The Drifters spawned more than one great singer: Clyde McPhatter and Bobby Hendricks both went to on achieve fame as solo artists. But the greatest ex-Drifter was Ben E King, whose rich baritone graced hits like “Spanish Harlem” and, most famously, “Stand By Me”, which earlier this year was inducted into the US National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
“In my vocal I think you can hear something of my earlier times when I’d sing in subway halls for the echo, and perform doo-wop on street corners,” he said of “Stand By Me”. “But I had a lot of influences – singers like Sam Cooke, Brook Benton and Roy Hamilton. The song’s success lay in the way Leiber and Stoller took chances, borrowing from symphonic scores, and we had a brilliant string arranger [Stan Applebaum].” It became the fourth most-played song on US TV and radio in the 20th century.
King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in North Carolina, moving when he was 11 to New York, where his father opened a diner in Harlem. It was while working there that he was discovered: according to one story, Lover Patterson of the doo-wop group the Five Crowns heard him singing to customers and recruited him. According to another, a booking agent came in and asked if there were any promising singers in the area, at which point King showed him his own abilities.
Either way, he joined the Five Crowns, alongside Bobby Hendricks, touring the R’n’B circuit. Then in 1959 the Drifters’ manager, George Treadwell, was looking for new singers as the original band had split when the hits dried up. The Five Crowns became the new Drifters and were signed to Atlantic, who assigned Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to work with the new line-up.
They produced a song written by another heavyweight pop pair, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, “Save the Last Dance for Me”, which became the first big hit under the new regime, with King on lead vocal backed by Spanish guitars. It went to No 1 on the Billboard chart in October 1960, and someone at Atlantic had the bright idea of launching King on a solo career. The move was also partly due to a contract dispute: King, disgruntled at how little money he was making, wanted a bigger salary and a fair share of the royalties.
Lieber teamed up with Phil Spector to write King’s first solo hit, “Spanish Harlem” – it was his first record as Ben E King; up till then he had worked under his own name. With an arrangement by Stan Applebaum featuring Spanish guitar and marimba, it retained the feel of “Last Dance” and reached No 10 on the Billboard chart, though it wasn’t a hit in the UK: it was flipped for the British market, and “First Taste of Love” reached No 27 after airplay on Radio Luxembourg.
He followed it with an even bigger hit. He had written “Stand By Me” with Lieber and Stoller, inspired by the spiritual “Lord Stand by Me”, for his former band, but the Drifters passed on it. Its chord structure, known as the “50s progression” and the basis of much doo-wop, is often now referred to as the “Stand by Me” changes. It has been covered hundreds of times, perhaps most notably for John Lennon, for whom it was a hit in 1975, his last hurrah before he took a five-year break from music, but it only topped the UK charts in 1987 after featuring in an advert for Levis jeans.
More hits followed, including “I (Who Have nothing” (1963), later recorded by Tom Jones, as well as “Don’t Play That Song”, “Seven Letters”, “Tears, Tears, Tears” – and in 1966 “What Is Soul” which marked, perhaps, the first widespread use of the term “soul”, even if the music had been around for years. But towards the end of the decade King’s rise faltered, and he took the difficult decision to leave Atlantic.
“I didn’t really want to leave,” he told Charlie Gillett in 1970. “But I find that companies are like a husband and wife. You get to a point where there’s really very little you can do for each other.” (That wasn’t a problem for him in his private life: he is survived by Betty, his wife of 51 years.)
After a lean period he returned to Atlantic after the label’s founder, Ahmet Ertegun, was impressed by a show he saw him perform in Miami. He picked up where he had left off, his 1975 Supernatural album, which featured David Bowie collaborator Carlos Alomar on guitar, reaching No 1 on the US R’n’B charts and No 5 in the pop charts. Two years later he worked with the Average White Band on the album Benny and Us, and he continued recording into the 1980s.
In 1990 he teamed up with Bo Diddley and the dance producer Doug Lazy to record a hip hop version of the Monotones’ 1958 hit “Book of Love” for the film of the same name. He also recorded an award-winning children’s album, I Have Songs In My Pocket, in 1998. In 2007 he sang “Stand by Me” on The Late Show with David Letterman, and again in 2011 with Prince Royce at the Latin Grammy awards.
He toured the UK in 2013 and the US as late as 2014, despite coronary problems. As Ahmet Ertegun put it, “King is one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll and rhythm and blues.”
Benjamin Earl Nelson (Ben E King), singer and songwriter: born Henderson, North Carolina 28 September 1938; married Betty; died Harlem, New York 30 April 2015.
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