April 30, 2015 – Benjamin Earl ‘Ben E’ King was born on September 28, 1938, became perhaps best known as the singer and co-composer of “Stand by Me”—a US Top 10 hit, both in 1961 and later in 1986 (when it was used as the theme to the film of the same name), a number one hit in the UK in 1987, and no. 25 on the RIAA’s list of Songs of the Century—and as one of the principal lead singers of the R&B vocal group the Drifters.
When you think of Ben E. King, you don’t think of teenage crushes, even though his songs were the soundtrack for hundreds of millions of them. You think of eternal life and everlasting love, or at least the desire for these things.
“Among all the kids singing back then, Ben was the most mature-sounding young man,” songwriter/producer Mike Stoller told Jazzwax in 2012. “His delivery and the timbre of his voice was advanced beyond his years. Most of the young kids singing back then sounded like, well, kids. Ben had a style that was akin to Arthur Prysock or Billy Eckstine. His sound was settled. It wasn’t in a hurry. That was a wonderful characteristic about Ben.”
King said that he was “never supposed to be a lead singer” because, as a baritone, his role was to provide backup, but once he was unexpectedly drafted to sing lead on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” an unlikely baritone star was born. His vocal sound was so settled and timeless that pop fans tended to either assume King was already long-dead or would never die.
He passed away Thursday April 30, 2015 of natural causes at 76, just a little more than a month after “Stand by Me” was selected for induction into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Here are parts of the stories behind a few of his most beloved recordings:
STAND BY ME
“Stand by Me” was very loosely based on a gospel song, transferring that spiritual craving into the yearning to have earthly fidelity survive even longer than the hereafter. That was a lot of weight for one young man still in his early 20s to carry, but King could shoulder it.
According to the documentary History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Ben E. King had no intention of recording the song himself when he wrote it. King had written it for The Drifters, who passed on recording it. After the “Spanish Harlem” recording session, he had some studio time left over. The session’s producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, asked if he had any more songs. King played “Stand by Me” on the piano for them. They liked it and called the studio musicians back in to record it.
Stoller recalls it differently:
I remember arriving at our office as Jerry and Ben were working on lyrics for a new song. King had the beginnings of a melody that he was singing a cappella. I went to the piano and worked up the harmonies, developing a bass pattern that became the signature of the song. Ben and Jerry quickly finished the lyrics …
In another interview, Stoller said:
Ben E. had the beginnings of a song—both words and music. He worked on the lyrics together with Jerry, and I added elements to the music, particularly the bass line. To some degree, it’s based on a gospel song called “Lord Stand By Me”. I have a feeling that Jerry and Ben E. were inspired by it. Ben, of course, had a strong background in church music. He’s a 50% writer on the song, and Jerry and I are 25% each…. When I walked in, Jerry and Ben E. were working on the lyrics to a song. They were at an old oak desk we had in the office. Jerry was sitting behind it, and Benny was sitting on the top. They looked up and said they were writing a song. I said, “Let me hear it.”… Ben began to sing the song a cappella. I went over to the upright piano and found the chord changes behind the melody he was singing. It was in the key of A. Then I created a bass line. Jerry said, “Man that’s it!” We used my bass pattern for a starting point and, later, we used it as the basis for the string arrangement created by Stanley Applebaum.
“Stand by Me”, “There Goes My Baby”, and “Spanish Harlem” were named as three of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll;and each of those records plus “Save The Last Dance For Me” has earned a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
THERE GOES MY BABY
This is the song that got it all started for Ben E. King. He was part of a group called the 5 Crowns that was drafted wholesale to replace the Drifters when a previous incarnation of that combo was fired by their manager in 1958. The all-new Drifters recorded “There Goes My Baby” as their first single and had it soar to No. 2 on the pop chart and go No. 1 at R&B. This, despite the fact that it has a slick, strings-laded sound that confused King when he first heard it coming together in the studio, despite the fact that he was a co-writer with renowned producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
“Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had came up with a new concept of black music and black singers, and it took off and it never turned back,” King said in an interview with the TV program In the Groove. “It was the first time that strings was used successfully in a recording such as that… Their whole arrangement and concept of the song ‘There Goes My Baby’ has nothing to do with what I actually heard when I first wrote it. The only thing I owned about the song is the lyrics, because their arrangement was completely left field (and had) nothing to do with gospel at all the way, they arranged it…
Our lead singer was Charlie Thomas, and because he was having trouble with the lyrics, that’s how I became a lead singer anyway. I was never supposed to be a lead singer, ever. There never should have been a Ben E. King in life because I was a baritone singer. I was the one that did the steps and watched the girls while the other guys had the responsibility of making the song happen. I was not that guy. I had no intentions of being that guy but as luck would have it or not, Charlie Thomas couldn’t do the song. Jerry Wexler got upset about it and said, ‘Who wrote the song?’ And they pointed at me. And he said, ‘Well, if he wrote it, let him sing it.’”
