The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #160: Up On The Roof by The Drifters (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #160: Up on the Roof by The Drifters.

We are 340 posts in for this music countdown and, without a sliver of a doubt, I can assure you that today’s story is unlike any that I have told before. It is a tale that involves how we live, NYC real estate, an effort to control Rock n’ Roll in the 1960s, a band that never really was a band, some of the most legendary names in music history and a history of litigation that would make Donald Trump blush. It is a fascinating chapter in music history and it all begins on YouTube. Here we go!

I knew that it was time for me to retire from teaching when I started asking my students what they might wish to be when they grew up and, increasingly, the answer I got in reply was, “I want to be a You Tuber”. At first, I chuckled at these responses but, over time, the joke has come to be on me. This is because, in our fragmented, information-driven society of ours, there are a great many people making their own content on channels such as You Tube and making tens of thousands of dollars from sponsorship deals from businesses who wish to attach their company to this particular YouTuber’s brand and demographic base. The YouTube stars of today can be thought of as independent contractors, of a sort and they have changed the way people get their information.

I follow several YouTube channels. Mostly, I follow channels that involve things to do with my house, such as DIY projects, home repairs, cooking channels and so on. But, I do follow a few channels for their information and entertainment value. One such channel is run by a young man named Cash Jordan. His schtick is that he shows apartments for rent in NYC. His ten minute videos follow a format where he starts by showing the nearest subway stop and then, proceeds to walk through the neighbourhood near to where this apartment is available. Because of his NYC neighbourhood walks, I have learned a lot about a city that I find fascinating. When he gets to the apartment building, one of the first things he does, if he can, is to check out the roof of the building to see if there is living space there in the form of a roof deck. That may seem like an inconsequential amenity, on the surface, but in a city like NYC; especially, in Manhattan, having outdoor living space is like having golden treasure. So, Cash Jordan treks to the roof, checks out the views and always states how that space adds so much value to the apartment that he is about to show us all. These apartments routinely list for between $2500-5000/month and are almost always described as being meant to be shared by roommates. If you think about the TV show, “Friends” or “New Girl” (with Zooey Deschanel), both shows were set in NYC and both had, as a central conceit, the idea of people sharing apartments. So, living in NYC tends to mean living a certain way…unless you are super rich….and that is where a song like, “Up on the Roof” comes along and makes such sense.

“Up on the Roof” was written and released in the mid-1960s. It is based on a real building in NYC, not too far from Times Square, called The Brill Building. The Brill Building in NYC housed a musical hit factory that functioned in exactly the same way that Motown was organized in Detroit (with singers, singing songs written by songwriters specifically for them and then, recording with session players whose sole job was to play for the stable of singers who were employed by the organization).

A list of the people who worked in The Brill Building is a veritable whos-who of music legends in America. For example, some of the songwriters who toiled in cubicles at The Brill Building included Burt Bacharach and Hal Prince, Bobby Darin, Marvin Hamlisch, Phil Spector, Neil Diamond, Johnny Mercer, Tony Orlando, Neil Sedaka, Paul Simon, Carole King and her songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, along with Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber who, you might recall, wrote “Stand By Me” for Ben E. King.

In the early days of The Brill Building, orchestra leaders such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller all got their material there.

As for the musical talent who sang the songs, the following are just a few of the big names who once worked to make the “Brill Sound” come alive: Dionne Warwick, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las, Gene Pitney, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (aka, “Steeley Dan”), Liza Minelli, Lesley Gore, Connie Francis and, our friend, Mr. Ben E. King.

If you, like me, grew up being inundated with the mythology of New York City through music and movies well, a large part of the reason for that was the well-oiled Hit factory that operated out of The Brill Building near Times Square. So, a song like “Up on the Roof” isn’t just a song like any other, it is a “New York” song that describes the joy of living in a city where, at night, the lights shimmer like stars while, at the same time, being able to go “Up on the Roof” and see the real stars shining in the sky, just for you.

The song, “Up on the Roof” is credited to The Drifters but, even something as seemingly simple as that, requires some explanation. The Drifters were not a band, in the same sense that most other bands were. They were more like a franchise. Whenever I research a song, one of the things I look at are the names of the musicians present at the time of recording that day’s song. Groups like “Earth, Wind and Fire” tended to have upwards of fifteen to twenty people present. Groups like “The Beatles” tended to have a much smaller number. All other bands followed this pattern of having somewhere between five to twenty people present for the recording of their songs. But, when I searched up “The Drifters”, I was stunned to find that a running total of 65(!) people have, at one time of another, been members of this group called, “The Drifters”.

As you read these words today, there have been more than a dozen iterations of “The Drifters”. Without going into all the history of this musical franchise, the short strokes go like this: the first version of this group (who are known now as “The First Drifters”) were led by a man named Clyde McPhatter. After McPhatter left, he sold the rights to the name “The Drifters” to the husband of Jazz singer, Sarah Vaughn…a man named George Treadwell. The Treadwell Family have controlled the “Drifters” brand ever since. They always maintained that the brand was more important that the talent in the band and, as a result, they paid their performers very poorly which, like minimum wage workers at a McDonalds, for instance, resulted in a constant turnover of cast members. At one point, a man named Bill Pinkney was the lead singer. But after a dispute with Treadwell over wages and royalties, he left; taking Treadwell to court and winning the legal right to use the name “Bill Pinkney and The Original Drifters” as his own. Not long after that, Ben E, King and a whole new crew were brought in to be Treadwell’s “Drifters” and it was with King at the microphone (and Carole King and Gerry Goffin writing the words) that “Up on the Roof” came to be recorded and released. This era in “Drifter” history was known as the “Ben E. King and the Drifters” era. It was in this time period that songs such as “Up on the Roof”, “Under the Boardwalk”, “On Broadway”, “Save the Last Dance For Me”, “This Magic Moment” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” were released. It was easily the most prolific period for any iteration of “The Drifters” franchise. Ironically enough, Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber had written “Stand By Me” as a “Drifters” song, with Ben E. King at the helm but, the rest of the group members rejected the song, leaving it for King, once he left to start a solo career.

Since the heyday of the “Ben E. King and The Drifters” era, there have been a variety of groups who have performed under the name “Drifters” including an all-British group known as the “UK Drifters”. It got so bad, as far as the number of touring “Drifter” groups roaming around that, eventually, lawsuits were filed for fraud, copyright infringement and so on, that resulted in a landmark ruling and the creation of a new law that restricts the use of established musical group names by acts with no actual connection to the original group. This law is meant to give consumers a measure of protection so that, if they buy tickets for a show by “The Drifters” then, they are actually going to see performers with some actual connection to the “Drifters” franchise and not simply a bunch of musicians masquerading as the group.

After all of this, it is difficult to believe that the intent of the lovely song, “Up on the Roof” was simply to market the NYC lifestyle to the world. No band or songwriter was having a special moment on a rooftop that they were memorializing. It was marketing 101; before the dawn of the internet age. Nowadays, I can go to a NY rooftop any time I wish, from the comfort of my own home, with my YouTuber buddy, Cash Jordan. If you wish to see how NYC looks from atop a rooftop deck then, by all means, check Mr. Jordan out. I will leave a sample video in the comments below. If you simply wish to hear a good song then, here is “Up on the Roof” by Ben E. King and the Drifters, from within the bowels of The Brill Building near Times Square, New York, New York. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Up On The Roof” by Ben E. King and the Drifters, can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Drifters, can be found here.

The link to the video for Cash Jordan and his tour of NYC apartments, neighbourhoods and, of course, rooftops, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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