With the recent reports of B.B. King being in hospice at home, some have already placed him with the ancestors. A bit of the confusion comes with last week’s death of Ben E. King, the legendary vocalist and songwriter. This King died Thursday, April 30, in Hackensack, N.J. He was 76.
Ben King’s signature songs mark a few milestones and passages of American history. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when doo-wop was down to its final wop, the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby, “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” were unforgettable, and King’s appealing baritone gave each song a special resonance.
He could do it alone, too, as he did so magically with “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me,” co-writing each of these American chestnuts. King lived in Teaneck, N.J., at the time of his death, which was reportedly from natural causes. He was born Benjamin Earl Nelson Sept. 28, 1938, in Henderson, N.C. His musical career was launched by happenstance when Lover Patterson, an impresario, overheard him singing on the job and offered him a chance to join a vocal group called the Five Crowns.
His good fortune continued when the Five Crowns appeared at the Apollo Theater in 1958 on a bill featuring the more renowned Drifters. They caught the ear of George Treadwell, manager of the Drifters and owner of the group’s name.
A portion of this relationship is discussed in Jerry Wexler’s book “Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music,” written with David Ritz. When Wexler, part owner of Atlantic Records, first heard “There Goes My Baby,” he couldn’t stand it, and for more than a year, he refused to put it out. “When it was finally released, it shot to number one, sold over a million, and became one of the biggest hits in our history. Hey, what did I say?”
The Five Crowns becoming the Drifters came as a result of Treadwell’s disagreement with the original Drifters—a situation that worsened when lead singer Clyde McPhatter was drafted into the Army in 1954. This opened the door for King and the Five Crowns, whose careers were greatly bolstered by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They were a perfect match and operated as smoothly as King’s mellow voice.
When King left the Drifters in 1960, he didn’t leave Leiber, who teamed with Phil Spector to write “Spanish Harlem,” and a year later “Stand by Me” raced up the charts, reaching the top 10. King helped write this song, which is inescapably his. The song had a second life of success in 1986, when it was used in the soundtrack of Rob Reiner’s movie of the same name.
On Facebook, singer Gary U.S. Bonds wrote, “King was one of the sweetest and gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than 50 years. I can tell you that Ben E. will be missed more than words can say.”
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, King talked about his early years as an aspiring singer in Harlem. He said that in his vocals, “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 also cited a few of his influences during the interview. “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, though, borrowing from symphonic scores, and we had a brilliant string arrangement.”
Earlier this year, “Stand by Me” was added to the National Recording Registry by the U.S. Library of Congress. The institution said that it was King’s voice that made the “song a classic.” Meanwhile, “Stand by Me,” “Spanish Harlem” and “There Goes My Baby” were named on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 songs that shaped rock and roll, each receiving a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
The songs are immortal, and so is the legacy of Ben E. King.