Music News & Reviews

Bill Pinkney profile | No longer drifting

Published on: 08/14/2005

The stove, crowded with pots and frying pans, is warm. So is Bill Pinkney's smile.

Fried chicken, collard greens, rice, butter beans and beef stew are making their way to the table. And this is just lunch.

Pinkney stoops to open the oven where the mac 'n' cheese is crackling to a golden brown.

"See how it looks," he says, straightening his short-sleeve plaid shirt. "I got my cooking clothes on today."

Not like when he's on stage - where Pinkney is a sharp dresser who has more style than a fashion show.

Pinkney, who will turn 80 on Monday, was one of the voices in The Drifters, the R&B and doo-wop group who rose to the top of the charts in the 1950s. He's also one of South Carolina's most famous performers.

Despite the passing of time, Pinkney still has a lead singer's confident swagger. A Mercedes-Benz charm dangles from a gold chain, and the cell phone is never far from his ear, even when he's in the kitchen tending to his meal.

Photos, plaques and framed letters decorate Pinkney's Sumter residence, a mini vocal group hall of fame.

You're always welcome here. And make sure you take your appetite, because Pinkney won't let you leave until you eat.

THE DRIFTERS

Pinkney was born in the town of Dalzell, near Sumter, and moved to New York in 1949. There he sang with gospel groups and pitched for the New York Blue Sox, a sandlot baseball team.

It was while singing hymns that he met Clyde McPhatter, who had a vocal group on Atlantic Records, the premier R&B label of the day. The label thought the group's sound was too young and asked McPhatter to bring in more mature voices. That's when The Drifters formed, in 1953.

"He regrouped, and fortunately I was one of the guys in the second group," Pinkney says. "I was the top tenor, the fifth voice. I could sing just as high as a mockingbird."

The group recorded hits such as "Money Honey" and "Honey Love." The Drifters' doo-wop version of "White Christmas," with Pinkney singing the lead, was dusted off for the 1991 movie "Home Alone."

"It was me doing the singing in that movie," he says with pride. "It's the first baritone bass song I was featured on."

Pinkney also was featured on "Steamboat" and "I've to Get Myself a Woman," as life with the Drifters went from doo-wop slow to rock 'n' roll fast.

"We were movin' from place to place (and) state to state, having sellout crowds for all performances," Pinkney says, the plastic-covered couch snapping as he rocks to the memory.

"We had standing ovations and nice colorful uniforms. I used to dance well and it was just great."

On the road, Pinkney hung out with the hottest performers. He counted Paul Anka, Buddy Holly, The Platters, Nat King Cole and Fats Domino among his friends.

But Pinkney left The Drifters in December 1958 because, he says, of a rift with "Clyde McPhatter's guy," manager George Treadwell.

"It was because of money," he says. With four singers and a guitar player, The Drifters were making $2,200 per week. Each member took home only $175 of that, though Pinkney made $25 more because he was group spokesman.

Pinkney says that while The Drifters recorded with Atlantic, the group made 21/2 cents for every record sold.

"Everyone wants more money because we're cleaning up. We're knocking 'em dead," Pinkney says. "I go to the company and tell them, so that's when they dumped me.

"They didn't pay me what they pay now. I would've been a millionaire."

HIS DAY IN COURT

Was he bitter after leaving The Drifters? No, he says; he just kept on singing, putting together Bill Pinkney and the Flyers. The group toured on the strength of Pinkney's name and, without a manager taking a cut, the members had more to themselves.

"The Drifters" name stayed with Treadwell, who began the cycle of firing and hiring lead singers who included Ben E. King, Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore.

It was after Pinkney left that The Drifters recorded their best-known hits, songs such as "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Up on the Roof," "On Broadway" and "Under the Boardwalk."

In the '60s, Pinkney began performing with Bill Pinkney and the Original Drifters. That's when the legal wrangling began.

Pinkney didn't have a trademark on the Drifters name, as Treadwell's group did, but because he had sung in the original lineup, he felt entitled to the name.

"They had me in court. I'd win all the cases, but I was still paying for attorney fees," Pinkney says. "I've been to court so many times with the same people until the judge started making them pay all of my expenses."

