It takes big feet to lead The Drifters. For the past 29 years, Jerome Jackson has had the daunting task of filling the shoes formerly worn by Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis, covering lead vocals that produced chart-topping hits for The Drifters from the late 1950s to the early ’70s.
“I got plenty of help,” Jackson said last week from his Las Vegas home. “Even though I take the majority of the load, it’s OK.”
Sharing the bill with The Platters and The Coasters, Jackson and company have 30 minutes to run through a sampling of The Drifters’ greatest hits.
“On Broadway,” “This Magic Moment,” “Up On The Roof,” “Stand By Me,” “Under The Boardwalk,” “I Count the Tears” and “Saturday Night at the Movies” are the basics the group always lays out.
“I can’t do them all,” Jackson said of the group’s extensive catalog,“but everybody has their turn to lead. It’s a very suave and sexy attitude onstage, so everybody got to get a little piece of it.”
King and Lewis are hard enough to emulate, but if you add in Clyde McPhatter’s high tenor on songs from The Drifters’ early ’50s era like “Honey Love,” “Money Honey” and “White Christmas,” it’s virtually unassailable territory.
“We really don’t do the Clyde era, basically we do the second era, from ’59, most of the things that people affiliate themselves to,” Jackson said.
The group does throw in “White Christmas” this time of year, but since original Drifters bassman Bill Pickney sang lead on that one, its not quite as tonsil-straining.
“Basically, we stick to the top hits that came out from ’59 like “There Goes My Baby,” which was one of the first big ones,” Jackson said.
Like many R&B singers, Jackson started singing in church. At age 12, as a choir member on a bill with Shirley Caesar and the Rev. James Cleveland, Jackson was tasked with taking the lead on a Cleveland composition, “I Stood On The Banks.”
“It went over pretty well — he didn’t say anything about it at all, so it was good,” Jackson said.
Some of his fellow choir members wanted to start a group and went to his house to ask him to join. Jackson was more interested in playing baseball at the time, so his mother told them to go down to the local park and tell him they wanted him to sing.
“And if he doesn’t come with you, come back and get me, and I will go get him for you,” Mamma Jackson told them.
On the first day of high school, the music teacher tapped him on the shoulder as he walked down the hall to his first class, telling him he would be in the choir from then on. Soon afterward, he told the teacher he could sing one of the teacher’s compositions better than a fellow choir member who had been performing it.
“So next assembly, I sang the song, and the girls went crazy,” Jackson said. “I went from not being known to being known everywhere. I really didn’t try to do it. It was just there. No lessons or anything. It was just in my heart to sing, I guess.”
Jackson said he hadn’t followed The Drifters that much because he had been in church most of his life.
“I knew of their songs, but in my household, my mother would play gospel seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Every now and then a rock ’n’ roll song would come up, and the first one I heard was ‘There Goes My Baby.’”
Jackson auditioned for The Drifters role while working with the soul group Main Ingredient (“Everybody Plays the Fool”) in the late 1980s at a Manhattan club. King was leaving The Drifters and the group was looking for a new lead singer.
“We had an audition, and everything else was history. I’ve just been here ever since,” Jackson said.
The Coasters were the bad boys of rock ’n’ roll. Fueled by musical material from two young white Jewish kids — songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller — the all-black group regaled teens with classics including 1958’s “Yakety Yak,” a snarky take on teenagers chafing under parental supervision: “Tell your hoodlum friends outside / You ain’t got time to take a ride / Yakety yak / Don’t talk back.”
The group honored the class clown on 1959’s “Charlie Brown,” and 1957’s “Young Blood” unashamedly ogled a sweet young thing: “I took one look and I was fractured / I tried to walk but I was lame / I tried to talk but I just stuttered / What’s your name? What’s your name?”
The group even dabbled in social commentary, taking on societal issues in the underrated classic “Shopping For Clothes,” exploring the travails of a young man’s economic situation versus his sartorial desires.
The poor wretch has picked out his suit, “The latest in tweed / With the cut-away flap over twice / It’s a box-back, two button western model,” and wants to sign on the dotted line promising to get all his payments in right on time, and is devastated when his credit doesn’t go through. “That’s a suit you’ll never own,” the salesman tells him. “Lawd have mercy, I got a good job, sweeping up every day,” he whines pitiably as the song fades out.
