Charlie Thomas, singer for The Drifters, died at age 85 on Jan. 31, his friend Peter Lemongello Jr. confirmed to The New York Times on Monday (Feb. 6).
According to Lemongello, Thomas died as a result of liver cancer, but regularly kept up with his physical activities until his condition started deteriorating.
“He was aging, but he was active almost every weekend,” Lemongello, former singer for The Crests, told the newspaper. “Unfortunately, he went from being active to being at home and he started going downhill.”
Thomas became a member of The Drifters after a chance encounter. In 1958, the tenor was singing as part of the Five Crowns at New York’s Apollo Theatre when The Drifters’ original manager, George Treadwell, fired all members of the group for getting drunk and cursing show promoter and Apollo owner Mary Goldberg. Treadwell replaced all members of The Drifters with Five Crowns.
Led by Ben E. King, The Drifters experienced success from several singles. “There Goes My Baby,” “Under The Boardwalk,” and “Up on the Roof” became beloved R&B classics, though The Drifters wouldn’t top the Billboard charts until 1960 with “Save the Last Dance For Me,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100. The song has since been covered by Dolly Parton, Michael Bublé and more. “Sweets for My Sweet” peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 1961, and “When My Little Girl Is Smiling” cracked the top 30 of the chart at No. 28 in 1962.
Thomas — alongside band members King, Clyde McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher, Johnny Moore and Rudy Lewis — was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Despite the group’s many iterations throughout the years, Thomas continued performing with The Drifters throughout to the pandemic.
Thomas is survived by his wife, Rita Thomas; his two daughters, Crystal Thomas Wilson and Victoria Green; and his three sons, Charlie “Happy” Thomas Jr., Michael Sidbury and Brian Godfrey.