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Drifters sure get around

The R&B group seems to be everywhere at once: in London, Las Vegas and at oldies festivals. The manager's daughter is fighting off impostors.

March 15, 2007|John L. Mitchell | 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.

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