The Drifters - interview with Charlie Thomas

 

Thomas, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, was the Drifters tenor vocalist and occasional lead singer during their golden age. He stayed with the group for nine years, until 1967. Thomas sang lead on "Sweets For My Sweet" and “When My Little Girl Is Smiling” among others, and also sings on "Save the Last Dance For Me," "Up On The Roof," "Under The Boardwalk," "On Broadway," “This Magic Moment,” "There Goes My Baby," to name a few.

He was born April 7, 1937, in Lynchburg, Virginia. The interview took place in the Theatre Outremont, Montreal, Quebec, on May 14, 2013, before his group, The Charlie Thomas Drifters, headlined an oldies show that also included the Tokens, the Vogues, and the Chiffons.

Charlie Thomas photo by Randy Barker - source.

Craig Morrison : Can you tell me about your time in the 5 Crowns ?

Charlie Thomas : Ooh boy, yeah ! At the moment [1957 or early 1958], I was with Ben E. King [then using his real name Ben Nelson] in his father’s hot dog place on 8th Avenue, and a gentleman named Lover Patterson came in and asked us, would we like to sing ? So we told him, “Yeah, we’d like to sing.” Lover Patterson took us off the street and took us to his apartment and we met Dock Green, James “Papa” Clark, and Yonkie [Wilbur “Yonkie” Paul], and then he [re-] formed the 5 Crowns. Yonkie, Dock Green, Elsbeary Hobbs and James “Papa” Clark came from the original 5 Crowns. [Between 1952 and 1956, the 5 Crowns had nine singles released on various labels to little success.]

CM : Were you already singing around ?

CT : No, we wasn’t doing anything but just walking the streets, you know, so he decided that he would just give us something to do. It was in his apartment we started rehearsing, rehearsing each and every day, because we loved to sing but he just wanted to unite and get us together. And we went to the Apollo Theater and we won the amateur show at the Apollo Theater.

CM : Fantastic.

CT : It was magnificent. The guys that won the amateur show got the opportunity to stay with the stars who’s coming to the Apollo the following week, and it was just our luck that it was Little Willie John, Big Maybelle, and Ray Charles was starring the show, with Pigmeat Markham as the comedy.

[According to Marv Goldberg, it was a one-week engagement that started May 30, 1958. “It was a Dr. Jive show, and the Crowns shared the stage with Ray Charles, the Heartbeats, the Cadillacs, Ann Cole, the Cookies, Solomon Burke, Tiny Topsy, and the Drifters.” To see Marv Goldberg’s listing of all Apollo Theater shows from 1934 - 1960, click here.]

CT : It was great. So we stayed there for two weeks and after the two weeks was almost over, [the Drifters’ manager] George Treadwell asked us, “I got some shows for y’all to do,” and that’s when he made a change in the Drifters. [Treadwell fired the current members of the group, and hired the 5 Crowns as the new lineup of the Drifters.]

CM : Right, I knew about that.

CM : What were the 5 Crowns singing at the Apollo ? photo source : Marv Goldberg’s article on the 5 Crowns

CT : Well, we had a song called “I Swear.” It was an old blues song and Ben E. King sung the song. [Possibly “I Swear By All the Stars Above,” recorded by the Heartbreakers (1952) and the Griffins (1955), both r&b vocal groups. Ben E. King did a different song called “I Swear By Stars Above” (1966).] They started throwing silver, big bo dollars [an old slang term, possibly from “bottom dollar” : a coin you keep even when you are broke, so you are never totally broke].

CM : Silver dollars ?

CT : Silver dollars. They was worried about them throwing the silver dollars ’cause it might hurt us. They was some heavy things. So they closed the curtain and they started sweeping. Man, I don’t know how much money they got but we didn’t get a penny, we didn’t get not one nickel.

CM : That’s not good. What was the atmosphere like at the Apollo when you were playing there ? We always hear about amateur night and how rough it was.

