than 80 per cent of their records. Indeed, he sang "Come On Over to My Place" on the BBC television show Winton's Wonderland alongside Jimmy Nail, Jimmy Tarbuck and Barbara Windsor two weeks ago. It was a measure of how far Moore and the Drifters had travelled into the mainstream.
John Darrel Moore, singer: born Selma, Alabama 15 December 1934; married (three sons); died London 30 December 1998.
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