The world has certainly stood by this song: It’s BMI’s third most-played song of all time.
“Of all the songs I wrote or co-wrote in my career, this is my favorite,” King told the Guardian. “It came at a strange time, though. I’d just left the Drifters and had to plead with Ahmet Ertegün, the president of Atlantic Records, to find a place for me.”
Ertegun put him back to work with Leiber and Stoller, the architects of “There Goes My Baby,” which King described as “like a schooling for me – a kid from Harlem who knew nothing about anything.” This time, he was the principal writer on the song, although his mentors added crucial musical elements.
“It was 1960, but in my vocal 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. But I had a lot of influences, too – 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.”
It was a combination of the symphony and gospel, really. Stoller remembers the lyrical concept being a thinly disguised variation on a gospel classic, “Lord, Stand by Me.” King, for his part, said he borrowed it from another gospel song, “Lord, I’m Standing By.” Whatever the inspiration, the Lord worked in not-so-mysterious ways in making this plea for earthly faithfulness into one of the most cherished songs of the 20th century.
Amazingly, “Spanish Harlem” came out of the same exceedingly fruitful session as “Stand by Me.” King admitted that he thought the lyrics about a “rose” might be a bit too, well, flowery when he first heard them. King said his natural vocal style came out of gospel music, where the same phrase might be repeated over and over for maximum effect.
And then Leiber and Stoller “would take me and say, do this song: ‘There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem. It is the special one, it’s never seen the sun, it only comes out when the moon is on the run, and all the stars are gleaming.’ I say, you got to be joking! I would look at them like they were absolutely mad, but yet once I would do it with the band, with the strings, it all made sense. And whatever I was feeling, when I’d sing ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ or anything else in church, I can actually find the same feeling when I’m doing ‘There’s A Rose In Spanish Harlem.’ They taught me that it’s not what you’re singing, it’s how you’re feeling when you’re singing it.”
SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME
The lyrics were written by Doc Pomus, who was wheelchair-bound and regretted not being able to dance with his wife. Not only did King not overlook this then-unknown story behind the song, he actually took to heart as he was recording the tune.
“He gave me more than lyrics. He gave me a reason why the song was born,” King told Into the Groove. “When you go into a studio and you get a song from a writer and you don’t have anything other than what he wrote… because I knew this was actually from the experience that Doc himself had felt and this is very personal, I just closed my eyes in front of the microphone and I could see him watching his wife as she was dancing, and I could sing the song because now the whole complete picture of the song and the reason it was written was all in my head.”
I (WHO HAVE NOTHING)
When you think of Ben E. King’s songs being used in other media, you immediately jump to as obvious an example as “Stand by Me” actually becoming the title of a Rob Reiner movie. But The Sopranos made just as evocative a use of King’s songs, on multiple occasions. “This Magic Moment” was used for highly ironic effect at the end of the episode “Sopranos Home Movies,” after the Bobby character has been forced to make his first murder, signaling that that moment will change him forever just as surely as the young romance indicated in the song.
Another episode, “The Telltale Moozadell,” ended with one of King’s slightly lesser remembered hits, “I (Who Have Nothing).” The recording could hardly be more dramatic, with the lack of drums more than made up for by the jolting strings. On The Sopranos, it followed a scene of low-key, decaying domesticity between Tony and his wife, suggesting that the show’s anti-hero really does have little in his life to grasp onto, despite the appearance of normalcy.
But there’s nothing subdued about King’s reading of it as a declaration of despair. Other singers took the song to greater chart peaks, including Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey in the UK, and a generation of younger singers has rediscovered it, making it nearly a staple on American Idol. But it’s King’s pleadings to a lost lover to rediscover meaning in his life that stick with us more than anyone else’s.