Born Charles Rudolph Harrell 23 August 1936, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Rudy Lewis is probably the most underrated of all the Drifters' lead singers. He had the bad fortune to come in after Ben E. King redefined the group's sound, and never got the recognition that King did. By the time that "Save the Last Dance For Me" hit the charts (autumn 1960), King had already recorded his first solo session and was about to emerge as a hitmaker in his own right. His successor in the Drifters was Rudy Lewis, a man with a rich, soulful voice, who was one of only two males to have sung with The Clara Ward Singers gospel group. Lewis brought the newly emergent voice of "soul" to the Drifters at the very time the group was being directed out of their R&B roots into the pop mainstream. The stature of the Drifters was such that all NYC publishers scrambled to get their best numbers recorded by the group. Thus The Drifters came to record songs from the top pop composers of the day : Carole King and Gerry Goffin (Some Kinda Wonderful, When My Little Girl Is Smiling, Up On the Roof), Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (Sweets For My Sweet, A Room Full Of Tears), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (On Broadway, Only in America) and Burt Bacharach and Hal David (Please Stay, Mexican Divorce, Let the Music Play).
This was the golden era of Brill Building pop. "Up On The Roof" and "On Broadway" went Top 10 and "Please Stay" and "Sweets For My Sweet" made the Top 20. However, my own favourite from this period is "Rat Race", which nobody else seems to like, but which ended up at the top of my 1963 list, when I was still in the habit of compiling a Top 100 at the end of each year. Truly moving in its dramatic intensity, "Rat Race" marks the end of the involvement of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with the Drifters ; after mid-1963 their sessions would be supervised by Bert Berns.
During the "Rat Race"session in April 1963, Rudy Lewis also recorded a poor-selling solo single, "Baby I Dig Love"/ "I've Loved You So Long" (Atlantic 2193). You can hear "Baby I Dig Love"on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC5ZtA4uEfk
After Johnny Moore rejoined the group in April 1963 (he had been a Drifter from 1955 until 1957), Lewis and Moore started alternating on lead vocals. On the eve of the group's "Under The Boardwalk" session in May 1964, Lewis was found dead in his apartment. There were rumours of drug abuse and binge eating, but the real death cause turned out to be a heart attack. He left a concise, rewarding legacy, nicely encapsulated on the CD "Up On The Roof : Definitive Drifters Anthology, Vol. 4" (Sequel RSACD 833), released in 1996.
- Further reading: Bill Millar, The Drifters : the rise and fall of the black vocal group. London : Studio Vista, 1971.
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