Tribute to Ben E. King

When the night has come

And the land is dark

And the moon is the only light we'll see...

Who doesn’t know the lyrics to Ben E. King’s monumental song “Stand By Me?” It wasn’t his first solo hit: that honor belongs to the lovely “Spanish Harlem.” Nor was “Spanish Harlem” the first hit on which he sang: that was “There Goes My Baby” with Ben E. fronting the legendary Drifters. It was, however, the song that over the years would profoundly touch many people in countless ways.

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Born in North Carolina, Benjamin Earl Nelson heard only country & western and gospel music as a boy. When his father opened a restaurant in New York, Ben was suddenly exposed to a whole new world of jazz, American songbook standards, and an emerging amalgam of blues, country, gospel, and pop called R&B.

Ben was hooked on this new music and soon joined other like-minded school buddies who gathered on their home turf at 118 Street and Eighth Avenue to sing. “It was,” he says, “all about the girls. We called ourselves The Four B’s - Benny, Bobby, Billy, and Bobby - and we’d take from the best of the best - The Flamingos, The Moonglows, The Mills Brothers even - and try to imitate them and get some attention from the girls!”

Along the way, Ben got a chance to audition for one of the groups he idolized. “Whenever The Moonglows came to the city, they would stay in a certain hotel right around the corner from my dad’s restaurant. I guess they were having trouble with one of the members and [either] I heard about that or they heard about me. One way or the other, I went into the hotel and gave it a shot.”

The Moonglows were already an established group, with classics such as “Sincerely,” “Most Of All,” and “In My Diary” to their name. “They were much older guys and I think I was a little bit intimidated,” admits Ben. “Plus,” he adds, “their harmonies were insane. I said, ‘I can’t do this!’ They were fantastic.”

Ben got a second shot at going pro when Lover Patterson, manager of The 5 Crowns/Crowns, brought him on board as a baritone singer just in time to record R&B Records’ only single release: “Kiss And Make Up” b/w “I’ll Forget About You.” Although the record saw only limited success, it brought The Crowns a week-long engagement starting May 30, 1958 at the Apollo for a Dr. Jive Revue headlined by Ray Charles, The Heartbeats, and...The Drifters.

Ben recalls how “The original Drifters were having trouble with their manager (George Treadwell) and he was having trouble with them. It was crazy. Before the week was over he let us know he wanted us to be the new Drifters.” With a new name came new obligations, specifically the gigs already scheduled for The Drifters: a tour of the South where they were frequently booed since the group on stage was obviously not the recently fired Drifters pictured on venue posters.

It was early March of 1959 before the new Drifters made their first recordings. Benjamin Earl Nelson was now sporting a new name, a change suggested by a booking agent since there was another singing Earl Nelson (“Earl” of Bob & Earl on Class Records). The agent offered up Benny - Ben E. - and Ben contributed the name of a favorite uncle, King.

For the session Ben E. King had something else new: a song that he had written while on the road, one inspired by Dee Clark’s current Top 3 R&B hit “Nobody But You.” “It was one of those weird things,” says Ben E. “Every time his record would come on the radio, he’s singing, ‘I don’t want nobody else but you’ and I’m singing, ‘There goes my baby.’ Just a counterpart to his thing. Lover Patterson - who was [now] the road manager for The Drifters - asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and I said, ‘I’m just having fun with it.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you write it down?’ and I did.”

When Charlie Thomas, the group’s usual lead singer, had difficulty recording “There Goes My Baby,” Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler decided that the song’s writer should take over. Thus, Ben E., who says he had no intention of ever being a lead singer, became The Drifters designated front man.

The result was a landmark recording in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller mated Ben E’s lyrics to a modified Brazilian baion rhythm and strings, creating something that sounded strange to Ben E. and yet felt right. Jerry Wexler though hated the record. Label head Ahmet Ertegun overruled Wexler and in mid-August “There Goes My Baby” was #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #1 in Cash Box.

According to Ben E., Leiber believed that to truly connect with a listener a singer needed to combine the emotions inherent in the lyrics with his or her own feelings: an approach that paid off big time with “Save The Last Dance For Me.” Crippled by polio as a young boy, lyricist Doc Pomus had watched with mixed emotions as his new bride danced with others at their reception. On their honeymoon Pomus scribbled a portion of the song’s lyrics on the back of a wedding invitation. In the studio, King closed his eyes, brought to mind the wedding scene, and let his emotions guide his singing.

