Pure Luck Placed Charlie Thomas As Lead Tenor Of The Drifters In 1958

Success in the entertainment industry can come because of many things, not least of which is talent. Charlie Thomas, lead tenor in the trailblazing R&B group The Drifters, who died in early February 2023, certainly displayed a great deal of skill in his decades-long career in the music business. One instance of right-place-right-time good luck, though, helped the acclaimed soul and R&B singer along the way. Thomas was 85 years old when he died and his cause of death was confirmed to be complications from liver cancer, according to Thomas' friend, Peter Lemongello Jr., speaking with The New York Times.

Thomas joined The Drifters in the late '50s, and prior to that point, he was already singing in a different R&B vocal group called The Five Crowns. Thomas was in the Crowns with another well-known singer, Ben Nelson, later Ben E. King, who as a solo artist produced the enduring hit, "Stand By Me." One night, Thomas and the Crowns were booked on the same bill as the original Drifters lineup at the legendary New York venue, the Apollo. If not for a certain stroke of luck as well as bad behavior from Drifters members, Thomas' singing career could have turned out quite differently, while songs like "Under the Boardwalk" would not be the timeless Drifters classics they are today.

The Drifters manager fired the original Drifters lineup on the spot

Based on Rolling Stone reporting, on the night that both The Five Crowns (with Charlie Thomas and Ben E. King) and the original Drifters lineup (managed by George Treadwell) were booked at the famed Harlem venue, the Apollo, original members of The Drifters drank too much and picked a fight with the venue owner, Frank Schiffman, as well as the show's promoter, known as Dr. Jive. Formed in the early 1950s, The Drifters had undergone several lineup changes prior to that point, as music historian Marv Goldberg writes, and as a result, Treadwell was already on the lookout for a new Drifters lead singer.

At that time, The Crowns, with Thomas in the lineup, were much less well known than The Drifters, and bad band behavior aside, the chance to perform with The Drifters at the Apollo was an honor. As Thomas himself later told Goldberg (via The New York Times), "As a kid, I used to play hooky to see the Drifters at the Apollo. It felt good!" he said, referring to the opportunity to perform alongside his heroes at such an iconic venue. Little did Thomas know that Treadwell may have already had his eye on the Crowns to fill in gaps in the Drifters lineup, with tenor Gerhart Thrasher the only original Drifters member remaining. Thomas is pictured with other Drifters members, above center.

Members of The Five Crowns became The Drifters 2.0

As music historian Marv Goldberg goes on to point out in his blog based on interviews with Drifters' member Ben E. King, whether Treadwell had his eye on the Crowns as Drifters replacements prior to the Apollo band meltdown is lost to history. What is known for certain is after original members of The Drifters picked a drunken fight with the venue owner and the show promoter, they were fired on the spot and members of The Crowns, including Charlie Thomas singing lead tenor, were invited to join the group. Their manager, Treadwell, owned the name The Drifters and could fire and hire musicians at his discretion.

As Drifters member Ben E. King later said, the transition to the new Drifters lineup, with members who looked an awful lot like the Crowns, was not always smooth. "We got booed off the stage for a year almost before getting into the studio to record," King told Goldberg, as written on Goldberg's website. Still, the band and the fans settled in and the Drifters went on to produce a string of hits including "This Magic Moment" and "Save The Last Dance For Me," among others. According to Rolling Stone, Charlie Thomas is survived by two daughters, three sons, and his wife, Rita Thomas.