The Drifters, Up on the Roof, 1962
Drifters star Pinkney dies at 81
“Bill Pinkney, the last surviving member of the original 1953 Drifters line-up, has died at the age of 81. The rhythm and blues singer was found dead at his hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, a police spokesman said. … Seven members of The Drifters, including Pinkney, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.”
This news item got me thinking about “Up on the Roof”, a sweet old R&B song by the Drifters. Of course Bill Pinkney wasn’t in The Drifters when this song was released, but this is the song I though of when I head of Mr. Pinkney’s passing, so it’s my review for today.
Up on the roof is just a perfect little R&B single. What makes it somewhat unique is that is has a ballad feel, but the lyrics are not about love, or a woman, but about just getting away from it all and taking some time off from this crazy ol world. The song owes a lot to Sam Cooke, both in vocal delivery and production. Cupid and Chain Gang come to mind, both of which were released in the previous two years. The first two note of the song sound like they could go right into Cupid! But there are differences; the lyrical content for starters, and the string break I suppose.
This song has been covered many times by many artists. It's likely that the version you're familiar with isn't by the Drifters. I believe they were the first to record the song, and it do go to #5 on the pop charts and #4 on the R&B charts in the USA. According to the wikipedia a version in the 1990s hit #1 in England. I must admit my first exposure to the song was via an a capella band called The Nylons, who had an album that was popular with my friends in high school. Yes I was a total choir geek. The Drifters first performed the song, but they did not write it. Back then it was still not common to write and perform your own material (The Beatles and Dylan changed all that!). Interestingly enough, "Up on the Roof" was co-written by Carole King, of later performing fame. This is a classic "Brill Building" song, a great example of that craft. The song certainly captures a musical time, sort of the very end of this style of pop music before the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Dylan came over and started shaking things up.
The production is part 50s schmaltz, part 60s R&B, with crooning backing vocals and stand up bass meshed with a slow shuffle on the guitars and drums. There’s a fairly brassy trumpet providing accents, and the strings provide a wonderful counterpoint. It’s topped off with marimba and some xylophone percussion.
Listen when Rudy Lewis sings (“On the roof, it's peaceful as can be”) in descending lines, while the string melody climbs in ascending tones through the same passage. Then Rudy pulls up for the last line of the bridge (“And there the world below can't bother me”). That part is easily my favorite passage of the song.
I also like the lower register backing vocals, and call and response style at the end of the song.
When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now
When I come home feelin' tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let's go up on the roof (up on the roof)
At night the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me
I keep a-tellin' you
Right smack dab in the middle of town
I've found a paradise that's trouble proof (up on the roof)
And if this world starts getting you down
There's room enough for two
Up on the roof (up on the roof)
Up on the roo-oo-oof (up on the roof)
Oh, come on, baby (up on the roof)
Oh, come on, honey (up on the roof)
Everything is all right (up on the roof)