BEN E. KING
Born Benjamin Earl Solomon, 28 Sep 1938, Henderson, North Carolina
Though Ben E. King sang lead on only ten Drifters sides, he is the best known of all the singers that have led the Drifters over the decades and probably also the most well known individual name from the group. He has a unique voice -powerful, emotional, immediately recognizable - and has been an influence on countless soul artists.
King was born Benjamin Nelson in Henderson, NC, and sang with his church choir before the family moved to New York City in 1947. There he sang in a few street corner doo wop groups, until he was invited in early 1958 to join the Five Crowns, a group that had existed and recorded since 1952. Around that time they abbreviated their name to The Crowns and recorded one single with Benjamin, "Kiss And Make Up"/"I'll Forget About You" (included on the Not Now 2-CD mentioned at the bottom), the one and only record issued on Doc Pomus's R & B label.
In May 1958, the Crowns performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem (on the same bill as the Drifters) where they impressed the Drifters' manager, George Treadwell, so much that he asked them to become the new Drifters. Dissatisfied with the group members' unreliability and lack of success, Treadwell fired the old Drifters, whose name he owned. Before things were formalized with Lover Patterson, the Crowns' manager, one of the Crowns (James 'Poppa' Clark) had to go because of a drinking problem. Thus the new Drifters started as a quartet : Benjamin Nelson (who would soon adopt his new name, Ben E. King), Charlie Thomas, Dock Green and Elsbeary Hobbs. The initial experiences of King as a Drifter were not always pleasant. The group toured the South, often confronting hostile audiences that had expected a different group of Drifters. After nine months of touring and practicing, the group finally went into the recording studio, on March 6, 1959, with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Charlie Thomas acted as the lead singer. He did well enough on "Baltimore" and "Hey Senorita", but had trouble with "There Goes My Baby", a song King had co-written with Lover Patterson. While King was showing Thomas how to sing the song, one of the producers suggested that he would sing the lead part. That's how Ben E. King became the Drifters' lead singer. "There Goes My Baby" was unlike any other record ever made, with its prominent strings, Latin percussion, out-of-tune timpani and a fiercely passionate performance by King, well above his natural range as a baritone. It sounded chaotic, strange and complex and Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler hated it, but his partner Ahmet Ertegun was willing to give it a try and, as usual, his judgment was right. "There Goes My Baby" peaked at # 2 on the pop charts and # 1 on the R&B charts in the summer of 1959.
Due to a contractual feud between Lover Patterson and George Treadwell, King could only record with the Drifters, but not appear with them on tour or on television. New member Johnny Lee Williams took King's place on live performances. Ben E. King continued to record with the Drifters until May 1960 and sings lead on all their big hits of this period : "Dance With Me" (1959), "This Magic Moment" (1960), "Save the Last Dance For Me" (1960) and "I Count the Tears" (1961). It seems fair to say that King's hit singles with the Drifters changed the direction and acceptance of R&B / soul music.
While still with the group, King signed a solo contract with Atlantic's sister label Atco and did his first solo session in December 1959 ("Brace Yourself"/"Show Me the Way"), produced by Jerry Wexler. No success. A duet with LaVern Baker ("How Often") fared little better, but then came a historic session on October 27, 1960. Ahmet Ertegun put Ben once more under the guidance of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who would now exclusively produce both Ben and the Drifters. Four tracks were recorded, the single "Spanish Harlem"/"First Taste Of Love", "Young Boy Blues" (a later B-side) and, with only 20 minutes left, "Stand By Me". "Spanish Harlem", with its baion rhythm, made the Top 10 and has been recorded by countless others, but even more important is "Stand By Me", one of the most emotionally intense records ever. It was the follow-up single after "Spanish Harlem" and peaked at # 4 pop (# 1 R&B for 4 weeks) in the spring of 1961. It was during this session that Phil Spector made his presence felt at Atlantic. He co-wrote three of the four songs (not "Stand By Me") and played guitar.
"Stand By Me" was King's biggest hit. Until 1967 he scored 16 more pop hits on Atco, among them "Amor" (# 18, 1961), "Don't Play That Song" (# 11, 1962) and "I (Who Have Nothing)" (# 29, 1963). After Leiber and Stoller quit Atlantic in 1963, Bert Berns became his producer. Ben stayed with Atco until 1969. Though sales dropped off, the standard of his records rarely did. Particularly strong was "What Is Soul" (1966), but it failed to chart. During the early 1970s King was forced to make a living touring the oldies circuit. Ahmet Ertegun resigned Ben to Atlantic in late 1974 and the next year he had a smash hit with the disco track "Supernatural Thing, Part 1" (# 1 R&B, # 5 pop). This was followed by five more R&B hits, all Top 30, and several new Atlantic albums, including a collaboration with the Average White Band, "Benny And Us" (1977, his highest charting LP, peaking at # 33).
In 1986, "Stand By Me" was prominently featured in the Rob Reiner film of the same name ; re-released as a single, it climbed into the Top Ten all over again (# 9 US, # 1 UK). In its wake, King returned to solo recording (after having toured in a version of the Drifters since 1982), issuing a new album every few years all the way up through the '90s. He also guested on recordings by Bo Diddley ("Book Of Love"), Heaven 17 and Mark Knopfler, among others. His most recent album is "I've Been Around" (2006), on True Life Records.
Ben E. King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as a member of the Drifters. He has also been nominated as a solo artist.
Official homepage : http://www.beneking.info/
Book : It seems that Peter Burns has not yet found a publisher for his book "Ben E. King - Stand By Me".
Acknowledgements : Steve Huey (All Music Guide), Bill Millar, Marv Goldberg ("The Later Drifters" web page), Jay Warner.
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/beking.htm
CD's : There have been many good Ben E. King releases over the years, especially on Sequel (UK) and Rhino (US), but unfortunately these are all out of print. Still available is "The Ultimate Collection - Stand By Me" (Atlantic 7-80213-2, 1987, 20 tracks). Two 2012 double-CD's from the UK give good value for money : "Stand By Me" on Not Now Records (32 tracks) and "Dance With Me, 1958-1961 - Ben E. King and the Drifters" on Jasmine (50 tracks), which also includes 10 tracks by the later Drifters, without Ben.
Dik, November 2012
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