King, Ben E.
Ben E. King
When film director Rob Reiner was putting together the soundtrack to his nostalgic 1986 film about a group of boys growing up in the early 1960s, he remembered a song that perfectly captured the atmosphere of that period: “Stand by Me,” a stark, soulful ballad by the early 1960s pop star Ben E. King, who had all but disappeared from the music scene by the 1980s. Reiner eventually titled his film Stand by Me; both film and song benefiting immensely from their union, as Stand by Me became a hit for the fledgling director, and King’s “Stand by Me” enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity on radio stations across America in 1986. A generation that had never heard of Ben E. King found themselves tapping their toes and humming the distinctive melody of the song some 16 years after it enjoyed its first success.
Born Benjamin Earl Soloman in Henderson, North Carolina, on September 28, 1938, King moved with his family at age 11 to New York City, where his father opened a luncheonette in Harlem. King had sung in church choirs throughout his childhood; at Harlem’s James Fenimore Cooper Junior High he eagerly set out to start his own singing group, which was dubbed the Four B’s, as all of its members’ names started with the letter B. Accounts vary as to how King’s professional career got started, but most agree that it began in his father’s restaurant, where King often sang as he worked. Somehow, his smooth tenor attracted an authoritative ear, and King was asked to join the singing group the Crowns, with whom he immediately began touring on the rhythm and blues circuit.
Also cutting a swath through that circuit was a group called the Drifters; popular throughout the 1950s, the Drifters had cut 11 albums by 1958 when, with record sales slumping, the group disbanded. But George Treadwell, the Drifters’ manager, was contractually obliged to deliver the group to audiences for years to come.
Scrambling to replace the old group, Treadwell discovered the Crowns and renamed them the Drifters, as he had retained legal use of the name. A complete overhaul was apparently just the ticket for the Drifters. Atlantic Records liked their new sound so much that its executives assigned ace producers Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector to produce a string of new recordings. The new Drifters struck quickly with the Number Two hit “There Goes My Baby,” which was sung and co-written by King, then only 20, and followed by “Save the Last Dance for Me”—with King again contributing lead vocals—which reached Number One on the pop charts in 1960.
Another 1960 release by the Drifters featured King singing lead over a background of Spanish guitars. The
Bom Benjamin Earl Soloman, September 28, 1938, in Henderson, N.C.
Formed first singing group, the Four B’s, while in junior high school; began singing professionally with quintet the Crowns, 1956-59; member of the Drifters, 1959-61; solo performer, 1961—; produced several Top Ten singles, 1960s; collaborated with the Average White Band on Benny and Us, 1977; 1961 hit single “Stand by Me” featured on soundtrack of film Stand by Me, Columbia, 1986.
Addresses: Home —Teaneck, N.J. Record Company —Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
sound intrigued Spector and Leiber so much that they decided to try King as a soloist on a similar number, “Spanish Harlem.” The song soared up the charts and King soon found himself performing solo as one of America’s most favored balladeers. His eminence was cemented the following year when “Stand by Me”—his own composotion—made the Top Ten on the pop charts and Number One on rhythm and blues lists.
A versatile performer who seemed to please pop and R & B audiences equally, King became a headline act across the country in the mid-1960s, appearing at prestigious concert halls, on network television, and abroad. Among King’s string of 1960s hit singles were “Don’t Play That Song,” “That’s When It Hurts,” and “I (Who Have Nothing),” which British sensation Tom Jones turned into a platinum-seller when he recorded it in 1970.
By the late 1960s, however, King’s career seemed to have run its course; though he had earned so much respect and affection at Atlantic that the company may have carried him indefinitely, King left the his label in 1969. “I didn’t really want to leave Atlantic,” the singer explained in Bill Millar’s book, The Drifters, as quoted in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul. “But I find [performers and record] companies are like a husband and wife. Eventually you get to a point where there’s really very little you can do for each other.… And one has to leave. So I had to.”
King laid low for a period, trying to revive his career with the Mandala and Maxwell labels; but by 1974 he had seen enough and returned to Atlantic, where his career briefly flowered again with the 1975 Top Ten hit “Supernatural Thing—Part 1.” Two years later King collaborated with the Average White Band, whose members had long idolized him, on the LP Benny and Us, which enjoyed mild success. King’s later solo LPs, 1978’s Let Me Live in Your Life and 1981’s Street Tough, saw him regain a measure of prominence on the R & B charts, but he would never again see the tremendous crossover popularity he had enjoyed in his heyday—except, of course, when the impassioned and soulful simplicity of “Stand by Me” captivated late 1980s listeners with its infectious echoes of a simpler time.
Spanish Harlem, Atlantic, 1961.
Ben E. King Sings for Soulful Lovers, Atlantic, 1962.
Don’t Play That Song, Atlantic, 1962.
Greatest Hits, Atlantic, 1964.
Seven Letters, Atlantic, 1965.
Beginning of It All, Mandala, 1971.
Supernatural Thing, Atlantic, 1975.
Ben E. King Story, Atlantic, 1975.
I Had a Love, Atlantic, 1976.
(With the Average White Band) Benny and Us, Atlantic, 1977.
Let Me Live in Your Life, Atlantic, 1978.
Music Trance, Atlantic, 1980.
Street Tough, Atlantic, 1980.
Rough Edges, Maxwell.
Futrell, John, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music, Harmony Books, 1982.
Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, Encyclopedia of Rock, Schirmer, 1982.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1974.
People, February 3, 1986; September 14, 1987.
Rolling Stone, January 26, 1989.
Stereo Review, December 1980; August 1981; May 1986.
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