CT : Amateur night at the Apollo was very exciting. If you did bad, they’d throw tomatoes and cabbages at you. When we first went there, we was on the stage and I told them, “Don’t, please don’t throw no tomatoes,” you know, “a cabbage, then without the toast and a little bit of jelly or something I can spread it with.” And they started laughing.

CM : That helped.

CT : Yeah, but Amateur Night at the Apollo, it was, if you made it in amateur, it was a good school. The Apollo Theater was a good school for an entertainer. If you didn’t have it, the audience [let you know] that you didn’t have it ; but if you got it, you got all the love, the whistling, the standing ovation, you got all the love. You got all the love ! And that’s what we had : we had the love from the people in our corner. When we did our song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” too that night - [from the 1954 version by] Roy Hamilton. I sung the song, and man, we just tore them up. I was so proud ’cause they stood up and gave us a standing [ovation], wouldn’t let us of the stage. That’s when them bo dollars come in, you know what I mean ? And we didn’t get one nickel out of them.

CM : That’s terrible.

CT : We just glad we escaped ’cause they was some heavy thangs, very, very heavy. I’m just glad they didn’t hit nobody in the head and knock them out. My mother was in the audience, my family, it was a good moment for us at that time.

photo source - Marv Goldberg’s article on the 5 Crowns

My first record with the Five Crowns was “Kiss and Make Up” - [written by] Doc Pomus and Morty Shuman. [Issued February 1958, with Charlie Thomas singing lead. It was the last record that the Five Crowns did].

CM : What was Doc Pomus like ?

CT : Oh, he was a sweetheart. I used to push his chair around ; he had a wheelchair. Me and Doc used to go into clubs, we used to go into dining rooms. He lived on 72nd street in New York City and I lived on 121st Street, and the first place I’d take off, I’d go to Doc. Doc used to write songs, and I just sat there, listening and singing for him. Then we’d go out to lunch or go out to shoot pool or something like that. Doc was a sweetheart ; he was the best, he was the best : believe me !

CM : Yeah, and he wrote great stuff.

CT : He wrote great stuff !

CM : “Sweets For My Sweet” was one of his. I know that’s your lead. [It was a hit for the Drifters in 1961].

CT : Doc wrote that for me. He was just one gorgeous guy. You couldn’t meet a better guy, and he was handicapped. But he was a sweetheart. His heart was bigger than his wheelchair. That’s what I always told him, “Your heart is bigger than your wheelchair, Doc.” On his birthdays we used to go out and party a lot down in the Village. I miss him very, very much.

CM : Did you ever hear the version of “Sweets For My Sweet” by the Searchers [released in England in June 1963] ?

CT : No, I have not.

CM : They’re a group from Liverpool, same place as the Beatles, and they did a good recording of it. It was on the radio in ’64. [Another song that Charlie Thomas sang the lead on was “I Don’t Want To Go On Without You,” written by Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler, which was also covered by the Searchers.]

CT : That’s great but Morty Shuman took off and went to England. He had something to do with “Sweets For My Sweet” too [Shuman was the co-author]. He used to play keyboards for Doc. Doc write the song ; Morty just play the keyboards. He took off and went to England. So, if they recorded “Sweets For My Sweet” over there…

CM : It’s probably cause of him. Or they heard your record !

CT : Or they heard me. [We laugh.] It was a beautiful song, though.

CM : When you were finding your own voice, was there somebody that you admired, that was a mentor to you, or that inspired you ?

CT : I just loved my mother’s voice ; my mother loved to sing. She used to sing for me as a baby. My dad was a Holy Roller preacher down in Virginia. At my father’s church I used to take the tambourine and do collection and my mother used to sing in the choir. My daddy used to be the minister. That’s where I really got my training from singing. In Vicksburg, Virginia, on a Sunday, they have chimes, big chimes, especially on New Years’ Eve. They playing New Years’ songs and my grandmother and I’d be singing to the chimes as they play. That’s beautiful. I just got it from my family, I guess.

