Musician. Born on August 15, 1925, in Dalzell, Sumter County, Pinkney began singing gospel songs as a child while working in South Carolina’s cotton fields. He would go on to a stellar career performing around the globe as an original member of the Drifters. The group became a rhythm and blues (R&B) pioneer, and in 1988 members of the Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The young Pinkney mixed his love of music with baseball, earning a pitching position with the New York Blue Sox in the Negro Baseball League. In 1949, while singing in gospel quartets, he met Clyde McPhatter, a young gospel singer who at the time was performing with Billy Ward and the Dominoes. Within two years McPhatter recruited Pinkney and brothers Gerhardt and Andrew Thrasher to form a new musical group, the Drifters. In 1953 the Drifters were offered a contract with Atlantic Records, and they eventually became, according to the label’s founder, Ahmet Ertegun, “the all time greatest Atlantic recording group.”
Moving beyond their gospel origins, the Drifters became internationally famous, creating a unique sweet soul sound that expanded the R&B genre. Later members, also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, included Johnny Moore, Ben E. King, Rudy Lewis, and Charlie Thomas. The Drifters’ best-selling song, “White Christmas,” was recorded in 1954 and featured Pinkney as lead bass singer. In 2002, in his seventy-seventh year, Pinkney continued to perform with the Original Drifters, a permutation of the legendary group.
Though the Drifters are closely associated with Carolina beach music, Pinkney disputes the notion that the state’s popular beach sound is any different from the gospel-influenced R&B fare enjoyed in other regions. “The backbone of all R&B was created from gospel. Sam Cook did both, Otis Redding did both, and I did both,” said Pinkney. “Beach music (in the Carolinas) is a mind thing,” he said. “A song that might be called a beach song here is just R&B someplace else.”