How many people have been in The Drifters? God only knows - somewhere around fifty is my guess, but Pete Frame has yet to do a rock family tree of the band so I can't be sure. At any rate Johnny Moore is the longest serving of the lot of them, doing his first stint with the group in 1955. He rejoined in the early 60s, gave his best vocal performance on the sublime 'Under The Boardwalk' and was still appearing with a group called The Drifters until his death. We're talking about a man with a lot of history.
The relevant part of this illustrious career, as far as Glitter Suits & Platform Boots is concerned, is the early and mid 70s. At the beginning of the decade Atlantic Records dropped The Drifters after nearly twenty years of association, and the band found themselves without a deal. Moore, who had by now become the regular lead vocalist, was deeply disappointed at Atlantic's decision, but actually it worked out in their favour: it had been years since The Drifters were a serious chart force in America, Atlantic had other acts on their minds (Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin and the like), and the group really needed a change of direction.
That change came in the unlikely form of Bell Records in Britain. Fast becoming one of the most successful singles labels in the country, Bell signed up The Drifters with the hot songwriting team of Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway and launched them on a new career. The hits that followed were essentially re-workings of the teen themes explored during the band's most successful years in the early 60s: songs like 'Kissing In The Back Row Of The Movies', 'There Goes My First Love' and 'You're More Than A Number In My Little Red Book' didn't exactly add anything to the established Drifters style - they simply moved the band even further towards the mainstream and away from the r&b vocal tradition from which it had emerged.
Even so, I liked the records then and I still like them now: there's a naive charm to Johnny's vocal delivery that undercuts the incestuous frisson of 'Like Sister And Brother', and makes you forget how incongruous it is that a man of his age should be singing stuff like 'Can I Take You Home Little Girl'. And the sheer craftsmanship and professionalism of the Cookaway hit-making machine has to be admired. The best session-players in the country worked on these tracks - guys like Mike Moran on piano, Chris Spedding on guitar, Tony Burrows on backing vocals (Moore sang lead, but the other Drifters weren't invited to the sessions) - which may explain why they sound like a hell of a lot of other hit singles from the era. The backing-tracks were - often literally - interchangeable. But, like I say, I rate them as pure pop. And Moore himself remained pragmatic about his career: 'Somebody said to Roger Greenaway, "Why are you writing bubblegum music?" He said, "Well give me another formula that hits and I'll write in that vein. But this one's hitting, so why change?" That's true - why change?'
The hits eventually dried up in 1976, possibly because The Drifters didn't attempt to get into disco which might have kept them going a bit longer. But the rejuvenation of their career was complete by then. Britain, which had always had a soft spot for the band anyway, was now firmly established as the key market and Johnny continued to lead his group around the live circuit, working one of the most impressive back-catalogues in the world.
I met Johnny Moore once. It was backstage at the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft, one cold Sunday night in November 1997, just before yet another gig on yet another tour of Britain reviving all the old hits. He was everything you could ask or want of an old professional: hospitable, courteous and happy to reminisce. He looked as tired as a 63-year-old man about to entertain an off-season Lowestoft crowd should look, but was still enthusiastic about his craft. 'As long as I'm physically able to do it, I'll do it,' he said; a short while later he went on-stage and did it. And of course he gave the usual polished performance that he'd been doing for years, the kind of performance guaranteed to make the audience come back next time.
He died on New Year's Eve 1998 at the age of 64. I mourned him.
1972 At The Club/Saturday Night At The Movies
1972 Come On Over To My Place (re-issue) (#9)
1973 Like Sister and Brother (#7)
1974 Kissin' In The Back Row Of The Movies (#2)
1974 Down On The Beach Tonight (#7)
1975 Love Games (#33)
1975 There Goes My First Love (#3)
1975 Can I Take You Home Little Girl (#10)
1976 Hello Happiness (#12)
1976 Every Nite's A Saturday Night With You (#29)
1976 You're More Than A Number In My Little
Red Book (#5)
The Drifters at Bell Records