'Just Drifting Away' with a legend

Ali Ollie Woodson, a former lead singer of the Temptations, brought the crowd to its feet Monday afternoon at the Sumter Exhibition Center.

It would have made Willie "Bill" Pinkney grin.

Woodson sang a thrilling rendition of the gospel song “Walk Around Heaven,” carrying Pinkney’s funeral to its soaring apex.

Pinkney, the last surviving original member of the legendary group the Drifters, died July 4 in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he was scheduled to perform. He was 81.

Woodson sang the same song Dec. 30 at James Brown’s funeral. For Woodson, “Walk Around Heaven’s” poignancy is overwhelming.

“That was my father’s favorite song,” he said afterward. And Pinkney, Woodson said, was a father figure to him.

“He gave me my start in the music business,” said Woodson, who was with the Temptations in the mid-’80s. “That’s my pops out there, man.”

Woodson barely could wipe his brow as programs and pens were thrust at him afterward.

It’s surprising there weren’t more autograph seekers among the more than 1,000 people in attendance, as beach, doo-wop and R&B luminaries turned out in tailored suits looking cleaner than freshly buffed dance floors. And many had business cards, because the show must always go on.

Jon “Bowzer” Bauman from Sha Na Na, who joined Pinkney in his fight against “fake” groups that trade on famous names of the past, flew from California. Johnny Mason of the Clovers came, as did Clifford Curry, who recorded “She Shot a Hole in My Soul.”

Russell Henry, who sang with Pinkney for almost 30 years, also joined the service.

But the most famous performer to pay his respects was Ben E. King, who joined the Drifters in 1959 after Pinkney’s exit and was the voice on hits such as “Save the Last Dance for Me.”

Pinkney’s funeral, and his burial later Monday at St. Luke AME Church, was a can’t-miss event.

“He’s regaled as the elder statesman of doo-wop,” Bauman said. “He was just a wonderful human being.”

Family, politicians and friends eulogized Pinkney, who looked dapper and peaceful in his casket, draped by an American flag.

Marchelle Massey Sandoval, his daughter, spoke of Pinkney’s steadfast faith and told the audience to “choose this day who you serve.”

Ernest Finney Jr., the state’s former chief justice, joined a host of speakers who highlighted Pinkney’s World War II bravery; his days hurling baseballs in New York fields; and his rise to fame with the Drifters, which he formed with Clyde McPhatter in 1953.

Pinkney sang on such hits as “Money Honey,” “Such a Thing” and “Honey Love.” But he left the group before its best-known songs, such as “Under the Boardwalk” and “Up on the Roof,” were released. (Harry Turner of Beach Music Association International mentioned the latter hits, and the crowd responded as if Pinkney had sung them as well.)

Phillip Lowe, a state representative from Florence, said he had his first dance with his wife at a Pinkney performance.

Woodson’s song caused fainting and dancing, including one man who couldn’t stop himself from hopping in front of Pinkney’s casket. (He had to be escorted back to his seat).

But Woodson wasn’t the only thrilling singer. Pinkney’s Drifters performed a sincere doo-wop version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Bill Morris sang a bit of “White Christmas,” an early Drifters hit that was revived for the 1990 movie “Home Alone.”

And Thelma Isaac belted a chilling version of “Midnight Cry.”

But the best music heard might have been the recording of Pinkney’s “Just Drifting Away.” The audience seemed to sway in unison.

If you knew Pinkney — and it seemed liked everyone there somehow had a connection to him — you’d know that the community always was welcome to his Pine Street home like they were family.

“He always availed himself,” said Stephanie Cole, who used to work with WQMC-AM 1240, the station that broadcast “Bill Pinkney’s Gospel Train.”

“If it was at all possible, he would do it for you.”

People such as Jackie Gore of the Embers (“I Love Beach Music”) were proud to say they were “the best of friends” with Pinkney.

A father figure. An elder statesman. A family man. Everyone’s best friend.

Who wouldn’t want to be remembered that way?

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