Charlie Thomas, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer of The Drifters, Dead at 85


Thomas, a tenor, sang lead on “Sweets for My Sweet,” which hit No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 1961

Charlie Thomas, who was known for R&B hits like “There Goes My Baby” and “Under the Boardwalk” with the Drifters, died on Jan. 31 at the age of 85.

His friend, singer Peter Lemongello Jr., said the cause was liver cancer, the New York Times confirmed Monday.

Thomas was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and dedicated more than 60 years to keeping the group’s music alive for future generations. He stayed with the group, from the version of the Drifters that ushered in their first hits in the late 1950s to the version he toured with until the pandemic closed the concert circuit.

“Save The Last Dance For Me” reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, the Drifter’s only chart-topper, while “There Goes My Baby,” “Under The Boardwalk,” and “Up on the Roof” have become beloved R&B classics throughout the years. Thomas, a tenor, sang lead on “Sweets for My Sweet,” which hit No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 1961, and “When My Little Girl Is Smiling,” reaching No. 28 the following year.

“Harmony, Harmony, Harmony — no band, no nothing,” Thomas once said in Streetlight Harmonies, a doc tracing the history of doo-wop.

Charles Nowlin Thomas was born in Lynchburg, Va. on April 7, 1937. His father, Willis, was a minister, and his mother, Lucinda (Nowlin) Thomas, was a homemaker.


Thomas was singing with the Five Crowns, a doo-wop group, at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1958, when they caught the attention of George Treadwell, the original Drifters’s manager. The Drifters were also playing that night and when one of the members got drunk and cursed out both the show promoter and Apollo owner, music historian Marv Goldberg wrote, Treadwell fired all the original members and replaced them with the Five Crowns. The reinvigorated Drifters would see the success of their biggest singles, led by Ben E. King at the time.

Thomas is survived by his wife, Rita Thomas; his daughters, Crystal Thomas Wilson and Victoria Green; and his sons, Charlie “Happy” Thomas Jr., Michael Sidbury and Brian Godfrey.

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