CM : Do you still listen to or like gospel music ?

CT : Oh, I love gospel music ! Yes, indeed, I love gospel music ! I still sing it too. I was thinking of recording a gospels album.

CM : What would you put on it ?

CT : I really don’t know. I love so many gospel singers and I love God. Number one, I love God, and I know that if He leads me that way, I would go that way. You know, ’cause the gospel and people still in the public. I’ve been singing rock and roll since I was seven years old, but sometimes when I go to church, they ask me to sing a song or two, and I do. All the blessing. When my mother passed, my reverend told me, “You sing a song, child, it’ll make you feel better.” I sung a song for my mother. It didn’t make me feel better but it felt like she was there.

CM : It made other people feel better.

CT : Yeah, it made other people feel better, and I felt, you know, very relaxed singing it too.

CM : What song was that ?

CT : “Nearer My God” [“Near My God To Thee”].

CM : Wow, what a song ! That channels a lot of emotions.

CT : Oh, yeah ! Oh, yeah !

CM : What does your family think or did your parents think of your music career ?

CT : Well, my kids and my wife, they love my career. But my mother and my brothers and my sister, all of them passed on, they gone. I got one uncle down in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountain and he’s 92 years old, still carrying his own. I got an aunt down there. They love what I’m doing. I go down there just to get out of all the agony. I go down there, me and my uncle, we go by the river bank and just fish and enjoy barbeques.

CM : Was the fact that your father was a preacher, was that any issue for him that you were doing this kind of music ?

CT : No, no, it wasn’t, because we really needed the money, and it was paying. Back in the day, it wasn’t paying that much, but it was something honest for me to do aside from stealing hubcaps.

CM : Did you ever do that ?

CT : Hey, hey, hey ! I would not, no, I would not let you know that. But it kept me out of a lot of trouble ; singing kept me out of a whole lot of trouble. It really did lead me the right way. I’ve been around the globe four or five times with Dick Clark, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, all the elder fellas. And I got pictures with every last one of them to show it even true. Listen to this : I went to London and I wanted to see Buckingham Palace. This is a true story, so help me God. It was early in the morning, so I said, “Let me get up and take me a walk around Buckingham Palace.” And I did ; and I saw the soldiers stand there. I sit there and I just stared at him, and then one of them didn’t even do anything. So I said, “Well, let me walk on around.” The sun was coming up in the Buckingham Palace window, and I saw this lady looking out the window. I waved at her and she waved back. I don’t know if it was the Queen. I’m not saying it was the Queen, but I’m hoping in my heart that. I always believed that it was the Queen.

CM : And somebody up there is going, “Who’s that old lady waving to Charlie Thomas ?”

CT : [laughs] Well, she looked out, waving the prettiest little wave.

CM : Oh, that’s sweet. “Sweets For My Sweet.” What is the role of the first tenor in a vocal group ? That’s what you are, right, a first tenor ?

CT : I sing mostly lead now, I sing tenor. Back in the days, the tenor used to always get the girls because they just sound like a little bird and girls used to love hear ‘em do that, that Smokey Robinson, that tenor…

CM : Way up there.

CT : Yeah, way up there, and always get the girl the tenor did.

CM : And so, so, and so….

CT : And I done wound up with a wife ! [We both laugh.] Oh, blessed, oh, yes sir ! Even Clyde McPhatter was a tenor, a beautiful tenor singer, “Treasure of Love” and “A Lover’s Question.” And “Money Honey” - it was [with] the Drifters. As he moved out [for his solo career], there’s guys that came in and was doing great tenor songs too. They tried to duplicate him, and they kept the Drifters name going and going. But when I got in, it was the greatest move they could’ve ever made, ah ha hah ! [laughing], for me and for them. I love myself singing with the Drifters, I did love myself. But they, a lot of people run around telling me I can’t sing with the Drifters, I can’t do this and they don’t want me to do that. Guys [in Drifters tribute acts] say they’re Drifters at 27, 28 years old. I have no fear against whatever they’re doing, but I know what I got in my heart and I know what I got in my soul. I know what God told me to do. I know what I’ve been doing for the last 55 or 60 years : I’ve been travelling and singing.

