The Drifters

On Broadway

Song Review by

Generally, it's considered that songs of social conscience didn't make their way into rock music until folk-rock in the mid-1960s. There were songs that touched upon such issues in rock music before that, though, and "On Broadway" is one of the outstanding examples. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who produced the tune and comprised half of the song's writers, were not strangers to social commentary; many of their songs for the Coasters had gone beyond romance, though usually in a comic way that poked fun at adolescence and popular culture. Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the song's other writers, also sometimes went into pseudo-social commentary, as they did on another song they wrote with Leiber-Stoller, "Only in America" (a hit for Jay & the Americans). One might think that four of the Brill Building's top writers collaborating together might be too many cooks in the kitchen, but the result was a classic, dramatic early soul hit, reaching the Top Ten in 1963. Musically, "On Broadway" is dynamite, built around a crunching, strident descending two chord riff, played in the halting Latin rhythm common to many Drifters recordings. Rudy Lewis's lead vocal on the verses projects the right balance of defiance, resentment, and ambition in his tale of a guy who's poor and deprived now, but determined to make it on Broadway. The two-chord riff continues to anchor the verse, changing keys in a manner that's bluesy but not traditional 12-bar blues. The Drifters' contributions as backing vocals might be unobtrusive, but they're vital, softly murmuring "on broadway" often after Lewis sings that phrase, as if they're both acting as his subconscious voice, and mimicking the grandeur of the flashing neon lights of New York's most glamorous strip. The song keeps changing keys upward with each subsequent verse, a convenient device perhaps, but quite effective in making the track progressively tenser. The arrangement becomes more and more elaborate too, with additional backup voices coming in, and a choir, strings, mariachi trumpet, and bluesy rock guitar entering at the instrumental break. That guitar solo, incidentally, is by yet another major figure of the early-'60s Brill Building scene, Phil Spector. The social conscience of the lyrics, it should be said, only goes so far. It was unusual to have a poor and hungry figure at the center of a pop song in 1963, but he's determined to get out of his bind by becoming a star, not by changing the system that made him poor and hungry. That lack of explicit rebellion separates it from many songs of the last half of the 1960s, which made it clear that justice for all was desirable, not just justice for one individual who overcomes obstacles to gain success and stardom. It's not entirely clear how he's going to become a star, but he does point to his guitar as proof, indicating he has ambitions as a musician. Most likely the writers and performers only had a dramatic, compelling pop hit in mind when they constructed this, and in that they succeeded gloriously. The extended coda is also worthy of mention, as Lewis goes into a higher vocal register and offers some ad-libbed-sounding admonitions and promises about how he's going to get his name on lights in Broadway. Many artists have covered "On Broadway," but by far the most renowned cover was by jazz guitarist George Benson, who took a version (on which he also sang) into the Top Ten in the late 1970s. Benson's treatment is more jovial, with a clapalong rhythm and plenty of vocal scatting. Successful it was, but it angered some jazz purists who thought Benson, who'd been an established and critically respected jazz guitarist before moving into pop stardom, had sold out. It's also true that Benson glossed over the more dramatic simmering tension of the tune, making it into a more good-time ode to making good.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Under the Boardwalk 1964 Dara
Oldies But Goodies, Vol. 8 196?
Various Artists
Original Sound Entertainment 2:58
No Image 1975 Atlantic
No Image 1982 Audio Fidelity
Greatest Hits [Hollywood] 1987 Hollywood / IMG 2:47
20 Great Hits of 1964 1988
Various Artists
Deluxe 3:04
Atlantic Soul Classics [1985] 1990
Various Artists
Warner Music / Rhino 3:03
The Drifters Greatest Hits 1991 Dominion 3:02
Super Box of Rock [1992] 1992
Various Artists
Dominion 3:00
The Very Best of the Drifters [Rhino] 1993 Rhino 3:06
Up on the Roof, On Broadway & Under the Boardwalk 1993 JDC Records / Rhino 3:30
No Image 1994
Various Artists
MGM
Super Box of Soul, Vol. 3 1995
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 3:00
Hello America 1995
Various Artists
Drive (import) 2:49
Happy Days: 100 Rock 'N' Roll Hits 1995
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:48
Stand by Me [King] 1996 King 2:44
Double Gold Hits, Vol. 4 1996
