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Ben E. King

The 60s were a prosperous period for one of R&B’s most magnetic solo singers BEN E. KING. Dropping out of The DRIFTERS regime (`Save The Last Dance For Me’ a pinnacle of his time there), KING achieved superstar status by way of classics `Spanish Harlem’ and Top 5 `Stand By Me’; the latter song propelling his name even further when a chart-topping UK re-issue tied in with the movie of the same name in 1986/87.
Born Benjamin Earl Nelson, September 23, 1938, Henderson in North Carolina, he relocated to Harlem with his family in 1947. The young Ben duly began singing in gospel choirs and performed with high school doo-wop group The Four B’s before moving on to join his first full-time combo, the Five Crowns. Although they cut a series of demos, they eventually struck lucky in summer ‘58 when DRIFTERS manager George Treadwell fired the entire group and recruited Ben E and Co as replacements.
Teamed up with esteemed pop composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the new look DRIFTERS were rejuvenated by a string of Top 20 hits, namely `There Goes My Baby’, `Dance With Me’, `This Magic Moment’, the post-split `Save The Last Dance For Me’ (a No.1) and `I Count The Tears’; Ben E’s emotive balladeering at the epicentre of the group’s appeal and flanked by lush strings and lilting Latin rhythms. However, complaints by Ben E and his manager about royalties and contractual obligations had already led to the star superimposed by another recruit. A debut solo 45, `Brace Yourself’, flopped for Atco Records in May 1960, while an untimely duet with LaVERN BAKER (`A Help-Each-Other Romance’) also went unnoticed.
The partnership with Leiber & Stoller endured (as with other writers Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman), the pair even using new apprentice PHIL SPECTOR to help them pen KING’s inaugural Top 10 smash `Spanish Harlem’. Yet the song that marked the definitive chapter in his career was co-penned by Ben E himself: `Stand By Me’. A goose-bump hymn to the endurance of love amid impending catastrophe (inspired by the gospel tune `Lord Stand By Me’), the ballad was KING’s masterpiece and a deserved hit in summer ‘61. Ironically enough, the track didn’t make much headway in the UK chart (at the time Top 30), until re-issued from the River Phoenix-starring movie much later. And, confusingly enough, it was not included on KING’s Top 60 debut album, SPANISH HARLEM (1961) {*6}; also re-issued in the UK and a Top 30 entry in ‘67. What it did contain was another Top 20 smash at the time, `Amor’ (and b/w `Souvenir Of Mexico’).
Over the ensuing two years, the man had a further couple of major hits with `Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)’ (from third, part-compilation hits album DON’T PLAY THAT SONG! (1962) {*6}) and `I (Who Have Nothing)’; his sophomore standards set BEN E. KING SINGS FOR SOULFUL LOVERS {*5} went under the radar when released earlier in ’62.
Although his success thereafter was largely confined to the R&B chart (`It’s All Over’ and `Seven Letters’ at least two exceptions to that fact), albums such as SEVEN LETTERS (1965) {*6} and the UK-only WHAT IS SOUL (1967) {*6} gave steadfast fans a keepsake to his time at the top.
The advent of the seventies proved a particularly testing time for BEN E. KING, who, still in his early 30s, was seemingly all washed up, if single flops were anything to go by. Not everybody’s flavour of the month at Atlantic, the label licenced a covers album ROUGH EDGES (1970) {*5} to Maxwell Records; best-known renditions included WILSON PICKETT’s `In The Midnight Hour’, DYLAN’s `Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ and `Lay Lady Lay’, plus LENNON & McCARTNEY’s `Don’t Let Me Down’ and `Come Together’.
Atlantic’s Mandala off-shoot would secure a release for THE BEGINNING OF IT ALL (1972) {*5}, notable for its cover of VAN MORRISON’s `Into The Mystic’, but while the likes of STEVIE WONDER, MARVIN GAYE, AL GREEN et al were breaking new ground, BEN E. KING was virtually passed over.
A turn-around in fortunes lay when producer-cum-president of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, couldn’t believe that his former star was playing the oldies circuit in Miami, Florida. In an attempt to fit KING into the disco scene, `Supernatural Thing, Part I’ climbed the charts to reach the Top 5, while the attendant album SUPERNATURAL (1975) {*6} gave the man his best album return for yonks (No.39); sadly, his rendition of GWEN GUTHRIE’s `Do It In The Name Of Love’, stalled at No.60. I HAD A LOVE (1976) {*5} was more of the same, but with less impact both commercially and critically.
Stuck plumb-center of two solo LPs – RHAPSODY (1976) {*4} and LET ME LIVE IN YOUR LIFE (1978) {*5} – that cross-pollenated several tracks, the singer was happy to combine efforts with fans AVERAGE WHITE BAND (from Scotland) for the Top 40 album, `Benny And Us’ (1977). 1980’s MUSIC TRANCE {*4} and 1981’s STREET TOUGH {*5} tried in vain to resurrect a flagging career, but R&B music had moved on by then, branching out into embryonic rap and hip hop.
Toward the fall of ‘81, KING cut his losses and re-joined a touring version of The DRIFTERS, and stayed with them for four years. After the aforementioned `Stand By Me’ re-issue created a stir in 1986/7, a DRIFTERS classic was utilised to kick-start his solo career again by way of SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME (1987) {*5}. Released by Manhattan-EMI, it was slightly overshadowed by Ben E’s UK Top 20 compilation STAND BY ME: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (also 1987) {*8}.
WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO ME (1992) {*4}, the children’s I HAVE SONGS IN MY POCKET (1998) {*4}, SHADES OF BLUE (1999) {*4}, PERSON TO PERSON: LIVE AT THE BLUE NOTE (2003) {*5}, I’VE BEEN AROUND (2006) {*4} and HEART & SOUL (2010) {*4} were all commendable attempts at reliving the dream. Although BEN E. KING still performed at the odd jazz club venue, right up until late 2014, ill-health had finally took its toll and, on April 30, 2015, he died of coronary heart disease in a hospital near his New Jersey home; he was survived by his wife of 51 years, Betty, and he was the last of the “Soul Clan” to pass away.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS May2015

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