Charlie Thomas, a Singing Drifter Nearly All His Life, Dies at 85

Charlie Thomas, who recorded memorable songs like “There Goes My Baby” and “Under the Boardwalk” with the Drifters, the silken-voiced R&B group that had a long string of hits from 1959 to 1964 and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Fame in 1988, died on Jan. 31 at his home in Bowie, Md. He was 85.

The singer Peter Lemongello Jr., a close friend, said the cause was liver cancer.

Mr. Thomas, a tenor, was a Drifter for more than 60 years, from the version of the group that had its first hits in the late 1950s to the version he led and toured with until the pandemic struck.

“He was aging, but he was active almost every weekend,” Mr. Lemongello, a former lead singer of the Crests, which performed on bills with Mr. Thomas, said in a phone interview. “Unfortunately, he went from being active to being at home and he started going downhill.”

Mr. Thomas became a Drifter by chance. He was singing with the Crowns, an R&B group, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1958 when they came to the attention of George Treadwell, the manager of the original Drifters, who were also on the bill.

After one of the Drifters got drunk and cursed out the owner of the Apollo and the promoter of the show, the music historian Marv Goldberg wrote, Mr. Treadwell, who owned the name, fired all its members and replaced them with members of the Crowns, including Mr. Thomas and Ben Nelson, who would later be known as Ben E. King, and rechristened them the Drifters.

Asked how it felt to suddenly become a Drifter, Mr. Thomas told Mr. Goldberg: “As a kid, I used to play hooky to see the Drifters at the Apollo. It felt good!”

The new Drifters fulfilled the former group’s road obligations and began recording the next year for Atlantic Records, produced by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Mr. King had written “There Goes My Baby” for Mr. Thomas to sing. But Mr. Thomas froze at the studio microphone, according to Billy Vera’s liner notes for “Rockin’ and Driftin’: The Drifters Box” (1996), and Mr. King took over. The song rose to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.

The hits continued for several years, as the Drifters became one of the most successful groups of the era. They followed “There Goes My Baby” with songs like “This Magic Moment,” “Up on the Roof,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “On Broadway” and “Saturday Night at the Movies.” “Save the Last Dance for Me” was their only song to reach No. 1.

Mr. Lewis in performance in Holmdel, N.J., in 2016. He performed for many years with a group billed as Charlie Thomas’s Drifters.Credit…Bobby Bank/Wireimage, via Getty Images

Charles Nowlin Thomas was born on April 7, 1937, in Lynchburg, Va. His father, Willis, was a minister, and his mother, Lucinda (Nowlin) Thomas, was a homemaker whose singing voice Charlie admired.

“My dad was a holy roller preacher down in Virginia,” Mr. Thomas said in an interview in 2013 with Craig Morrison, a musician and ethnomusicologist. “At my father’s church, I used to take the tambourine and do collection and my mother used to sing in the choir. That’s where I really got my training from singing.”

He moved to Harlem with his mother and a sister when he was 10 and eventually got a job pushing a hand truck in the garment district. He sang on street corners and came to the attention of Lover Patterson, the Crowns’ manager, who hired him in 1958. The group recorded “Kiss and Make Up” for the songwriters’ Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s short-lived RnB label before Mr. Treadwell turned them into the Drifters.

The lead singers on most of the group’s hits were Mr. King and, after he left for a solo career in 1960, Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore, who had been in the group’s first incarnation and rejoined it in 1964.

But Mr. Thomas sang lead on “Sweets for My Sweet,” which reached No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 1961, and “When My Little Girl Is Smiling,” which peaked at No. 28 the next year. Mr. Thomas also took over the lead on the ballad “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You” a day after Mr. Lewis’s death in a hotel room in 1964.

“When he died, I was the one who closed his eyes,” Mr. Thomas told Goldmine magazine in 2012. He added, “I really do love that song because that one, in particular, brings back a lot of memories.”

The Drifters broke up in the late 1960s, but they didn’t disappear. Some members headed to England, where they performed as the Drifters and were managed by Mr. Treadwell’s widow, Faye, who vigorously defended her legal right to the name.

Bill Pinkney, a member of the mid-1950s lineup fired by Mr. Treadwell, went on to form a group called the Original Drifters. He died in 2007, but the group continues to perform under that name.

Mr. Thomas later joined them briefly before starting Charlie Thomas’s Drifters, which performed until 2020. Still other groups have claimed the Drifters name over the years as well.

Mr. Thomas is survived by his wife, Rita Thomas; his daughters, Crystal Thomas Wilson and Victoria Green; his sons, Charlie Jr., Michael Sidbury and Brian Godfrey, and many grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted seven of the Drifters, it recognized members of the 1953-58 lineup — Mr. Pinkney, Clyde McPhatter, Gerhart Thomas and Johnny Moore — as well as those from the later years: Mr. Thomas, Mr. King and Mr. Lewis.

“Time has hardly made their work seem quaint,” Michael Hill wrote in the induction essay, “rather their work has withstood the ravages of the years to become even more special, more knowing.”

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