The Drifters Featuring Rick Sheppard (Sheppard is pictured second from the left) continue to sing the group’s many hits to audiences around the country and around the world.//Courtesy of The Drifters Entertainment Company
The first time, he hung up the phone.
Yeah, right, he was going to be the next singer with The Drifters.
Rudy Lewis had joined the group when the great Ben E. King moved on, but in May 1964, Lewis passed away. In 1966, The Drifters needed a voice to handle the King parts that Lewis had sung. So George Treadwell, the group’s manager, called Rick Sheppard.
Sheppard took the call in his Long Island home, but he thought it was a joke, so he disconnected the line. He was waiting to start his studies at the New York City police academy—his backup career choice in case he didn’t make it in the music business—when Treadwell called. An hour later, he got another call, this time from Rose McCoy, a writer he knew and trusted, who asked a simple question: Did George Treadwell call?
“I said it was probably a friend pulling a prank,” Sheppard says. “I asked her, ‘Who’s George Treadwell?’”
It turns out Treadwell didn’t just manage The Drifters. He also managed Sammy Davis Jr.
Treadwell wanted to hear Sheppard sing, so the young man showed up at his office in his academy gray uniform to show that if Treadwell was someone trying to take advantage of him, he would end up in trouble. Treadwell was amused and pointed out the window to a limousine. “That’s your limousine,” Treadwell said. “At least a quarter of it is.”
Sheppard had passed the audition. He was in The Drifters. And more than five decades later, The Drifters Featuring Rick Sheppard continue to sing the group’s many hits to audiences around the country and around the world. The lineup has changed many times, but two things haven’t: Sheppard and the magic of the music, which began in 1953. Sheppard and his three fellow Drifters go through the whole lineup, performing timeless hits like “Up on the Roof,” “Under the Boardwalk” and “On Broadway.” What began as a surprise—and suspicious—phone call has become a lifelong dream.
“I always feel a rush when I do this,” says Sheppard, who is based in New York City but has a home in Bear. “I’m always anxious to entertain people. The first time we did B.B. King’s in New York City, someone asked, ‘How will we know you are the real thing? There are so many Drifters groups around.’ Then we came onto the stage with our Las Vegas revue-style show. People couldn’t believe it. We have a 10-piece band, and it’s a high-energy show.”
Ah, yes, the “so many Drifters groups” issue. Since 1975, Sheppard, his bandmates and management have been embroiled in legal action against others who are trading—illegally, according to Sheppard—on The Drifters name. Two cases have been settled, but there are still some twists and turns ahead. Despite the legal wrangling, Sheppard, whose given name is Jordan Smith, continues to perform the hits and expects to be vindicated. He tells a story about having been in the audience watching another show, when from the stage one of the performers said, “We have a member of The Drifters here with us tonight.” As he prepared to stand up, “three other guys” stood as well. He asked who they were, and they said they were with The Drifters. Sheppard said, “I’m with The Drifters.” Thus, the legal troubles and acrimony from the competing factions.
For now, though, Sheppard and the current Drifters perform across the United States and Canada. They have recorded together, mixing old tunes with some originals, and they continue to enjoy singing in front of audiences and putting on a show.
“When I hire someone to play with us, I only have one rule, and that is there are no sick days,” Sheppard says. “You can’t not show up. If you’re going to die, give me two weeks’ notice.”
Sheppard started singing when he was 9 years old. His mother would put on records by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and others, and young Rick would stand in front of the mirror and imitate their styles and voices.
By the time he was 18, Sheppard was doing it for real. He recorded a song on Dormart Records called “Misery Get Away From Me.” He cut “I’m Gonna Change” on Bang Records and “Can We Share It” on Columbia. He wasn’t getting famous or making a fortune, but Sheppard was developing a reputation as a professional singer.
After the call from Treadwell, Sheppard was with The Drifters from 1966 to 70, but a salary dispute with Faye Treadwell, who took over managing the group when her husband died, led him to quit. He continued to perform under a variety of names, including The Corporation, The Rick Sheppard Revue and The Rick Sheppard Show. He reports that during his four years with The Drifters, he was part of 17 different recordings on Atlantic Records.
During that time, he went back to the NYC police academy and completed his training to become an officer. At one point, he was working for the force and singing at nights and on weekends. He never told any of his co-workers or superiors that he was a performer, but during one New Year’s Eve show, he looked into the audience and saw his lieutenant in the first row.
“He saw me on the stage singing and dancing and couldn’t believe it,” Sheppard says. “He said, ‘You sound like the record,’ I said, ‘I am the record.’”
Sheppard spent 23 years as a police officer, but his first love is The Drifters, even though he has had plenty of contention regarding his status with the group. In 1975, Larry Marshak won a case against Sheppard for use of the name.
“He tells people he beat me in 1975,” Sheppard says. “That’s true. But he lost to me in 2009.”
The struggle continues for Sheppard, but he isn’t about to stop performing. And as one of the only remaining “true” Drifters, he has no plans to give up the music that is a huge part of him—and he of it.
“I’m out on the road 30 weeks a year, all over the country,” he says.
Last New Year’s Eve, he and The Drifters did a show at The Candlelight Theatre in Wilmington. He loves being on the stage, but he also enjoys interactions with those who come out to the shows. He works hard to keep himself in shape, since he will turn 80 next year, and when someone wants to speak with him, he is more than willing to do so.
“I never smoked or drank,” he says. “But people think I’m high or something, because I’m always smiling when I’m in public. I always hear that some entertainers don’t want to be with the people. Without those people, there is no entertainer.”
When Sheppard comes upon a couple at one of his shows, he makes sure to shake the man’s hand first. “He’s been trying to get a date with that woman forever, so I want to show him some respect,” he says. Ben E. King taught him that—he learned about it the hard way. One day, King went up to a couple and kissed the woman’s hand. “He got punched in the face,” Sheppard says.
When not practicing public relations with his fans, Sheppard leads the other three Drifters and their crackling band through an exciting revue.
“It’s not ‘doo-wop,’” he says. “It’s ‘do-pop.’ We are a high-energy group, and we play Drifters songs, as well as those by other groups. But we make sure to sing all of our major hits.”
And to keep them coming.