Drifters sure get around

Times Staff Writer

YOU won’t hear George Treadwell harmonizing on any of the classic hits by the Drifters, not “Up on the Roof,” “Under the Boardwalk” or the song that declares “the neon lights are bright on Broadway.”

But whenever Tina Treadwell listens to those old tunes, she hears a sound that her father pieced together some 50 years ago, music she considers her birthright.

George Treadwell was the ironfisted manager and principal owner of the registered trademark for the Drifters, a singing group that formed in the 1950s and went on to record dozens of hit songs. During an era that saw rhythm and blues sweep into popular culture, the Drifters led the way with romantic lyrics, orchestral strings and a touch of Latin flavor.


“My father had a vision of what the sound should be,” said Tina Treadwell, 48. “He found artists whom he felt would best express the tone, quality and vibrancy of what it meant to be ‘a Drifter.’ They weren’t just four guys who came together off the street. This was his group.”

George Treadwell took the reins in 1954, made the singers salaried employees and required each to sign contracts relinquishing any claim to the Drifters’ name. Anyone who complained was usually fired and replaced with another eager crooner from a ready pool of young talent.

Over the years, more than 50 men performed with Treadwell’s Drifters, among them: Clyde McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Gerhardt Thrasher, Ben E. King, Elsbeary Hobbs, Charlie Thomas, Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore. Dozens of voices -- but only one group.

Today, however, there are a number of groups that call themselves “the Drifters.” Pinkney and Thomas still perform with their own Drifters. And there are Drifters onstage in Las Vegas and London and others available to sing “This Magic Moment” and “There Goes My Baby” at oldies and doo-wop festivals.

But none of them performs with the Treadwell imprimatur.

That’s why Tina Treadwell put on hold a promising career as a movie casting director and left a position as vice president of talent and alternative programming at the Disney Channel. She wants to reclaim a legacy she believes is worth millions.

Treadwell says she doesn’t begrudge Pinkney and Thomas the fees they can command by performing as Drifters. They both worked for her father. But in December, she filed lawsuits in New Jersey and in London against the promoters of other groups she has accused of illegally performing under the name.

“It’s a travesty,” she said. “They’ve diluted the brand with impostors.”

She is not alone in battling over the lineage of vintage music groups. The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Pa., has encouraged states to adopt legislation making it illegal to use the name of a famous band unless it includes at least one original member or unless management holds a trademark. A bill in California, sponsored by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge), would outlaw the practice of marketing “new” versions of original groups, similar to laws approved in several other states.

“It’s a sophisticated form of identity theft,” said Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, formerly of Sha Na Na and the chairman of the Truth in Music committee of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. “There’s usually at least one really old guy in the phony group so that you can sit out in the audience and say: ‘That must be “the real one.” ’ “

In 1953, McPhatter, a soaring high tenor from North Carolina, left the Dominoes, a group known for the R&B; hit “Sixty Minute Man,” and signed with Atlantic Records. He formed the Drifters, and their first hit record on the R&B; charts was “Money Honey.” A few singles later, he teamed up with bassist Bill Pinkney to record “White Christmas,” a soulful rendition of Bing Crosby’s hit single that was, years later, included on the soundtrack for the 1990 movie “Home Alone.”

In 1954 McPhatter sold his half-interest in the group to manager George Treadwell and his backers, and launched a solo career. The sale gave Treadwell -- a former jazz trumpeter and former husband and manager of singer Sarah Vaughan -- power to make lineup changes on a regular basis.

“He was one of the first to realize that individual singers can come and go, but the group takes on a life of its own,” said Rickey Ivie, one of Tina Treadwell’s attorneys. “He made everyone sign personal service contracts. He was a pioneer in that sense.”

It didn’t take long for Treadwell to begin shuffling the members of the group.

In 1958, he canned the entire lineup before an engagement at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and replaced it with members of a local doo-wop group called the Five Crowns.

At the end of the run at the Apollo, all of the new Drifters signed contracts with Treadwell. They made about $125 a week.

When one member accidentally saw a contract detailing how much money the group was taking in, singer Ben. E. King was deputized to complain to Treadwell about their salaries.

“I stood up and said, ‘We need more money,’ ” King said. “Then he told me, ‘You can’t speak for the group. You speak for yourself. If you’re unhappy, you can leave.’ I turned around and walked out the door, assuming they were going to follow me. They didn’t.”

The man who later co-wrote “There Goes My Baby” and also sang the lead on “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment” was out of the Drifters and out of a job.

At the time, King remembers thinking his music career was over, but in the early 1960s, he scored as a solo artist with “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me.”

The Drifters, too, continued to record hits -- with various lineup changes -- that catapulted the group into a golden era. Rudy Lewis led the group on such songs as “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway.” But Lewis died in his sleep one night in 1964 before a session for “Under the Boardwalk.” Johnny Moore took over as the lead of what turned out to be the Drifters’ last major hit.

