Interview by Anita Nahal
QFTD: So, Butch, tell our readers about yourself. Who are you? And what is your connection with the Drifters?
Butch: Well, my name is Butch Leake I hail from NYC. I joined the Drifters back in 1970. As a kid, I was a follower of the group and patronized the group at the Apollo theater, and the Drifters were a popular group at the time. I used to follow them and it's interesting that I myself became a member in the early 70’s from when my basic connection with them began. I was drafted to the Drifters in the early 1970s through one of my dearest friends who is no longer with us. The Drifters were going through a personnel change, and they were looking for a replacement and rest is a history.
QFTD: Wow…you had a long connection with them since your childhood! Who recruited you?
Butch: I was recruited by Bill Fredericks…he is sadly no longer with us. He and I went to the same school, and we lived in the same neighborhood. So, we knew each other from childhood.
QFTD: You also served in the Vietnam War and are a Veteran. How did you move from the military to the music world…and why? What drove you to cross over to a profession so different?
Butch: Well you know the Vietnam war… we all know what it was. When I came back, I was trying to figure out which direction I would be going. I had always been connected with music, especially through my mother as I was brought up in a music environment. In school, I used to be in various talent shows and hung out at the battle of the groups in my neighborhood. I used to follow Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers who were the forerunners of the Jackson Five in their day. Like most men of my age, we had the dream to go into the music field. One night, I was sitting in a bar called Allens Alley at 150th Street in Harlem N.Y. after returning from the war. While having drinks, Bill Fredericks came in. We had not met for a long time. Looking at me, he said, 'Hey, I know this guy, and he can sing!' Later he said to me, 'Listen I got an issue, we need someone to replace one of our members in my singing group.' At the time, I had no Idea he was talking about The Drifters. That’s how it came that I was drafted into the group.
QFTD: Fascinating how chance plays a major role sometimes in our decisions and choices! I see that your drive to get into the music field is connected with your childhood and especially through your mother. Was she was an actress or singer?
Butch: No, she was a dancer and she worked for a lot of people in show
business and she was friends with many. So, it kind of rubbed off. As a child, I was mixing with show business folks and my mother took care of me for the most part. She liked to have me with her, and it was bound to rub off at some time!
QFTD: It’s wonderful to have your mother as a source of inspiration! For those who do not know, can you describe the history of the Drifters.
Butch: There were basically three golden eras: 1953, 1958 and 1970, the third golden era of which I was a member. The Drifters started off at the impetus of a record chief, Ahmet Ertegun head of Atlantic records and founder of the company. Originally from Turkey, Ertegun played a huge role in the proliferation of R&B and popular music. In fact, The Drifters, as a group, crossed a number of the genre in terms of music…R&B, gospel, and popular music.
To give a slight history, Atlantic Records in the 1960’s were in a partnership with local labels like Stax Records in Memphis and helped to develop the growth of soul music with artists such as Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Ahmet Ertegun helped introduce America to The Rascals when he discovered the group at a Westhampton night club in 1965 and signed them to Atlantic. So Atlantic records were a big part of the R&B phenomena at the particular time and many great artists came through them, and The Drifters were one that was developed during the early years. The group actually came about a bit later and formed by one of the key singers, Clyde McPhatter. Ertegun was looking to develop the Drifters and asked Clyde to try to find some singers who could complement him. But the name had not been chosen at that time and it took some time to develop the name but they formed a group around Clyde. And, Clyde picked out other members of the group from his friends from the gospel world. Thus, the Drifters began with a gospel flavor. Yet the first Atlantic group, the record company didn’t feel they cut the mustard. They didn’t like the sound, so Ertegun asks Clyde to find some new singers to complement him. This second group became the classic hit group of Drifters who recorded the first hit song “Money Honey” and it featured along with Clyde McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher, Andrew Thrasher and Willy Ferbie.
QFTD: Tell us a bit about the Drifters Legend Clubhouse initiative. Why did you establish it, and what are your future plans for it?