His heartfelt performance resonated with pop music fans and propelled “Dance” to the top of the charts. Behind the scenes, the record’s stunning success was bittersweet: even though it was the group’s sixth straight Top 10 R&B single featuring Ben E. on lead, he was no longer a Drifter. 

“Whenever money gets involved,” he says, “you’re going to have problems. One of the members of the group [saw] the original contracts and we realized how little we were [getting] paid for touring and thought that it should have been better.” That, in addition to receiving no extra cash from their hits, prompted a meeting with Treadwell.

King was appointed the group’s spokesperson and, after he had said his piece, Treadwell gave him a take-it-or-leave choice. Ben E. elected to leave. Although he had already released a single as a soloist, when only Lover Paterson followed him out the door, Ben E. was truly on his own.

Despite his love of singing, King was fed up with the “ugly” side of the music business and ready to return to work in his father’s restaurant. Only Lover Paterson’s unwavering support stopped him. On October 27, 1960 “Save The Last Dance For Me” was #1 in America and Ben E. was back in the studio solo to make his two signature recordings. 

“I knew from the very beginning that ‘Spanish Harlem’ was going to be a very good song, and I had to study really hard with Jerry and Mike to get the feel of it. It wasn’t a typical gospel or R&B song; it had its own classical world.” Co-writing credit went to future superstar producer Phil Spector who also played the record’s guitar lines.

“The backup singers were a group called The Drapers,” adds Ben E, “a gospel group handled by Lover Patterson that he was trying to get Atlantic Records to sign.”

With a half hour left on the session clock, Leiber and Stoller asked Ben E. if he had a song to show them “real quick.” Indeed, he did. Says Ben E., “I was just married and I thought I’d have fun writing a song that would say, ‘I’m in love.’ I first met my wife when she was about eight or nine years old, and we became friends. Before you know it, she was sixteen years old and we started dating. Eighteen or twenty we got married. Her name is Betty, and her brothers Billy and Bobby were in The Four B’s. A bunch of B’s!”

“When I wrote, ‘Stand By Me,’ I [intended] it for The Drifters. We were still friends [and] I rehearsed the song with them. They had some great harmonies; they sounded good. We then went to George (Treadwell). After they were done, he looks at me and says, ‘Nice song but we don’t need any material at the moment.’”

In the studio, Leiber and Stoller came up with a head arrangement and Ben E. laid down an inspired vocal. “Stand By Me” - the song - was also inspired: by a 1905 gospel standard “Stand By Me Father.”

These back-to-back R&B and pop crossover hits established King as a singer and hitmaker of note, and he followed them with such memorable sides as “Amor,” “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” and “I (Who Have Nothing).”

After the chart hits dried up, Ben E. continued to bring his songs to fans on the road until a chance meeting in 1974 put him back on top. “I was in Florida doing a show and Ahmet Ertegun was in the audience. He came backstage and said, ‘You sound great. When you get back to New York, you come by and see me. We’ll go back into the studio.’”

“Tony Sylvester and Bert DeCoteaux [had] this great track and no lyrics. Originally, the song was going to be ‘Fever’ (the Little Willie John/Peggy Lee classic) but Ahmet said, ‘No, no, no. It’s not going to jell.’ He called Gwen Guthrie and Pat Grant and said, ‘Write something to this track,’ and they came up with ‘Supernatural Thing.’” In the spring of 1975 Ben E’s latest “Thing” hit #1 on Billboard’s R&B list and peaked at #5 pop.

Like the Energizer bunny, Ben E. kept on truckin’. In 1977 an album he recorded with the Average White Band went Top 40 and spun off two Top 25 R&B singles. Nine years later he returned to the Top 10 when “Stand By Me” hit the big screen on the soundtrack for Rob Reiner’s blockbuster movie of the same name. In 1987 “Stand” topped the British chart, fueled by its use in a television commercial. More albums followed including a jazz record which featured jazz greats Milt Jackson and David “Fathead” Newman.

Even in his sixth decade of making music, Ben E. is still lovin’ it. “I enjoy the life that I have and I still enjoy the music that’s in the world. The thing I’m most proud about is people that I’ve had a chance to work with and learn from and who believed in me.”

As for his own recordings, he says, “I love just about all of them because each one has its own identity. It’s like looking at your children and saying who’s the most attractive. They’re all attractive! They all have their own looks, their own strengths, their own giving.”

As for the upcoming Malt Shop Memories cruise, he says “there is nothing that I enjoy more than standing on stage. I live in the middle of the music and I love it to death.” He can be sure the feeling will be mutual.

- Ed Osborne © 2015