Charles “Charlie” Thomas, a member of the 1950s Drifters soul vocal group who performed for decades and gave audiences the romantic, satiny harmony sound they recalled from their youth, died of cancer Jan. 31 at his Bowie home. He was 85.
Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, he was the son of Willis Thomas, a minister, and Lucinda Thomas, a homemaker who was a gifted singer.
“He listened to his mother sing all the time,” said his wife, Rita Rochelle Hunt Thomas.
His mother moved the family to Harlem in New York City and had a day job in the garment district. Nights and weekends he hung out in an alley at the Apollo Theater, Harlem’s showcase stage for Black performers and rising young talent. He could hear the performers, but not observe their acts.
“Charlie was inquisitive and got his first taste of the entertainment industry at The Apollo. He was like a valet to performers. He took Sammy Davis Jr.’s clothes to the cleaners and did errands for him,” Mrs. Thomas said.
A fortunate turn of events soon made Mr. Thomas a member of the Drifters, a soft harmony male vocal ensemble formed in the early 1950s. He ascended to be lead tenor in the second-generation group formed after the manager fired an earlier group of Drifters in 1958.
Mr. Thomas and Ben E. King, known as a singer and co-composer of “Stand by Me,” had been in a group called the Five Crowns that assumed the Drifters’ brand name. They worked for decades and performed along the East Coast.
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A 1978 Washington Post story said, “From those tentative first steps in Harlem’s Apollo in the 1950s ... Charlie Thomas has suited up in supper clubs and saloons, in after-hour clubs, in college auditoriums and in the White House.”
Mr. Thomas was the lead singer on the hit songs “Sweets for My Sweets” and “When My Little Girl Is Smiling.”
“Charlie stayed with the older style of music after acid rock, rap and hip-hop came in,” Mrs. Thomas said. “He stuck with traditional love songs that did not have profanity and insults.
“Charlie was an old-fashioned man. He brought me roses, maybe two dozen, weekly. He knew the importance of sharing his love in a visible way.”
After leaving New York he moved to York, Pennsylvania. He then lived in Washington before settling in Bowie.
A 2008 Sun story recounted how Mr. Thomas appeared before a Maryland Senate Finance Committee to speak in favor of a bill to curb groups who appropriated the names of acts such as the Drifters. He argued these upstarts stole his livelihood and place on the stage, calling it a form of creative identity theft.
“Charlie Thomas was so choked up he could barely sing,” The Sun story said, “But with a little coaxing from the star-struck senators in Annapolis, the 70-year-old lead tenor for the Drifters launched into one of the legendary doo-wop group’s signature songs, ‘Up on the Roof.’”
“It hurts to see young people come along and step in my shoes,” Mr. Thomas told members of the committee. “I love traveling, and this has been my whole life.”
He went on to sing “There Goes My Baby” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “On Broadway” and “Under the Boardwalk.”
Promoters seeking to capitalize on the popularity of those and other classic songs launched traveling acts all over the country to perform under the original groups’ names, without permission or paying royalties, The Sun’s story said.
The Morning Sun
Mr. Thomas asked lawmakers to approve the “Truth in Music Advertising Act,” making it illegal to promote or perform live music in the state while falsely or misleadingly claiming a connection to other acts.
Mr. Thomas brought down the house with his emotional plea.
“The money I get when I go to court is gone. This is my life. I’m an entertainer, and I’m a Drifter, so the only thing I can ask you to do is help,” he said. “I’m sorry for my tears, but it hurts inside.”
He won over the legislative audience. George W. Della Jr., the Baltimore City Democrat, moved to send the bill to the Senate floor. Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a legislator before she was later elected Baltimore’s mayor, seconded. The motion passed unanimously.
The Drifters were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and performed until venue closures began during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Survivors include his wife of 33 years, Rita Rochelle Hunt Thomas; three sons, Charles Thomas Jr., Michael Sidbury and Brian Godfrey; two daughters, Victoria Ida Green and Crystal Thomas Wilson; and numerous grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Services were held Feb. 16 in Landover.