Charles Nowlin Thomas, an American vocalist best known for his work with The Drifters, lived from April 7, 1937, to January 31, 2023. When George Treadwell dismissed his band, The Drifters, at the Apollo Theater in 1958, Thomas was there performing with The Five Crowns.
The Five Crowns were enlisted by Treadwell to replace the Drifters. The 1959 smash “There Goes My Baby” served as the new Drifters’ first single. “Sweets for My Sweet” and “When My Little Girl Is Smiling,” two of the group’s top 40 successes, featured Charlie as the lead singer.
With the silken-voiced R&B group the Drifters, who had a long string of hits from 1959 to 1964 and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Charlie Thomas recorded memorable songs like “There Goes My Baby” and “Under the Boardwalk.”
Charlie Thomas passed away on January 31 at his home in Bowie, Maryland. A close friend and musician named Peter Lemongello Jr. claimed liver cancer was to blame. Tenor Mr. Thomas spent more than 60 years as a member of the Drifters, performing with them from the time they had their first hits in the late 1950s until the pandemic hit.
In a phone interview, Mr. Lemongello, the former lead singer of the Crests, who shared bills with Mr. Thomas, said, “He was aging, but he was active virtually every weekend.” “Unfortunately, he started to decline when he shifted from being active to being at home.”
By accident, Mr. Thomas turned into a Drifter. In 1958, while he was performing with the R&B group The Crowns at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, George Treadwell, manager of the original Drifters, who were also on the bill, noticed them.
According to music critic Marv Goldberg, Mr. Treadwell, who owned the name, fired all of the Drifters’ members and replaced them with Crowns members, including Mr. Thomas and Ben Nelson, who would later become known as Ben E. King, and renamed them the Drifters after one of the Drifters got drunk and cursed out Apollo’s owner and the show’s promoter.
When Mr. Goldberg asked Mr. Thomas how it felt to suddenly become a Drifter, Mr. Thomas replied, “When I was a child, I used to play hooky from school to go see the Drifters at the Apollo. It felt great.
The new Drifters completed the original band’s tour dates before starting to record for Atlantic Records the next year, with songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller serving as producers. For Mr. Thomas to sing, Mr. King had penned “There Goes My Baby.”
Billy Vera’s sleeve notes for “Rockin’ and Driftin’: The Drifters Box” (1996) state that Mr. Thomas froze at the studio microphone and Mr. King took over. In 1959, the song reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
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The hits persisted for several years as the Drifters rose to prominence as one of the biggest bands of the time. Songs like “This Magic Moment,” “Up on the Roof,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “On Broadway,” and “Saturday Night at the Movies” was played after “There Goes My Baby.”
They only had one song reach the top spot, “Save the Last Dance for Me.” On April 7, 1937, Charles Nowlin Thomas was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. His mother, Lucinda (Nowlin) Thomas, was a housewife whose singing voice Charlie liked, and his father, Willis, was a clergyman.
Mr. Thomas revealed in an interview with artist and ethnomusicologist Craig Morrison from 2013 that his father was a “holy roller preacher down in Virginia.” I used to play the tambourine and accept the offering at my father’s church, and my mother used to sing in the choir.
I received my singing training there. When he was ten years old, he went to Harlem with his mother and sister. Later, he found work in the garment area driving a hand truck. The manager of the Crowns, Lover Patterson, heard him singing on street corners and recruited him in 1958.
Before Mr. Treadwell changed them into the Drifters, the group recorded “Kiss and Make Up” for the composers’ short-lived R&B label run by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Mr. King, Rudy Lewis, and Johnny Moore, who had been in the group’s original iteration and had returned to it in 1964, took the lead vocals on the majority of the group’s songs when he left for a solo career in 1960.
On “Sweets for My Sweet,” which peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 1961, and “When My Little Girl Is Smiling,” which peaked at No. 28 the following year, Mr. Thomas delivered lead vocals. A day after Mr. Lewis passed away in a hotel room in 1964, Mr. Thomas also took up the lead vocals on the song “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You.”
In 2012, Mr. Thomas stated to Goldmine magazine, “I was the one who closed his eyelids as he passed away.” I adore that song because it in particular brings back a lot of memories, he continued.
According to the New York Times: Charlie Thomas, a tenor who recorded memorable songs like “There Goes My Baby” and “Under the Boardwalk” with the Drifters, the R&B group that had a long string of hits from 1959 to 1964, has died at 85.
Charlie Thomas, a tenor who recorded memorable songs like “There Goes My Baby” and “Under the Boardwalk” with the Drifters, the R&B group that had a long string of hits from 1959 to 1964, has died at 85. https://t.co/cm4qOGcgjd
— The New York Times (@nytimes) February 6, 2023
The Drifters disbanded in the late 1960s, although they continued to exist. A few of the band members left for England, where they performed under the name Drifters and were under the management of Mr. Treadwell’s widow, Faye, who aggressively protected her legal claim to the name.
A member of Mr. Treadwell’s mid-1950s firing list, Bill Pinkney, later founded the Original Drifters. Although he passed away in 2007, the group still performs under his name. Later, Mr. Thomas briefly joined them before launching Charlie Thomas’s Drifters, who continued to perform until 2020. Over the years, many groups have also claimed the Drifter’s name.
His wife Rita Thomas, daughters Crystal Thomas Wilson and Victoria Green, sons Charlie Jr., Michael Sidbury, and Brian Godfrey, as well as a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, survive Mr. Thomas.
The members of the 1953–58 lineup, Mr. Pinkney, Clyde McPhatter, Gerhart Thomas, and Johnny Moore, as well as those from the latter years, Mr. Thomas, Mr. King, and Mr. Lewis, were all recognized when seven of the Drifters were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
In the induction essay, Michael Hill stated that “time has scarcely made their art seem antiquated,” rather, “their work has endured the ravages of the years to become even more remarkable, more knowing.”
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