Born in Dalzell, South Carolina, Pinkney grew up singing his favorite music, gospel, in his church choir. Before his career with the Drifters, Pinkney was a pitcher for the Negro league baseball's New York Blue Sox teamHe also served in the United States Army in World War II. He earned a Presidential Citation with four Bronze Stars (for battles including Normandy and Bastogne under General Patton). Returning from the war, Pinkney began to sing again in various gospel choirs. It was there that he would meet the members of the original Drifters.
Bill Pinkney, brothers Andrew and Gerhart Thrasher, and bass singer Willie Ferbie were approached by Clyde McPhatter, who had just quit as the lead tenor of the popular R&B group, Billy Ward & the Dominoes. McPhatter proposed they create a new group to record for Atlantic Records. On their first record, "Money Honey", Pinkney, a natural bass-baritone with a multi-octave range, actually sang first tenor. After Ferbie left, Pinkney switched to the bass part, in which he was heard on "Honey Love," "White Christmas," "Adorable," "Ruby Baby," and many other early Drifters recordings. In 1954 the Drifters recorded their version of "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin. That version was featured in the 1990 movie Home Alone. Pinkney can also be heard singing lead on the 1954 recording "I Should Have Done Right" and 1955's "Steamboat". Pinkney was in and out of the group from 1956 through 1958. He did not participate in the recording of later hits like "Fools Fall in Love" and "Drip Drop," which featured bass Tommy Evans.
In 1958 the manager fired all of the individual Drifters and hired all new singers, The Crowns (formally known as the Five Crowns), signing them under the Drifters' name. Pinkney was forced to leave.
Pinkney quickly created a group called the Original Drifters, made up of key members of the first (1953-58) association. Pinkney's Original Drifters was consistently popular throughout the southeastern United States. For decades their music was a staple of the "beach music" scene.
Leaders such as President Bill Clinton and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa recognized Pinkney's contributions. Pinkney received many musical awards, including the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, and was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, United Group Harmony Association, and the Beach Music Hall of Fame.
He was selected for the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame and given a "key to the state", which proclaimed May 14 as Bill Pinkney Day. The cities of Sumter, Bamberg, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, each presented its "key to the city" to Pinkney. He also was honored by the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives. In 2002, Pinkney received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Music from Coastal Carolina University. During his final years, he still toured and recorded with The Original Drifters, while encouraging young talent in their musical endeavors.
Pinkney died the evening of July 4, 2007 in Florida from a heart attack, while staying at the Daytona Beach Hilton. He was to perform with The Drifters at the annual Daytona Beach 4th of July celebration, Red, White & Boom. Pinkney's funeral services were held on July 9, 2007 at the Sumter County Exhibition Center in Sumter, SC. Pinkney was buried at the St. Luke AME Church in Sumter.