If I was to say, what’s your favourite song by the The Drifters, what would you say? Saturday Night at the Movies? Up on the Roof? Under the Boardwalk? There are so many to choose from. But when I told Michael Williams of The Drifters that Harlem Child was one of my favourites of their songs, guess what? He loves that song too.
“We had it in the show three years ago and we haven’t done it for a while but it’s a lovely song. It actually tells the story of a Drifter leaving his family to go on tour.”
It reminds Williams of his own journey, of his Mum and Dad in Alabama, how they were fans of The Drifters and how proud they were when he excitedly told them that, thanks to Tina Treadwell, he had become a Drifters’ understudy. Treadwell, daughter of original Drifters’ manager George Treadwell, thought that Williams was very much like founding member Gerhart Thrasher. To date, Williams has been a Drifter for 12 years, including his two-year stint as an understudy.
It’s worth pointing out that, since inception in 1953, The Drifters have undergone many incarnations. It’s estimated that there have been more than 65 members of the group since then. During that time, The Drifters have amassed dozens of hits, recorded legendary songs and secured a well-deserved place in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, the line-up, including Williams, is Ryan King, Damion Charles and Daniel Bowen-Smith.
For current members, it all starts when you become an understudy. This involves training, learning all the history and back catalogue, and getting to grips with the legacy. I put it to Williams that this is like a football academy, not unlike that of Manchester United.
He says: “I’m really glad you said that because I enjoy watching Manchester United I have to admit, and it’s exactly like being in an academy. You have to go through the ranks, learning before you get the chance to put on that jersey, that first team jersey and get out and do your thing.’
Having said that, in the early years Williams really felt the pressure.
“It’s been a whole lot of fun, but it’s been hard work too. The first two years I really felt the pressure, trying to fill those big shoes.”
Williams seems sad that he never got to meet the owners of those shoes.
“We almost got a chance to work with Ben E. King in 2008 but he fell ill so I never got chance to meet him and say thank you because he had a big influence on my career. Johnny Moore I was always a big fan of. And Rudy Lewis who sang lead on Up On The Roof and On Broadway and who tragically died at 27.”
Williams will be in Manchester (and on tour) with The Drifters alongside Dionne Warwick, Roberta Flack and Mary Wilson in October as part of The Legends Live Tour 2015. I asked him who he would like to sit next to on the coach.
“Tough question…hopefully I’ll get chance to have a seat with all of them but I’ll tell you who I would first like to sit next to and why – it would be Mary Wilson of The Supremes. I’m a big fan of hers and once when I was very young I went to a concert where she was playing with Martha and the Vandellas and she gave me a signed photograph. Not sure she’s ever gonna recognise me but I would love to talk to her about that.”
The nostalgia associated with Drifters’ songs is all too apparent to Williams.
“You’re More Than A Number always reminds me of me as a kid. I remember my parents playing it in the house and it always takes me back home, you know what I’m saying? ”
Our conversation was soaked in nostalgia and we talked about grafting towards success, so it was wonderful to discover that one of his favourite songs is Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. It has the sentiment of Harlem Child despite being boxed up in a very different genre. From The Smiths’ Frankly Mr Shankly, to Bros’s When Will I Be Famous?, artists have always sung as much about climbing the career ladder as they have about love.
It was fantastic to talk to someone who carries a legacy as Williams does, and I got the feeling he would have been just as happy in that middle place with his own band, a singer in a smoky room; believing.
By Cathy Crabb