Since the Drifters formed in 1953, there have been many incarnations of the band, some of them existing simultaneously, but not touring together. It is said that no fewer than 60 singers have been able, or are able, to call themselves Drifters.
Jerome Jackson currently leads one version of the Drifters as part of a package tour of vocal groups that all got their start in the early days of rock n’ roll.
The Drifters, Cornell Gunter’s Coasters & Platters Holiday Show happens Dec. 23 at the Embassy Theatre.
Jackson may not be an original member, but he has spent the better part of three decades in the group, so his bona fides are solid.
In addition to being a talented performer, Jackson may be the best spokesperson alive for the style of music originated and popularized by the groups on this tour. He makes the case that mid-20th century doo wop and vocal R&B have a unique power and purity that are unmatched in more contemporary music.
Grounded in gospel
In a phone interview, Jackson said he got his start in a gospel group. But the unkind and unsavory behavior of the group’s leader soured him on singing religious music.
Jackson said his mother was not particularly happy with his move to rock n’ roll, but she supported him in his endeavors.
One of Jackson’s first non-gospel gigs was as a singer with a band called The Richmond Extension. Even though he was performing secular music, Jackson said he was still “the little guy from church” in many ways.
“I was a little squealer,” he said. “The guys I was singing with, they were already in the groups for a while and they were doing some of everything. The manager used to fine them for doing drugs and things like that. And I would tell on them. Because I wanted to do right.
“They told me they didn’t want me to hang with them no more,” Jackson said, laughing. “So for two or three weeks, I’d be in my hotel room and they’d have a party every night. Finally, I went and knocked on their door and said, ‘Fellas. Whatever I need to do to be with y’all, I can’t be alone no more.’”
Jackson went on to join the musical stable of songwriter and producer Van McCoy, who had an unexpected disco hit in 1975 with “The Hustle.”
Jackson said his voice can be heard on Aretha Franklin’s 1979 album “The Diva,” which was produced by McCoy.
“That album he did with Aretha Franklin was the most amazing thing that I’d ever seen because he arranged her whole album in one night,” he said. “Then we went in the studio and did it the next day.”
Jackson was with McCoy when he died from a heart attack in 1979 at the age of 39.
“There was a party at his house,” he said. “He was spilt between being a gay man and the Bible. He was upstairs battling himself. He kind of fought himself to death that day.”
Jackson later performed with a New York City-based band called Raw Sugar and with the soul group The Main Ingredient, which had a hit in 1973 with “Everybody Plays the Fool.”
Drafted into the Drifters
It was Jackson’s involvement with Raw Sugar that led the Drifters’ manager at that time to ask him if he’d be interested in auditioning for the group. In those days, three members of the New Drifters — which formed in 1959 and scored such hits as “There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” — were still involved with the Drifters organization. They were Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, and Elsbeary Hobbs.
Fighting between Thomas and Hobbs necessitated the formation of two groups, Jackson said, which was the reason why he and other new singers were recruited.
“They were having problems,” he said. “They were headstrong. A lot of entertainers are headstrong.”
Nowadays, the members of The Drifters get along a lot better.
Jackson credits the simplicity of the music and the clarity of the message with the longevity of The Drifters’ songs.
“The young and the old love it,” he said. “Everywhere we go, it’s a packed house. People can really relate to these three groups. They were at the beginning of R&B.
“The Coasters bring you comedy, the Platters bring you subtle love songs, and The Drifters bring you sex appeal,” Jackson said, laughing.