In 2004, the Legislature came to the rescue. It passed a law that said that for a performer or band to claim an affiliation with a classic group, at least one member must have recorded with the original group. South Carolina was the first state to pass such a law.

Right now it's a law without teeth, and impostors still perform in the state.

"It made me feel very good, but I think those orders should be carried out," Pinkney says. "Since they passed that law, there have been (other groups calling themselves The) Drifters advertised in South Carolina."

It's not just the public being duped; event organizers are, too.

"It's one thing to pass it, and another to get it enforced," says Harry Turner, president of the Beach Music Association International.

Turner said his organization hoped that radio stations would air public-service announcements about fraudulent groups, so fans would get only the real deal.

The only original living member, Pinkney carries on The Drifters' legacy. Backed by Chuck Cochran, Richard Dunbar and Reggie Funderburke singing, and with guitarist is Isaac Council, Pinkney doesn't do all the shows.

But when he does take the stage, you get one of the best.

The Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Howard Kramer, curatorial director of the Cleveland museum, said that although the group was no household name, its status remained legendary.

"The Drifters, frankly, are one of the great vocal groups of all time," Kramer says. "You're not going to see their likes again."

PIMP MY RIDE

About the only thing Pinkney loves more than his music is his cars.

He gets out of bed around 8 a.m., and one of the first things he does is crank his baby.

"My baby out there is the 1939 Cadillac LaSalle," Pinkney says.

Pinkney picked cotton before he entered the Army, and he bought a 1939 Ford when he was discharged.

"To own a 1939 in the '40s as a black man, it was a blessing," Pinkney says. "Now all these years later I ran into a '39."

If the LaSalle is his baby, then the 1974 Rolls-Royce is his mistress. And Pinkney prayed for her.

He saw the car parked at a Sumter dealership two years ago. Several times he stopped to admire the collector's item. The asking price was $20,000.

"I met with the owner and asked, 'How can I pay for this car?' " Pinkney says. "He said, 'Cash.' "

Pinkney wanted the car so badly that he gave the owner $5,000 cash with the promise to pay the balance in 60 days. He prayed because he didn't know where the money would come from.

"I had the rest of the money before the 60 days," Pinkney says. "It came from some recordings I had done. Old royalty money."

Pinkney also has a Lexus, a limo and a yellow 1980 Corvette that he hides in the garage.

"He just decided to put it in there," says Donnie Laury, Pinkney's cousin and full-time driver. "If you ask him, he'll tell you why."

"Everybody wants to drive it," Pinkney answers with a wry smile.

He decides to take a visitor to see the park in Dalzell that honors his career. The tiny town sits on U.S. 521, where Pinkney was born Aug. 15, 1925. Laury cranks ups the tour bus in the back yard.

The park memorializes Pinkney's singing - and his war record. After enlisting at 17, he earned five Bronze Stars and a Silver Star, for combat in France and Germany at Normandy, Saint-Lo, Bastogne and the Rhine River.

The bus rolls past sun- scorched fields and tiny houses as overgrown tree branches smack the bus window.

Laury pulls the bus through the park's freshly cut grass. Near a fence is the bronze bust with marble base commemorating Willie "Bill" Pinkney Park.

"I was born here 80 years ago," Pinkney says, slipping off his straw hat before closing his eyes and drifting away.

THE PARTY

Pushing his collards and stew together with a homemade biscuit, Pinkney can hardly swallow his bite before another grandchild pops his head into the dining area.

"Hi, Granddad," the boy says.

"Hey, boy" Pinkney gently responds.

A friend comes to drop off CDs, and Pinkney urges him to eat.

"How long is it going to take you to eat?," Pinkney says. "Sit down and eat."

Pinkney used to own a restaurant in Sumter called Bill Pinkney's Supper Club, so feeding friends comes naturally. But Monday it will be Pinkney's turn for catered treatment.

"He's done so much and he's so deserving," says Turner of the Beach Music Association. "People love him."

Pinkney will throw an 80th-birthday bash at the Clarion Town House hotel, and he will be surrounded by family and friends.

You are invited to the celebration as well, because it is The Drifters' fans who keep Pinkney showing up for gigs.

"People still want to see me sing. That keeps me going," he says. "My public keeps me going."

Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362 or otaylor@thestate.com.

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