CM : And you’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

CT : I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Vocal Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. I’m there, and I don’t say just to be saying. I paid my dues. I paid my dues. This is all I know how to do, just walk around the globe and sing to the public, and I love what I’m doing. Believe me : I do, I love it.

CM : When you saw Little Willie John or Ray Charles, did you get something from them ? Different ways of being on stage or different ways of singing ? What did you get ?

CT : Oh, yeah ! Oh, yeah ! You get vibes ; you get vibes. I worked with Ray Charles for, ooh, a good eight months, touring California places with Fathead Newman, Ray Charles, Little Willie John. Me and Willie John used to sit on the side and play cards all the time. When you find an elder entertainer, like Ruth Brown or Pigmeat Markham, it feels like you got a battery charge, you know what I mean ? They’re teaching you something. The most simplest thing that I was taught by Big Reuben Phillip Band, used to be the backup band at the Apollo Theater with Pigmeat Markham and all of them. They said, “Never turn your back on an audience.” They say, “If you turn your back on ‘em you introducing something that’s wrong.” I used to do that. And he looked at me and said, “Charlie, never turn your back to the audience, turn sideways.”

I’m from the South. I used to come in and say, “I is” and “I ain’t,” and all of that. They broke me out of all of that. But it’s a charge-up : whenever you meet an older entertainment, they always got something. I used to go see Pookie Hudson with the Spaniels. He used to sit down and tell me different things to do right, to let the audience really love you. You gotta respect ’em in so many ways. It’s the way you carry yourself, too. Bo Diddley, even Bo Diddley with his guitar, we used sit down and talk : “Charlie, whenever you do this or you do that, you say thank you.” Gracias. Merci beaucoup. You say it all the time, “Thank you, and thank you, and thank you.” You must say that. They always got something to tell you, all the entertainers.

Aaron Neville, he back there. I used to look at him, I really didn’t hug him like I did most the other entertainers, but he happened to lead the way for me for a long time, ever since he recorded the song “Tell It Like It Is” [1966]. I’ve been loving that song and loving that song, and I watches him : he don’t jump around act crazy. He just sit there with a beautiful voice that God gave him and then he sing. And he appreciates what he do and the people appreciate it.

CM : So when you give advice to somebody, what advice would you give ?

CT : Well, for young folks nowadays, my advice is to tell ’em : “Keep your britches up, turn your hat around, and learn some good old rock and roll.”

CM : Great ! Is there anything you want to add that I didn’t ask ?

CT : Well, God bless ’em. God bless everyone, God bless you. And thanks for everything that you done for me. As long as I can carry on and carry on, I don’t mean no harm to no one else. This is what God gave me, my voice. I never had lessons or anything. The only lesson I got was from the Apollo Theater and the gentleman that really led me on, like Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Bunny Briggs the tap dancer, different people that I met through the days. When I first got out of school, my mother didn’t want me to become an entertainer. I told her, “I got one more year of high school and we on vacations.” She said, “You gonna need that one more year,” and I said, “Mom, I’ll pick it up out here someway.” [Actor] Sidney Poitier told me, “Charlie, you must read papers and books.” So every morning, I pick me a newspaper. I educated myself with books and stuff through the years. I did that. And I guess that’s why I’m rewarded to be a singer, and I hope I’m doing a good job.

CM : You are.

CT : Thank you sir.

CM : What a pleasure.

CT : Thank you.


Thanks for the recent interview in Montreal. It was a real pleasure meeting and having the opportunity to sit and talk with you. Attached is a copy of the photo you requested.
I appreciate you more than you can imagine. Continue to keep the sounds of ’Rock & Roll’ alive. - Charlie Thomas

comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several additional interviews with veteran musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006