The world of rhythm and blues music lost one of its finest voices yesterday when singer Bill Pinkney died in Daytona Beach, Florida at the age of 81.
The Associated Press reported that Pinkney, who was in Daytona Beach for a July 4th performance, was found dead in his hotel room, apparently of natural causes.
Pinkney’s resonant bass voice underpinned the soaring vocals of Clyde McPhatter in The Drifters’ first R&B recordings in the mid-1950s. He sang lead in The Drifters’ 1954 recording of Irving Berlin’s classic, “White Christmas.”
Cartoonist Joshua Held has done a wonderful animation of The Drifters' version of "White Christmas." The animation features Pinkney, portrayed as Santa Claus, singing lead and McPhatter as the solo-singing reindeer.
Pinkney also was a talented athlete and played professional baseball in the old Negro League. He served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II, receiving several commendations for his service.
I interviewed Pinkney on April 17 for an as-yet unpublished travel story about beach music clubs on South Carolina’s Grand Strand. It took me several days to catch up with him by phone at his home in Sumter, South Carolina, and it was clear that he wasn’t letting advancing age slow him down too much.
We talked for 30 minutes or so about Pinkney’s time with The Drifters and his memories of performing across the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s in shows that included stars such as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, Peggy Lee, The Clovers, Fats Domino, and others.
Pinkney toured the South as a performer in the days of segregation, and he recalled that at that time, the typical seating arrangement had white kids watching from the balcony and black kids on the floor.
At other places, barricades were erected to separate whites and blacks.
By the early 1960s, Pinkney had known nothing but segregation as an athlete, soldier and performer. But as he looked out at his segregated audiences from the stage, he saw a profound change taking place.
“I think music, like The Drifters, brought people together more than anything in the world, as far as ending segregation,” he said.
I think Pinkney was proud of the part that he and The Drifters had played in bringing down the barriers that separated the races. He earned acclaim as an accomplished musician, but he also deserves recognition as someone who brought people together.
He’ll be missed in both of those roles.