King, Ben (jamin) E (arl Nelson)

views updated

King, Ben (jamin) E (arl Nelson)

King, Ben(jamin) E(arl Nelson), the indestructible soul man (b. Henderson, N.C., Sept. 23, 1938). King’s family migrated to N.Y. during the post WWII years and settled in Harlem where his father ran a restaurant. Although he started singing in the church, by his late teens, King was singing with the Four B’s (for Ben, Billy, Bill, and Bobby—he married Billy and Bobby’s sister, Betty). While working at the restaurant, he was scouted by the manager of The Five Crowns, a local vocal group that had been recording without much luck for about five years. Their luck changed when the manager of the Drifters spotted the Crowns doing an opening act at the Apollo. He had just hired the members of the Drifters, so he signed the Crowns on as the new Drifters. King cowrote and sang lead on the first Crowns/Drifters hit ’There Goes My Baby.” The song topped the R&B charts and went to #2 pop. Over the course of the next year or so, he sang lead on ten Drifters songs, five of which became substantial hits:“Dance with Me” (#15 pop/gold),“This Magic Moment” (#16 pop),“Lonely Winds” (Top Ten R&B),“I Count the Tears” (#17 pop), and“Save the Last Dance for Me” which topped by the R&B and pop charts, going gold. By the time that record came out, King had already started pursuing a solo career.

King’s first two solo stabs, including a duet with La Verne Baker, didn’t do well. Soon, he and his wife were living on her earnings as a librarian. In 1961, he hooked up with songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and famed“wall-of-sound” producer Phil Spec-tor. Their first collaboration was on“Spanish Harlem.” The song went to #10 pop, #15 R&B, and launched his solo career. His next single was a loose adaptation of the hymn“Lord Stand by Me.”“Stand by Me” rose to #4 pop, topping the R&B charts for four weeks. Over the course of the next three years, King hit the Top 40 three more times:“Amor,” a version of a hit from the 1940s, rose to #18 in 1961;“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” a song he co-wrote (in his wife’s name) with Ahmet Ertegun hit #11 in 1962;“I (Who Have Nothing),” a dramatic English version of an Italian hit, went to #23 in 1963.

After that, King fell out of favor with the Top 40, though he continued to record through the 1960s. He became a fixture on the lounge circuit. He was asked by Genesis to sing the chorus to the Drifter’s“On Broadway” on their album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, despite the fact that he was long gone from the Drifters

when they had the hit. In the mid-1970s, Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun saw his show, heard that he had lost none of his voice, and liked his harder soul sound that leavened the oldies. He resigned King to Atlantic where he topped the R&B charts and had a #5 hit with the proto-disco“Supernatural Thing.” The album reached #39. A collaboration with the Average White Band produced the minor hit“Do It in the Name of Love” and the album Benny and Us rose to #33. However, after this short spurt of popularity, his career again fell on hard times and he and Atlantic parted company again in 1981.

Another King, author Stephen King, figures heavily in the next part of the story. His novella The Body was adapted into a motion picture in 1986. The film was retitled Stand By Me and used the Ben E. King song as its theme music. The single was revived and rose to #9, reviving interest in King’s career as well. In England, the music was also used in a Levi’s commercial, which sent the single to the top of the U.K. charts. King continued to record with lesser success, through the 1990s. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as a member of the Drifters.


Spanish Harlem (1961); Don’t Play That Song (1962); Sings for Soulful Lovers (1962); Young Boy Blues (1964); Seven Letters (1965); What Is Soul (1967); Rough Edges (1970); Beginning of It All (1971); Supernatural Thing (1975); I Had a Love (1976); Benny & Us (1977); Let Me Live in Your Life (1978); Music Trance (1980); Street Tough (1981); Here Comes the Night (1984); Save the Last Dance for Me (1988); Ben E. King Parcy Sledge (1989); Ben E. King & Percy Sledge (1989); What’s Important to Me (1992); Drifters (1996); Shades of Blue (1999).

—Hank Bordowitz

About this article

King, Ben (jamin) E (arl Nelson)

Updated About content Print Article