Friday, May 1, 2015

The Late Great Ben E. King

Ben E. King, known for such hits with The Drifters as "There Goes My Baby" and "This Magic Moment" and such hits as a solo artist as "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand By Me", died yesterday, April 30 2015 at the age of 76.

Ben E.King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson on September 28 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina. His family moved to Harlem in New York City where his father operated a luncheonette. It was there that Lover Patterson overheard him singing and hired him to join The Five Crowns, a do-wop group he managed. The Five Crowns were on their way to a successful career when they performed at the Apollo Theatre alongside The Drifters in 1958. The Drifters' manager,  George Treadwell, heard them and was impressed. Mr. Treadwell and The Drifters were at odds, so eventually he fired the entire group in the summer of 1958. With dates at the Apollo and other venues already booked, Mr. Treadwell entered into a deal with Lover Patterson for The Five Crowns (except  James "Poppa" Clark, who had a drinking problem) to become a new version of The Drifters.

Atlantic assigned the legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who had already written a string of hits for The Coasters, Elvis Presley, and other artists) to produce this new version of The Drifters. The combination proved to be a success and The Drifters, with Ben E. King as the lead tenor, soon had several hits: "There Goes My Baby" (which went to #2 on the Billboard singles chart); "This Magic Moment" (which went to #16 on the Billboard singles chart), "Save the Last Dance for Me" (which went to #1 on the Billboard singles chart), and "I Count the Tears" (which went to #17 on the Billboard singles chart).

Despite such success Ben E. King would not remain with The Drifters for long. Lover Patterson (who was still Ben E. King's manager) and Ben E. King asked George Treadwell for a raise in salary as well as a portion of the royalties. When Mr. Treadwell refused, Ben E. King ceased touring or making television appearances with The Drifters. He continued to record with the group only until he was replaced by  Rudy Lewis. The Drifters would continue to have hits without Ben E. King, including "Some Kind of Wonderful", "Up On The Roof", "Please Stay" and "On Broadway". As to Ben E. King, he launched a very successful solo career.

Ben E. King remained with Atlantic as a solo artist and was assigned to its Atco label. His first few single as a solo artist (two of which were duets with LaVern Baker) failed to chart, but he had a hit with his fifth single as a solo artist, "Spanish Harlem". Written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, "Spanish Harlem" went to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Ben E. King would have an even bigger hit with "Stand by Me". Written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, "Stand By Me" went to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. With the release of the film Stand By Me, the song re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at #9 in 1986. According to music licensing company BMI in 1999, "Stand by Me" was the fourth most played song of the Twentieth Century.

Ben E. King would never again match the success of "Stand By Me", although he did have further hits in the Sixties. "Amor" went to #18 on the Billboard Hot 100."Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" went to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Tell Daddy" went to #29 on the Billboard Hot 100. "I (Who Have Nothing)" from 1963 would be his last major hit for a time, reaching #29 on the Billboard  Hot 100. Mr. King continued to release singles and albums throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies. In 1975 he had another hit with "Supernatural Thing, Part 1", which went to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. His last single was "4th of July" in 1997.

Starting with Spanish Harlem in 1961, Ben E. King released several albums over the years. Spanish Harlem went to #57 on the Billboard album chart. His 1975 album Supernatural reached #39 on the chart. Throughout his career over 25 albums (including compilations) were released by Ben E. King.

Ben E. King certainly had an incredible voice. He had a soulful voice that easily blended Gospel, R&B, and traditional American pop together in one sound. His voice also had an emotive quality that is seen in his biggest hits: "There Goes My Baby", "This Magic Moment", "Stand By Me", and so on. If Ben E. King's songs have remained popular through the years, it is perhaps because of the emotion his vocals lent to them.

Of course, Ben E. King was also a songwriter as well as a vocalist. He co-wrote "Stand By Me" as well as "There Goes My Baby", "Dance with Me", and "We're Gonna Groove" (often performed by Led Zeppelin). "Stand by Me" alone has been covered over 400 times and has become one of the most enduring songs of the 20th Century. Both during his career with The Drifters and his solo career, Ben E. King achieved the sort of lasting success many singers only dream about.

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