George Treadwell, who at one time counted Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis Jr. among his clients, died in 1967. A few years later, his wife, Faye Treadwell, moved the group with Johnny Moore as lead singer to England.

Meanwhile, Pinkney and former members were busy touring separately as “the Original Drifters.” And around the same time, New York promoter Larry Marshak signed other former members and began marketing his groups independently across the United States.

Faye Treadwell’s Drifters performed in England for years. But Johnny Moore died in 1998, and behind the scenes, things were starting to unravel.

“My mother’s life was such a struggle,” Tina Treadwell said. “She knew the Drifters, she knew what it took to be the Drifters, but the money wasn’t always easy.”

Tina Treadwell had established her own show business career at Disney. By 2001, she was a vice president who had spearheaded a concert series, including events for Brandy, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. But when she received a call from London about her mother’s deteriorating health, Tina Treadwell took a severance package and flew across the Atlantic.

Her mother was living like a recluse. Bills weren’t paid. Taxes were owed. Before she brought her mother home, Tina Treadwell said she asked the London tour manager and agent to fulfill any remaining concert obligations and then suspend operations. The Drifters were to be silenced, at least for a time.

Tina Treadwell moved her mother into the guest apartment behind her house in Glendale. Then she started to investigate the Drifters and their trademark.

She came to question whether the manager and agent who had been working for her mother in London had been truthful about finances. In the United States, she said, she discovered Marshak was marketing Drifters groups without her mother’s permission.

In December, her attorneys filed papers on both sides of the Atlantic seeking to exert control of the Drifters’ name.

Solicitor Tom Frederikse, Tina Treadwell’s attorney in England, said that even though she had directed the group’s former managers to stop scheduling performances, “they have been doing gigs and earning a lot of money.”

Phillip Luderman, once employed by Faye Treadwell to be the Drifters’ agent, said he was advised by his lawyer not to comment. “We’re waiting for the court case,” Luderman said. “We can tell the real story then. We’ve got nothing to hide.”

In Newark, N.J., Tina Treadwell’s attorneys accused Marshak of violating a 1999 federal court injunction prohibiting him from booking groups using the Drifters name. She said the New York promoter was booking Drifters into venues all across the United States, including nightly performances at the Sahara in Las Vegas.

Marshak’s attorney said his client denies any wrongdoing and plans to ask the court to void the injunction in light of a 2004 ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office giving singer Bill Pinkney of “the Original Drifters” exclusive use of the Drifters’ name. Marshak said he has an understanding with Pinkney to schedule and promote various versions of the group.

In addition to the Drifters, fans and original members of such legendary groups as the Platters, Coasters, Supremes and the Shirelles have long complained that music promoters were billing groups as authentic even if they didn’t include members who performed on the records.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see great rock ‘n’ roll artists not be given the respect they deserve,” Portantino said. The legislation he introduced last month would bring “some artistic justice to those artists and their legacies as well as providing consumer protection. I don’t see any problem in saying, ‘This is a musical tribute,’ but don’t say you are the Drifters, the Platters or the Coasters if you are not.”

The legal squabble has done little to disrupt the lineup at the Sahara in Las Vegas, where an act billed as the “Coasters, Drifters and Platters” plays seven nights a week to sellout crowds, outdrawing an impersonator who does a “tribute to the King.”

“They do terrific business seven nights a week,” a spokesman for the Sahara said. “We are operating under the assumption that they are totally licensed. They are not phony, impostor groups, but they are part of the lineage of the name.”

But Maxine Porter, a longtime manager for Pinkney, has seen the show and disputes the claim.

“There are a bunch of guys saying, ‘This was our hit,’ ” she said. “I said that that’s a lie. I’ve got Drifters records older than you. Consumers don’t take time to question. They just believe.”

In Glendale, dementia has erased most of Faye Treadwell’s recollections about the good times with the man she married 50 years ago and her work with one of the hottest groups in the record business.

Her daughter has her own struggles. Tina Treadwell did some casting for the 2006 movie “The Guardian,” but work has been slow. She rents her house from friends who purchased it to prevent her from losing it to foreclosure. The caregiver she hired for her mother is a drain on finances.

“We need a new roof, my mother’s waiting for a royalty payment,” Tina Treadwell said. “Sometimes I look at this woman living in my guest house and wonder, ‘How did this happen?’ She had a beautiful home in New Jersey, and now she’s living in my guest house.”

Fortunately, she said, her mother is not completely aware of how much her life has changed.

“She always loved to read the paper, and still does. Sometimes she sees that the Drifters are playing somewhere, at the Sahara, and I can see the frustration in her face.”

But sometimes, the music eases the pain. “She’ll remember the good times and she lightens up.”