Listening to The Drifters in the Age of COVID

Back in the 1960s, there were a number of songs that were about places rather than people, many of which were performed by The Drifters, a group that was highly influential but for some reason not as widely known as they should be (e.g., “Who’s singing that song?” “Don’t know.”). Their performances of these songs is often heard in things ranging from commercials to movies—and if it isn’t The Drifters, it is by performers who cover it close to The Drifters’ approach.

In 1962 The Drifters recorded “Up on the Roof,” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, which became a hit in 1963, and later became named by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock”. (The Drifters also made the list with “Money Honey” and “There Goes My Baby.”) The lyric of that song could have been written to describe this past summer, when New York City was a COVID-19 hotspot:

When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat race noise down in the street (up on the roof)

In 1963 The Drifters had a hit with “On Broadway,” a song written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller. While they weren’t the first to record the song—as The Cookies and the Crystals had beat them to it—their version was the most popular, having reached 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

What’s interesting about this song is that while “Broadway” connotes what is referred to as the “Great White Way”—the section of the street between 42nd and 53rd streets—because of the lights that shine from the theater marques (“They say the neon lights are bright/On Broadway”. . .”I’ll have my name in lights”), the lyric goes on to say that while the protagonist/narrator is told that the possibilities are dim—“They say that I won’t last too long on Broadway”—he (in The Drifters’ version) doesn’t believe that:

But they are wrong, I know they are
I can play this here guitar
And I won’t quit till I’m a star
On Broadway

While Bruce Springsteen performed at the Walter Kerr Theatre from October 2017 to December 2018, the notion of someone making it performing on Broadway with a guitar is certainly something that seems unusual today, as it must have been back in 1963, when shows that opened that year included Brigadoon, Oliver! and Pal Joey, things that are more of bravado than ballads.

In 1964 The Drifters recorded “Under the Boardwalk,” written by Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick. The lead singer for “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway” was Rudy Lewis. He died the night before “Under the Boardwalk” was to be recorded; the vocal for “Under the Boardwalk” was performed by Johnny Moore, a member of the group who had left but returned the year before, apparently so as not to lose the recording session. (The Rolling Stones did a cover of the song—the same year of The Drifters’ release.)

In some ways, “Under the Boardwalk” could be connected to “On the Roof” as the opening verse says:

Oh, when the sun beats down and burns the tar up on the roof
And your shoes get so hot you wish your tired feet were fire proof
Under the boardwalk, down by the sea, yeah
On a blanket with my baby is where I’ll be

Notice how heat and tiredness play significant roles in “Up on the Roof” and “Under the Boardwalk,” with “On Broadway” being a song that is about musical stamina: no matter what the weather (“and I won’t quit”).

The Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. To provide context of the importance of this group, know that 1988 was the same year that the following were inducted:

• The Beach Boys
• The Beatles
• Lead Belly
• Bob Dylan
• Berry Gordy, Jr.
• Woody Guthrie
• Les Paul
• The Supremes

Evidently an influential group that added immensely to its time–and to ours.

But I wonder about the importance of place in the songs that were written by different people: they all seemed to associate place with something important in a way that typical lyrics that sometimes gets boiled down to “Moon, June, Spoon” don’t. There was a certain physicality to what they were writing that looks out to the world by people who seem to be struggling with the day-to-day existence in that physical reality.

1963 was also the year of “In My Room” by the Beach Boys (“There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/In my room, in my room”), which seems almost bizarre in that this is a song of being cloistered from a band that was hailing surf culture. “In My Room” appeared on the Surfer Girl album, the group’s third, that also features “Hawaii,” (“I heard about all the pretty girls/With their grass skirts down to their knees/All my life I wanted to see/The island called Hawaii”). “Hawaii” is 1:59 long; “In My Room” 2:11, though it seems much longer, especially in these times, when going to Hawaii has been out of the question for many months due to the need for quarantine, and being in one’s own room is perhaps the only place where there’s safety.

Roof tops are harder to get access to, and boardwalks are not places of social distancing, so perhaps being under one is the only reasonable place to go.

And Broadway? The Broadway League announced that it will remain dark until May 30, 2021, as it has been since March 12, 2020.

Even the singer of “On Broadway” would have to have his heart saddened.

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