Doc Green is tired, and he looks it. Between sets in the dressing room above the Cellar Door, he hunkers down over some ice water, and tries to remember what time Sunday night the Drifters left Toronto.
"We headed out of that place right after closing," says Green, "and came straight for D.C. Checked into that motel in Virginia this morning and did nothing but sleep. I just got to catch up."
After 20 years on the road with the original Drifters, it is unlikely that Doc Green will ever catch up.
From those tentative first sets in Harlem's Apollo Theater back in the early 1950s right on through the nostalgia fever of this musically moribund decade, Doc Green and his partner Charlie Thomas have suited up in supper clubs and saloons, in afterhours clubs and the White House, in college auditoriums and the Kennedy Center.
"People sure do seem to like the Drifters," says Thomas, the peripatetic leader of the group, and he's right. Sunday night's turnout at the Cellar Door was typical of the crowds: largely white and middle-class, sneaking up on their mid-30s, the Georgetown audience was polite and enthusiastic, waiting patiently for their favourite Drifters offering, and hooting their approval when it came.
Green and Thomas, joined on stage by two relative youngsters named Bernard Jones and Gary Lewis, do not vouchsafe their ages, but it has been more than a quarter of a century since Clyde McPhatter and Thomsa put together a mellow, rhythmn and blues sound, took some songs by McPhatter, Leiber and Stoller (and later, an adolescent Carole King) and trotted it out in black clubs all over the country.
"First time we played the old Howard Theater downtown here was 1957," says Thomas. "There's some legends in that place, you know. We played with the Isley Brothers, the Shirelles . . . Sam Cooke was the headliner, I remember, singing that song 'We're Havin' a Party.' You that one, Doc."
Thomas and Jones dissolve in laughter and Sam Cooke impressions, while Green remembers those nights in the Howard Theater.
"We played there many, many times," says Green. "Lord, I loved playing that room, and this place here kind of favors it, you know. You can see the people, see them singing and laughing with you. That's always been what we liked."
"That's right," says Thomas, shaking his head in a hundred yesses. "And we were drawing white folks to our shows back then, same as we are now. Man, I used to sit in this little boarding house across the street and watch those people line up for our show. Those white dudes with a bottle in their pocket, they'd sit up in the balcony and make just as much noise as black folks."
"I remember one time," says Thomas, "we got into it with the Isley Brothers at the Howard. We did 'Shout' or one of their bits, you know, and they did one of ours without telling us and we all started carrying on."
The argument between the two groups got so heated, Thomas recalls, that "the fellow between the groups got so heated
The argument between the two groups got so heated, Thomas recalls, that "the fellow that owned the Howard, barred us from the place. I don't want those Drifters in here," he kept yelling. Kept us out fo r a year or two, but when we did 'Save the Last Dance for Me', he had to let us in. Money talks. That was one big hit record."
There were plenty of big hit records for the Drifters in the late 1950s and early '60s. "On Broadway" and "Under the Broadwalk", "Money Honey" and "Only You", "This Magic Moment" and "Up on the Roof" turned the Drifters in to a first-magnitude rock 'n' roll act.They even had an enormous hit with an R&B rendition of "White Christmas".
"And strings, my man, strings," says Thomas. "The Drifters introduced the string section to pop music.We were the first to do it, back 25 years ago."
The single question about the Drifters that doest not seem to interest Thomas is why the group is still at it.
Why, a generation or two removed from "Under the Broadwalk" do the Drifters deadhead an aging, gray Cadillac out of Toronto for two nights at the Cellar Door and a day and a night in the Iwo Jima motel?
"I like this life," says Thomas. "We all like it. I like sitting in rooms like this one just fine. We're part of it, you know. The Drifters, the real Drifters, we're part of rock 'n' roll.
"People have asked us to change over the years, wanted us to change. Ten years ago they wanted us to try hard rock, and now they want us to do disco, but we've just always wanted to be the Drifters.
"We're working all the time nowadays, with other oldies groups or on our own. We go home to New York from here, then to Florida and Houston. Man, we've played Holiday Inns and armories and colleges and just everywhere. Me, Charlie Thomas, I was in Buckingham Palace one time.
"People just like the Drifters sound" - here Thomas leans towards his interviewer - "and you can tell me why just as easily as I can tell you. Why are all those people out there tonight to see us?"
The answer to that is as confounded as the larger question of America's obession with nostalgia. Lately, everything from frat house food fights circa 1962, to Robert Kennedy has been ground down to nostalgia, and the Drifters are certainly a part of all that. Suffice ir to say that Sunday night's aging children of the 1960s were as blissfully adrift in retrospection as that passel of moms and pops who packed Wolf Trap last month to hear Tex Beneke and the Glen Miller Orchestra.
"I love this oldies stuff," says Thomas with a laugh. "You know what I hope?I hope in 1988, people will still be yelling 'bring back the '50s.' And in 1998, I hope they're still yelling 'bring back the '50s'. That'd suit be and Doc here just fine."
Green signals his agreement, but, thumbing through some snapshots of the Toronto gig , he has the look of a man who has belted out "Only You" once too often. "It's a little easier now," says Green. "The audiences, they've come to hear you, so they're not real tough. That's different than fighting those crowds, proving yourself like we did years back."
Now it's Thomas' turn to agree. "Starting out in the Apollo, you know, we weep on the [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] The Royal - I think it was [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] more - the 20 Grand in Detroit, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] cago - all of them, and often."
"We played this place 12 or 13 years ago when thrywere calling it something else. The Shadows, I think. Yeah, the club changed its name, but we're still the Drifters."
Bernard Jones is hungry now, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] dinner for rock 'n' roll legends is being served at the Little Tavern, just down the street from the Cellar Door. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] reheated cheeseburgers and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] cream pie, three of the Drifters insist it's all just fine with them.
"It's a playground, I guess," says Thomas, "but I sure do like the playground I'm on."