Today’s existential title refers to the two groups who will be squaring off in our latest “Smackdown”: The Coasters vs. the Drifters. Both are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (presumably) and legendary to say the least. The question is, who is the greatest? We’ll find out the answer in today’s Smackdown, sure to go down as one of our most exciting matches…
The Coasters vs. The Drifters
BEST SONGWRITING SUPPORT DUO
Here we hear the toughest competition in today’s exciting smackdown. The Coasters enjoyed the support of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller for many years. This is the awesome pair who wrote “Hound Dog” and “Kansas City,” to name just a couple seminal rock and roll jams. Meanwhile, the Drifters were fortunate to be the first to record many songs written by Carole King & Jerry Goffin (check out our birthday tribute to Carole King to hear a couple of the many great songs they composed, including one by Eydie Gorme and a classic by the Cookies that was covered by the Beatles). The King & Goffin songs written for the Drifters included one of their most famous songs, “Up on the Roof.”
But the Drifters can’t win this round. Why? Because they also recorded a number of Leiber & Stoller songs, something that buoyed their waning career (they were also an act that recorded a couple early Bacharach & David songs). The Coasters, on the other hand, were a favorite of Leiber & Stoller, and were given as many as a dozen songs that could be considered jukebox standards, such as “Yakity Yak” and “Charlie Brown.”
BEST SOLO CAREER – Battle of the Kings
Session saxophonist King Curtis was called the “fifth Coaster” — a fairly eaerned title, considering his contributions to nearly every classic Coasters hit is distinct. He also recorded on tracks ranging from Buddy Holly’s “Reminiscing” to Joe South’s “Games People Play,” all while enjoying a handful of instrumental hits with his own group, the Kingpins. That group even opened up for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 — One of the songs they played was Curtis’ original hit of the previous year, “Soul Serenade.”
The Drifters have been the subject of endless legal conflict for more than sixty years, and over those as many performers have passed through the group. Clyde McPhatter was the first Drifter to make a lasting impression on his departure, particularly with the hit “A Lover’s Question.”
Some time after McPhatter left the group was re-formed by George Treadwell, who owned the name “The Drifters.” The new group he enlisted had been performing as the Five Crowns, and their lead singer had been known as Ben E. Nelson. We know him as Ben E. King.
“Stand by Me”
“Stand by Me” is the most famous record Ben E. King (and, incidentally, a Lieber & Stoller song), but his first solo super hit was “Spanish Harlem” (co-written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector). King had some funkier hits (like “Supernatural”) in the seventies, but didn’t sustain the fame that followed “Stand by Me.”
Still, the Drifters’ solo work far eclipses King Curtis’ instrumental work with the Kingpins. Ben E. King has recorded dozens of post-Drifters albums, and his official website says “tour dates coming soon.” So here’s a round for the Drifters.
BEST LEGAL FIGHT OVER OWNERSHIP OF THE BAND’S NAME
As mentioned, the Drifters have been a source of more ongoing legal conflict than nearly every other band in pop history. In fact, just as during there era of the Avignon Papacy, during which there were two Popes for a period in the fourteenth century, or the more recent co-existence of two L.A. Guns, there have been at one time or another two Drifters. There have been as many as four concurrent Drifters groups touring and recordsing, including Bill Pinckley’s Original Drifters, Don Thomas and the Drifters Review and the Drifters Legends.
There were also several different competing Coasters in the country during the 1970s, including a group led by Cornelius Gunter, an original member of the Platters and an early member of the Coasters. A member of his illegitimate group was killed in a grisly murder in 1980. Ten years later Gunter himself was shot by his own manager, who was protecting his plan to buy furniture with stolen checks when Gunther said he was going to talk to the police.
Nobody wins. This round sucks.
The Drifters win this round. How could songs like “The Idol with the Golden Head,” “Searchin'” and “Little Egypt” compete with the Drifters’ best tear jerkers. One track in particular stands out, not only because it introduced the ‘new Drifters’ but because it introduced the lush production that would define soul music in the years following its 1959 release. “There Goes My Baby” was in its time bold and innovative, and it’s rich strings only enhanced the song’s feeling, which is one of heartbreak.
“There goes my Baby”
BEST ACTUAL HEARTBREAKING STORY
On August 13th, 1971 (yes, a Friday the thirteenth) Curtis Ousley (aka-King Curtis) came home to his brownstown apartment on west 86th street carrying an air conditioner when he found two junkies on his steps. In the argument that followed he was stabbed and died from the wound.
Rudy Lewis became a member of the “27 club” on May 20th, 1964 when he died of a drug overdose in a Harlem hotel room. He was a closeted homosexual and a binge eater, as well as a heroin addict. He was to have recorded the group’s hit “Under the Boardwalk” the next day.
“Under the Boardwalk”
Nobody wins this round either. Folks, drugs are bad. Say no to them.
BEST SONG FOR YOUR SWEETHEART
Here is a round the Drifters win without much of a fight — the Coasters’ love songs were goofy at best. They walked a fine line between serious and silly, and even at their sappiest they weren’t to be taken so seriously (as on “Zing when the Strings of my Heart,” for instance). The Drifters, on the other hand, were probably heartbreakers. Most of their hits are perfect for those Time/Life compilations that show a couple sitting in a convertible at the drive-in (he usually looks like Ricky Nelson and she is always wearing a pink sweater and a schoolgirl skirt).
“Save the Last Dance for Me” was one of the very best love-y songs the Drifters recorded. It was a #1 hit in 1960, and has been frequently covered since. Damita Jo recorded a response song (“I’ll Save the Last Dance for You”) that we featured in the first of our ongoing franchise of “Sequel Songs” here.
“Save the Last Dance for Me”
BEST SONG ABOUT MEXICO
Celebrities who went south of the border for a quicker, cheaper divorce included Johnny Carson, Katherine Hepburn, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. Jack Kerouac mentions Mexican divorces in On the Road and Tom Waits makes reference to them in “The Part You Throw Away” on Blood Money.
The laws have since changed, but the Drifters’ 1962 recording of this early Bacharach composition is an enduring classic. Ry Cooder re-recorded it on his album Paradise and Lunch, and Steely Dan borrowed from it in their own “Haitian Divorce.
“Down in Mexico”
The Coasters’ “Down in Mexico” is about a cat named Joe who runs a place in Mexico “where the drinks are hotter than chili sauce.” He could just as easily be a character in one of Jim Croce’s saloon-soaked story songs.
Both songs have distinct percussion and great performances, but the Coasters’ Mexico song is just more fun, so they win this round.
BEST SONG THAT’S JUST AWESOME
“Shoppin’ for Clothes”
“Three Cool Cats”
This round is pretty much all Coasters, as these three great singles — all lesser-known than hits like “Charlie Brown” and “Yakity Yak” — are all more fun than anything the Drifters recorded. In fact, every Coasters record we’ve ever heard is like a little party in a sleeve.
So who wins? We don’t know — and who cares? We listen to the Drifters when we’re feeling soulful or sad, and the Coasters when we’re feeling saucy or silly. This “smackdown” turned out to be even more apples & oranges than our battle royale between Beethoven and Herb Alpert (here). We recommend you own a record — or a tape or a CD or something — by both of these groups. We recommend you listen to them often.