This double-CD set isn't quite what its title says it is, unless one happens to be from England, where the Drifters' chart hits extended ten years beyond their history in the United States; but it is the most wide-ranging and comprehensive look at their hits and important songs spanning the group's entire history. Every song is a keeper and all lend themselves to strong listening. Definitive Drifters is never less than enjoyable, and often amazingly so. Beginning with Clyde McPhatter's 1953 hit "Money Honey," virtually all of the highlights of the group's career over the next 23 years are here in state-of-the-art sound, right up to "You're More Than a Number in My Little Black Book" (a UK chart entry in 1976). The first disc carries us through the spotty post-McPhatter years (scarcely a half-dozen tracks) and into the Ben E. King/Rudy Lewis line-up; while disc two goes into the Rudy Lewis/Johnny Moore era, with which they closed out their American successes in 1966; the only tracks not present from that period that arguably should have been included are "She Never Talked to Me That Way," "Nobody But Me," and "In the Park"; but they're present on other compilations for the dedicated fan. In their place, this set goes past where any U.S. Drifters' compilation has yet ventured; to "Up in the Streets of Harlem," and to recordings such as "Memories Are Made of This" -- and to tracks beyond their Atlantic contract.
The group's decade on British RCA, when they worked with the songwriting team of Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, is represented on the second half of the second disc, beginning with the elegant soul sound of "Like Sister and Brother," and "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies." These 11 songs embody much more of a smooth, '70's soul sound, but aren't too far removed from "Under the Boardwalk" or "I've Got Sand in My Shoes". The second disc is not necessarily where one would ideally want to start listening to the group, though they do no violence to the memory of their earlier incarnations; there's even an acknowledgement of past sounds in some elements of the production on these songs, and "Harlem Child" from 1976 is even a pleasing throwback to their early-'60's sound. In all, the set is every bit as essential as any of the best Rhino, Atlantic or Sequel compilations; and anyone who owns any of those will have to have it, though by the same token, it is no substitute for those other compilations.