Stand By Me musical revue tells the real story behind legendary Drifters

Under the Boardwalk, Up On The Roof, Save the Last Dance for Me... The Drifters are responsible for a string of evergreen hits in the popular music canon. Singer Michael Williams tells Gail Bell why he had to put what was for him a very personal musical journey with the band on the stage

The Drifters as they appear in Stand By Me – Michael Williams with Ryan King, Gerome Butler and Dannel Betton
The Drifters as they appear in Stand By Me – Michael Williams with Ryan King, Gerome Butler and Dannel Betton

DAPPER in a sharp black suit and looking more like a friendly bouncer than former singer with world-renowned band, The Drifters' Michael Williams was easy to pick out among the locals hanging out in a Belfast hotel at Friday lunch-time.

But belying his huge presence – literally and figuratively – it is a gentle Alabama voice which politely greets me; and one ever-ready to sing the praises of a Northern Ireland audience, it seems.

He has been here before and he likes us because we "sure like to party" – and are quick to get on our feet and interact with the music on stage.

In fact, Williams and Kathy Mashadi, co-writer of new musical revue, Stand By Me: A celebration of Ben E King and The Drifters – which rolls into town on January 19 for two shows at Belfast's Grand Opera House – travelled to Northern Ireland four years ago specifically to write a number of its scenes.

"We needed inspiration and could think of nowhere better to come and write," Williams says. "I love the vibe and energy in Northern Ireland, so we booked an apartment in Belfast and got writing – we wrote a couple of the major scenes from our room, including the tragic death of former Drifter, Rudy Lewis."

The death scene (Lewis was found dead in a hotel room in Harlem in 1964, aged just 27) is just one of many dramatic stops in the Drifters story, as covered by Stand By Me which comprises a cast of 16 and includes screen clips, singing, sketches, dancing and anecdotes, not to mention over 100 costumes.

"We had 65 years to condense into a two-hour show, so it was difficult deciding what to keep in and what to keep out," Williams says, "but I believe we have struck the right balance of light and shade.

"We cover everything from the time original band members got drunk before a performance at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and were sacked, to the time they were stopped by the state police and suspected of robbing a loan company.

"The 50s and 60s were difficult times for black musicians in America and they faced a lot of protests and racial discrimination, but their story is a positive one and we show the highs as well as the lows, including the time The Drifters were invited to the White House in 1993 to play for President Clinton."

For Williams, a Drifter for 12 years before the group finally disbanded last year, writing and performing in the show represents a very personal musical memoir and, more importantly, brings the complex story of The Drifters to a whole new audience.

"People know the music – big hits like Under the Boardwalk, Stand By Me (composed and sung by Ben E King), Up On The Roof and Save the Last Dance for Me, to name a few – but not many people know the story behind The Drifters, whose membership changed a lot over the years.

"The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and sold 214 million singles and over 114 million albums worldwide."

In addition to the music, which helped define Atlantic Records and was a forerunner to the black music movement in 1950s America, Stand By Me also diverts to other icons from the era: The Andrews Sisters, The Temptations and Beach Boys among them.

"It is a wicked show and what I love about it is that the music is still relevant today'; it is the feel-good factor," concludes Williams, who graduated to "fully-fledged Drifter" a year after being picked as an under-study when a manager heard him sing at a club in New York.

"It was my dream come true," he recalls, "I had sung in my church choir but I was brought up on Drifters music as my parents were huge fans – so, when I told them I had actually become a member – well, it was just the proudest moment."

:: Stand By Me is at Derry's Millennium Forum on January 18 and the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on January 19 and 20.