Rockin' & Driftin': The Drifters Box

by: The Drifters

This triple-disc 79-song compilation looks pretty impressive, and in some ways it is, representing most of the best work of each incarnation of the Drifters from 1953 through 1976. There's a lot of classic music here, including all of the big hits and many interesting (even musically glorious) flops and B-sides, but the limitations of three CDs make this less than ideal. Atlantic had already released a pair of two-CD sets, Let the Boogie Woogie Roll: Greatest Hits 1953-58 and All-Time Greatest Hits & More: 1959-1965, eight years earlier, each of which covers those major periods in question far more generously than does this box -- although it must be conceded that the sound on the cuts included on Rockin' & Driftin' is improved over those late-'80s digital transfers, good as they seemed at the time. Additionally, almost concurrent with this release from Rhino Records in America, Sequel Records in England issued its Drifters Anthology series, assembling the group's complete Atlantic Records output on seven separate CDs, organized somewhat awkwardly at times but also including a number of outtakes, so serious fans may want to opt for that group of discs. This set, had it gone to four CDs, could have been truly comprehensive, covering all of those bases by grabbing some of the best of those genuinely beautiful outtakes, such as "In the Park" -- as it is, the only unreleased cut here is the group's version of "Only in America" -- and oddities like the achingly soulful "She Never Talked to Me That Way," plus all of the official live recordings that they left behind from the mid-'60s. At three CDs, it's a little squeezed, especially as the producers devote some space and attention on concurrent solo hits by Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King. As it is, this set covers the group's history into their 1970s era work on Bell Records and Arista Records, which did yield some serious hits in the U.K. (where the Johnny Moore-version of the group relocated in the early '70s) and which don't sound bad; they're but a shadow of the group's classic early-'60s singles, but songs like "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies" and "Down on the Beach Tonight" are perfectly listenable. Those tracks are not necessarily worth the 40-50 dollars that this set costs, but coupled with the gorgeous sound of the classic material and the almost book-length essays that accompany the set, this is a purchase to consider, especially for anyone who doesn't already own the earlier Atlantic double sets or the Sequel collection. Anyone who has the Sequel discs may well want to pass this up, but for anybody building a Drifters collection beyond the '60s hits, this will supply most of what's needed, and serve as a guide of where to go for a closer listen to specific parts of their history. The essays are highly detailed, covering several different angles on the history of the group, and are refreshingly, highly opinionated (although some fans may pause over the slights given to Johnny Moore as the group's last lead singer -- no, he wasn't Clyde McPhatter or Ben E. King, or even Rudy Lewis, but he did sing beautifully). As a significant bonus, along with the previously unreleased 1963 version of "Only in America," a song which was subsequently placed with Jay & the Americans (who had a hit with it) because it was deemed too upbeat (despite the obvious irony that was intended) for a black group to release, one gets a very full account of the contortions that the composers, producers, and Atlantic went through over the song. ~ Bruce Eder

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