Butch: Well, in understanding the Drifters, this unique story covers over 60 years, within which we have had 50-60 members who were part of the lineup. However, there was also a negative side to the development of the Drifters… the exploitation of its members through the management and ownership. Many people have written about the Drifters and there is a lot of misinformation, so I decided that someone needed to address this and this was one of the reasons I started the Legends Clubhouse, which you can visit through Social Media, on Facebook. Also, I wanted to bring like-minded people together to talk about the Drifters music and meet at the level of music. Later I saw it as a PR tool to really get the information out there as to what were the underlining factors that made the Drifters' legacy. Many write about them, but they don’t tell the whole story, they have their prejudices, like their love for their own specific Drifters - even I go back to a certain period which I like more than even my period. But if you are going to tell the story then you have to tell it from A to Z, and not leave out anything. Of course the management had their own interests, which was not about the members, they were exploiting them… there was a certain amount of abuse. Some of the Drifters have come and gone and people have forgotten about them. And they have not gained anything from it. I am trying to simply fill that void and that became a prime catalyst for the Legends Clubhouse.
QFTD: It’s noteworthy that you are doing the work of a historian, taking on the big task to write and maintain the history and share it.
Butch: Oh yes, keeping the integrity of the name has been like walking a long, long road, all by myself. It’s not really being done by anybody else so I decided to dedicate myself to that. I am like the bogey man for certain people. Will not go away. Hahaha…
QFTD: Our readers would love to learn about the Butch Leake mystic. Tell us about your fans. What factors help you to connect with them?
Butch: Hahaha… Well, first looking at the fans, the Drifter fans are unique in different countries, like Britain, which is one of the biggest fan bases. They know our music better than we know ourselves. The music and names have become a household name in themselves. My connection with the fans is just a straight connection. Fans can ask me questions, anytime. I allow them to get personal, and I try to give them everything they want to know and want to hear. I try to keep them informed. I would not say there is any great mystic, but there is a great appeal for the Drifters. It was a formula we had. We did not cut the fan base off in any way. After the show, we always met the fans, gave autographs, invited them to the dressing rooms, hung out with them, had dinner with them. They invited us to their homes and we went; we even invited them to our place. We had this rapport with the fans, and it became a very known fact about the Drifters and I have tried to carry on this rapport with fan base...so that is the mystic. (smiling)
QFTD: Where do you see yourself going now in relation to your music?
Butch: There is always some hope in putting a show together, but it really comes down to trying to get the right sponsors and getting the line up together, etc. The intention is always there, but it’s not easy. Whether it’s five or six, or three or one of us, it will happen at some time. I am currently discussing with folks in Europe about that possibility. Of course there is still the political aspect that is hovering over the Drifter issues, but we are slowly knocking them down. That was one of the purposes of the Clubhouse.
Then, there is the re-branding issue. The new management is re-branding the name, but I am in disagreement with the way they are approaching some of this. If you don’t tackle it from the bottom up and tell the history and story and clear up the misinformation, lot of fans do not know why things are happening the way they are. We need to be clear up about everything. That is one reason I brought out the magazines, and the book. I am trying to stay on top of all aspects of the Drifter phenomena and that in itself will set the stage hopefully again for the resurrection of the crew members to perform for the fans and even bring out new music. I am looking at this with people to come out with the right formula to put some new music into the marketplace, but it takes time. My challenge is that it's very hard to find the right people to work with… promoters, writers, etc…it’s a collaborative endeavor. I have a vision, I understand the formula and I have argued even with the current management that why they are not doing things the right way. So there is a formula which has worked with the Drifters for so many years and never failed…of course we are at a different time now and you have to modernize things, but you never want to drift away from the roots of your formula. That is my mission.
QFTD: So Butch, we are coming to the end of the interview. What would you tell aspiring singers and musicians about how they should pursue their musical dreams? What drives you, and what could drive them?
Butch: One never gives up when you travel down this road. You will run into many a minefield and hurdles, but if you truly have a vision, you must remain with it and see it through to its fruition. As I said earlier, the biggest problem I always had is that people don’t see things from your perspective but from what they will gain from it. You take into account what everybody says, but you must stay on your own road and persevere. And, at some point in time, you will have success. You might not have great success, but a little success here and there begins to amount to something big. Develop yourself, your craft - whether you are a singer, dancer, writer -learn as much as you can and apply that to what you do. For me, it’s about wearing many hats simply because I have to get the work done and I am not one to wait around for this or that guy. So, I have to keep going and wear their hats as well! I believe I am a visionary, and I can pull the proper people together at the right moment when it’s time to get a major project off the ground. I have to keep pushing. To the younger people: whatever your profession, you have to persevere, and believe in what you want and believe that you can make it happen.
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