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The Drifters Girl: Music-management pioneer Faye Treadwell’s struggle to build a franchise

This is not just another jukebox musical. Carly Mercedes Dyer’s performance as Treadwell makes you think about more than just The Drifters’ songs

There is a line in The Drifters Girl that would scare the skin off anybody hoping to make a name for themselves in the music industry: “The Drifters are like the New York Yankees: you can change the team, but you can’t replace the Yankees.” It hangs over this terrifically entertaining stage show like a shroud over a skull.

In other words, out goes anything remotely attached to loyalty or friendship and in comes a ruthless decision-making process. You accuse the boss of treachery and manipulation? You’re fired. You want to do things your own way? Exit stage left. You’re an artist? Don’t be ridiculous. As for what was not then called “intellectual property”, they are just two words that may mean something to you but hold little significance for the powers that be.

The Drifters Girl, it turns out, is not just another jukebox musical: the production, which opens in Dublin later this month, makes you think about a lot more than just The Drifters’ songs. The “girl” of the title is the fierce, formidable Faye Treadwell (1926-2011), a teacher by profession who, after the death of her husband, the music manager George Treadwell, inherited the management of the New York doo-wop/R&B vocal group that to date has had more than 60 singers in its ranks.

The Drifters name was created in 1953, as a backing vehicle for the R&B singer Clyde McPhatter. When McPhatter left in 1955, there began a dizzying process of revolving-door membership and splinter groups, from The Original Drifters to The New Drifters and into a twilight zone of franchise groups bearing some variation of the name. Trademark litigation, never mind what some singers referred to as their “moral share” of the franchise, was never far from the offices of Faye Treadwell, who fought hard to protect the brand name. In The Drifters Girl, the songs merge with the story of her struggle not only against the music industry but also against the era’s entrenched sexism and racism.


Fusing joyous, early pop – including Saturday Night at the Movies, There Goes My Baby, Save the Last Dance for Me and Under the Boardwalk – with dramatic flourishes is not always an easy fit, but the singing and dancing are matched minute for minute by Carly Mercedes Dyer’s portrayal of Treadwell. The Olivier Award-nominated actor and singer had not heard of Treadwell before she landed the role last year; her research included talking to Treadwell’s daughter, Tina, whom a court case in 2008 established as the current owner of the Treadwell Drifters franchise.

“Tina saying that Faye was always wiped out after being away on tour, and that she had a real struggle with being a mother yet also wanting to forge this career and leave a legacy behind, was important for me to know,” Dyer says. “For a show like this you need to have a fully fledged and rounded character, because you’d definitely notice the difference if I was to go on stage and do a less-researched version of the part.”

Dyer was struck by Treadwell’s resolve and perseverance. “Because Faye was really ahead of her time when she was doing what many women can do now – have a career, have a family and so on – there were a lot of things I could draw on and dig deeply into. Being a black woman myself, it does make you think, okay, I can draw from my experiences, even if they’re not as tough and as hard as hers were.”

While Treadwell was a music-management pioneer, she was seemingly more interested in making money than in creating art. She jumped from teaching into a world that she did not know anything about, Dyer says. “She was learning on the job, and because she was surrounded by people that were always cutting her down, I think she had to come back at them with the same level of tenacity. Otherwise she would have been swept away.”

There is a line in the show, Dyer says, that describes Treadwell as “a little girl who was in the right place at the right time, and if she hadn’t been so tough she knew people would see her like that”.

“Faye knew if she ever showed weakness that she wasn’t going to be taken seriously,” Dyer says. “Tina told me there was a side to her mother that was quite vulnerable and that she found the music-industry aspects of her life such a struggle. From my perspective, I think what she was always doing was trying to survive in a very difficult male-dominated world.”

Dyer’s performance brings these conflicts to life. “As a woman, I sometimes think men don’t often know there is a shift between the dynamic when the ratio is one woman to several men,” Dyer says. “Portraying Faye was a case of trying to dig into her vulnerabilities because she lived and worked in a world in which she always had armour on. It’s really important to have those topics in there, because it pulls the rug out from underneath the audience; it changes their perceptions.”

Treadwell guarded her ownership of The Drifters brand so carefully because she knew how valuable it was. Running it as a franchise may strike some as creatively distasteful, but it was canny economically. There have been successful professional touring versions of well-known musicals for decades – and last year the Swedish rock band The Hives put out a call for facsimile acts. “We have arrived at a point where The Hives can no longer keep up with public demand for concerts,” they said on their website. “Help us to create a world where The Hives are playing in every city, all the time.”

“What Faye was trying to do was to create something that if you were good enough, if you had the talent and the work ethic, then you would be part of something that is elite, something that is amazing. She didn’t want watered-down versions. There’s a direct correlation to the musical-theatre industry, with many examples of touring productions that are very professional, made up of a team of players that have to audition to be in it. That was Faye’s process: unless you made it through the auditions with her, there was no way you were going to be in The Drifters.”

The Drifters Girl is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday, January 30th, until Saturday, February 3rd