Various Artists
Public Music
Greatest Hits [K-Tel #2] 1996 Prime Cuts 2:49
Great Hits 1997 Public Music
Rockfile, Vol. 8 1997
Various Artists
Rockfile 3:55
No Image 1997 Kingfisher Records
Under the Boardwalk & Other Hits [Rhino] 1997 Rhino Flashback 3:06
3 for 3: The Platters, The Drifters & The Coasters 1997 St. Clair / 3 for 3 2:47
Rock n' Roll Reunion: Class of 63 1997
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 3:03
Golden Classics 1997 Essex 3:01
Whole Lotta Rock: 1962-1963 1997
Various Artists
BCI-Eclipse Distribution / Eclipse Music Group 3:01
Rock 'N Roll Relix: 1960-1969 1997
Various Artists
Eclipse Music Group 3:01
Rockin' Jukebox, 1963 1997
Various Artists
Excelsior Recordings 3:00
Ultimate 60's Soul Smashes 1998
Various Artists
Rhino
Super Box of Rock [1998] 1998
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 3:03
Super Box of Soul 1998
Various Artists
Dominion / K-Tel Distribution 3:00
Back 2 Back 1998 Intercontinental Records 3:01
Up on the Roof/Under the Boardwalk 1998 Collectables 3:01
Legendary Jazz 1998 Rhino 3:03
Soft Rock Classics [Rhino Box] 1998
Various Artists
Rhino 0:00
No Image 1998 Excelsior Recordings
Mods Vs. Rockers 1999
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 2:58
Oldies Radio: K-Earth 101FM Greatest Hits 1999
Various Artists
Rhino 3:05
New York Songs 1999
Various Artists
Rhino 3:04
Sweet Soul Music [Dressed to Kill] 1999
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill 2:57
Forever Gold 1999 St. Clair 2:51
4 Legendary Soul Groups 1999
Various Artists
Double Play Records 3:00
The Drifters: Magic Collection 2000 The Magic Collection 2:51
The Legendary Group at Their Best 2000 Collectables 3:01
Oldies But Goodies, Vol. 8 & 9 2000
Various Artists
Original Sound Entertainment 2:57
1963 Classic Rock 2000
Various Artists
Direct Source 2:53
This Magic Moment [Direct Source] 2000
Various Artists
Direct Source 2:51
Golden Legends [Direct Source] 2000 Direct Source 2:49
High Profile 2000 Direct Source 2:53
Rock N' Roll 60's Flashback 2000
Various Artists
Direct Source 2:41
Forever Gold: The Platters Meet the Drifters 2000 Boxsets 2:49
Collection [Mastersound] 2000 Mastersound 2:48
Roots of Rock 'N Roll: Greatest Groups 1960-1962 2000
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 3:02
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow 2001
Various Artists
Legacy 2:54
Star Power: The Drifters 2001 Direct Source 3:01
Mega Soul 2001
Various Artists
Wagram Records 2:54
The Drifters, Vol. 1 2001 Platinum Disc 3:00
The Songmaker's Collection: Music from the Brill Building 2001
Various Artists
Q Records 3:01
Shagadelic Hits of the 60's 2001
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill
Three Decades of Soul 2001
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 3:03
The Soul Box 2002
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 3:02
Jukebox Hits 1963 [Madacy] 2002
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Madacy 3:02
Magic Moments 2002 Brentwood Records 2:52
Greatest Hits [Prestige] 2002 Prestige Elite Records 3:02
The Essentials 2002 Rhino / Warner Music 3:04
All-Time Greatest Hits [K-Tel] 2002 K-Tel 3:02
The Definitive Drifters [2006] 2003 Warner Music 3:01
Under the Boardwalk [Dynamic] 2003 Dynamic 2:55
The Best of the Drifters 2003 K-Tel Distribution 3:02
The Drifters [Platinum Disc] 2004 Platinum Disc 3:00
16 Greatest Hits [Passport Audio] 2005 Passport Audio 3:01
Best of Soul: Four Tops/Temptations/Smokey Robinson 2005
Various Artists
Prime Cuts 2:49
Rhino Hi-Five: The Drifters 2005 Atlantic / Rhino 3:05
Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974, Vol. 5: 1961-1965 2006
Various Artists
WEA International 3:00
The Definitive Soul Collection 2006 Rhino 3:05
Atlantic R&B Box Set 2006
Various Artists
WEA International 3:00
Hollywood: Trilogy 2007
Various Artists
Music Brokers / PMB 2:56
Drift and Dream 2007 Atlantic / Rhino 3:05
Sweet Soul Music: 1963 2008
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 2:57
Sweet Soul Music [Masters Of] 2008
Various Artists
Dressed To Kill
Atlantic Soul Legends : 20 Original Albums From the Iconic Atlantic Label 2012
Various Artists
Rhino / Warner Bros. 3:01
Soul: When a Man Loves a Woman 2012
Various Artists
Bellevue Publishing 2:58
Dick Clark's Jukebox Gems 2013
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:59
Stand by Me: The Very Best of the Drifters 2015 Rhino 2:59
60s Golden Memories 2018
Various Artists
Stargrove 2:49
No Image Rhino
Classic Love Songs of Rock 'N' Roll
Various Artists
Time Life 2:59
It All Started with Doo Wop
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:59
Sixties Collection, Vol. 1
Various Artists
Going For A Song 2:48
Special Edition AAO Music 2:50
No Image
Various Artists
Audio Fidelity
The 60's Collection
Various Artists
Going For A Song 2:48
The Drifters' Golden Hits Atlantic 3:02
The Drifters: Essentials Rhino / Rhino Atlantic 3:05