Leiber and Stoller wrote for Elvis, including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” and also composed “There Goes My Baby” for The Drifters in 1958. But The Coasters were their mouthpiece for teenage angst, and the group delivered their message more as skits than songs, to the great delight of teens worldwide.
“That is a lost art in music today,” Jackson said of The Coasters, Drifters and Platters output. “When we were in the studio, we had to do it live and what you put on the record was going to be what the public heard. So our talent was pretty raw. And the message was different as well.
“Ours is more pure, the message is clearer, a simplistic message, it’s nothing hard to grasp. And most of it is about love. The Coasters, on the other hand, are just crazy,” Jackson said, laughing. “That’s all I can say about them. They’re comical, but they have a good message too. They keep the audience laughing and on their toes.”
The Platters were the sophisticates of the rock ’n’ roll world, painting velvety musical landscapes for lovers to wrap around themselves on such tunes as 1958’s “Twilight Time,” 1955 “Only You” and 1956’s “The Great Pretender.” “Harbor Lights” came along in 1960, “I Love You 1,000 Times” in 1966 and “With This Ring” in 1967.
The group was originally staffed in 1953 with Coaster-to-be Cornell Gunther, Herb Reed, Joe Jefferson and Alex Hodge. In 1954, Gunther, Hodge and Jefferson left, replaced by Paul Robi, David Lynch and Tony Williams. Zola Taylor joined later that same year. Jackson describes their soothing sound as “real love music, the music that (people) made babies by.”
The group was an anomaly in a time when rock ’n’ roll was putting on its rowdy pants, starting to sweat and snort across stages, ripping its predecessors apart. Little Richard was burning up the stage with his frenetic piano pounding, flinging his clothes in the crowd and screaming like a wildcat being flayed alive. Chuck Berry was duckwalking with Maybelline and Beethoven across the stage, while Bo Diddley pounded away with his signature tribal beat. Jerry Lee Lewis was setting pianos on fire with his wild-haired rockabilly, and Elvis was moving his pelvis like nobody but belly dancers and strippers had done previously.
The Platters were a throwback to big-band style smoothies, like the Ink Spots but with a little more oomph, soul ensnared by strings beginning to peek out under the curtain. It was slow dance heaven, make-out music to dry the sweat stirred up by the wild things around them.
The name was tied to the era as well. “Platters” was a reference to the slang name for 33⅓ rpm vinyl discs the music was recorded on back then. The music was lush and syrupy, getting in your ears and sticking there while it motivated lower body parts to move in a suggestive fashion. The Platters were the group people played in the bedroom or on their way there.
“With The Drifters, they don’t only play in the bedroom, they play all over,” Jackson chuckles.
The three groups have been commingling their talents onstage for decades in Las Vegas at the Sahara Hotel, Hard Rock Cafe and at the Paris Hotel.
“We did it for 12 years, seven days a week, and every night was basically a sellout. Our management has ties with all of these groups,” Jackson said.
And even though they present The Drifters catalog as their main form of entertainment, they will deviate from the script on occasion to let in some outsiders.
“If we do a long set, we do a song or two from The Platters, a song or two maybe from the Temptations, even throw in ‘Mustang Sally’ every now and then so people can dance,” Jackson said. “We do the twist and bring people on the stage and let them twist with us. We do a few other things, involve the crowd a little more in letting themselves loose and feeling a little freer than just sitting down watching us. We always give them the opportunity to come and just enjoy themselves.”
But when they’re representing The Drifters, it’s a total commitment to the original music. “That’s what keeps us alive. All the groups.” Jackson can trace his Drifters lineage back to some of the hit-making members.
“I did work with three of the original guys, Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas and Elsbeary Hobbs,” Jackson said. “And I did do a few shows with Bill Pickney. And the tradition still goes on from the past, ‘cause we really haven’t changed. The basic steps, the basic sound, it still goes on from what it was before. That’s what very powerful about these groups. We give you the authenticity of what it was, and what it is.”
And even though it was intended for baby boomers, the younger generation comes out to revel in the music as well.
“The baby boomers bring their younger children with them. And believe it or not, they really enjoy our performance,” Jackson said. “Because today, with more technology in performing, we come raw — the band and the singing — so they get the raw talent from the individuals. And it just so happens that we’re pretty good.”