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Former Drifter to channel Sam Cooke in Black History Month tribute

A former member of The Drifters, Prentiss McNeil will perform a tribute to Sam Cooke on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead. (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Growing up in Brooklyn, Prentiss McNeil heard plenty of Sam Cooke music around his house. His father was a huge fan of the soul and R&B singer of hits like “You Send Me” and “Cupid.” Listening to those records so often, it was a matter of time before McNeil learned all the words.

Come Feb. 29, McNeil, a former member of The Drifters featuring Rick Sheppard, will prove how well he knows the songsmith's hits in his show, “Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club 1963,” at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead, where McNeil lives. The title refers to Cooke’s classic album, recorded one year before he was fatally shot at age 33. McNeil will perform the album in its entirety, including such favorites as “Chain Gang” and “Having a Party.” 

“I’ll be doing the songs in the same style as he did even though I have my own style,” said McNeil, 71. “That’s all right because Sam Cooke was a gospel man, and I do a lot of gospel.”

That gospel sound comes through loud and clear in “Harlem Square Club,” which features a raw, gritty side of Cooke, so raw that RCA Victor feared it was too different a sound from what his fans expected. The recording was shelved until 1985, when the label finally released it. Suffolk Theater artistic director Dan Binderman, who cites “Harlem Square Club” as his favorite album ever, came up with the idea for the show as a way to pay tribute to Cooke — who was also an outspoken civil rights activist — during Black History Month. McNeil, who’s performed at the theater numerous times, was the obvious choice to headline.

“Prentiss is an incredible singer, and he has so much emotion and power behind his voice,” said Binderman. “He was the only one I wanted for this show.”

And McNeil is likely to give audiences a surprise or two, said Janet DeLuca, a singer who’s performed with him many times and will be part of the Cooke show. “He has so much energy, and you never know what’s going to happen next,” she said. “We've had certain times where we have set shows. Then he’ll call out a song that we’ve never done before. I’m not familiar with the song and just try to wing it.”

A performer grows in Brooklyn

The Suffolk Theater is just the latest stop in McNeil's musical journey, one that began when he was 2 and living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. “My mother took me to church, and I sang in church,” he said. “I was at the Apollo and played at a lot of off-the-way clubs as I was coming up.”

He got his training at Quintano School for Young Professionals, a long-gone arts school in Manhattan where his classmates included Tony winner Bernadette Peters. “It was a great school,” McNeil said. “Besides singing, I was taught tap dancing by Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins. They took me as far as they could.”

Recognizing their son's musical gift, McNeil’s parents started taking him around to agents. By the mid-’70s, after several years of kicking around at clubs stretching from New York City to South Carolina, McNeil was booked by Norby Walters, a noted music agent whose clients included disco queen Gloria Gaynor.

“I told him I love doing this, but I’m looking to make more money,” McNeil said. “He said ‘I’m going to put you in a group that makes a lot of money.’ ”

That group turned out to be a reincarnation of The Drifters spearheaded by Rick Sheppard, who came onboard in 1966. He and his fellow Drifters saw McNeil at a club date in 1975 and signed him on to perform harmonies on their songs. It wasn’t long before McNeil and his bandmates were headed to Chicago, the first leg in what would be close to 25 years of life on the road.

“The guys were so nice. Their thing was getting out to make the money. My thing was that I liked to make the money, but I also liked to spend it,” McNeil said.

During his time with The Drifters, McNeil toured the world, seeing Italy, the Dominican Republic and most of the United States. Traveling was exciting, but not without bumps, he added.

“There was always drinking. I didn’t throw myself into the drugs,” he said. “It came along, I picked it up, did a little bit, then I put it down.

The women, however … that was a different matter. “I had more than my share,” McNeil said discreetly, before adding that he would finally like to get married.

He may not have had a wife, but he did make many friends, including Drifters legend Ben E. King. “A few years ago, he came to my show at B.B. King’s. He said ‘Are you ready to travel? I’m going to take you to Europe with me.” The trip never happened — King died shortly afterward in April 2015.

Going with the flow post-Drifters

Though McNeil drifted away from The Drifters (he left in 2000), he’s never stopped working. As part of A Decade of Soul, which performed Motown classics and more R&B hits, he regularly played B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill in Manhattan every Sunday afternoon until the venue closed in 2018. He also formed a band called Sahara, with saxophonist Debra Liso, with whom he had a 12-year relationship before she recently moved to Sedona, Arizona.

Eventually though, all of those years of traveling caught up with him, leading to two heart surgeries. “The food got to me. My heart got to me,” he said. “Debra took me to the hospital, and they gave me a checkup and put me on a diet. The doctor told me I was lucky. He said ‘You were a dead man walking. They gave me a pacemaker, and I’m doing well.”

Friends who set up a GoFundMe campaign to help with his medical expenses raised $2,755, exceeding their $2,500 goal.

After his health issues, McNeil will probably be a little less physically animated than in the past. “Back in the day, he used to stand up on chairs and scoot across the floor while he’s singing. He even used to do cartwheels,” said DeLuca, who's worked with Prentiss since 2008.

Despite slowing down, McNeil’s work schedule continues to thrive. He does about 50 to 60 bookings a year, he said, anything from Suffolk Theater to weddings to even singing at church.

“My father always said don’t do anything you’re not going to enjoy,” McNeil said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better life.”

Prentiss McNeil in "Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club 1963"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Feb. 29, Suffolk Theater, 118 E. Main St., Riverhead

INFO $49.95 ($10 food and beverage minimum); 631-727-4343, suffolktheater.com

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