Ben E. King died Thursday of natural causes. He was 76. King was one of a vanishing breed of singers who recorded songs that seem to have always existed. Just an overview of some of his hits — “Stand By Me,” “Spanish Harlem” and “There Goes My Baby” — are sufficient to define an era of American music, one of lushly arranged pop masterpieces. No voice was better suited to sing them than the smooth baritone of Ben E. King.
Born Benjamin Earl Nelson in North Carolina, King moved to Harlem with his family by the age of 9. He sang in church and learned harmonies with friends from school. By 1958 he was singing with a doo-wop group called the Five Crowns. Later that year, the manager of the Drifters fired every member of the group and replaced them with King’s group. This new version of the Drifters recorded hit after hit for Atlantic Records, songs like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment.” King sang lead on almost all of the 14 songs he recorded with the group.
“When I got involved with the Five Crowns, who later became the Drifters, and we got this hit record, I still was looking at this as kind of a fun thing,” he once told an interviewer. “When the hit record happened, I just said, ‘Well, it’s still fun, and it’s a fluke.’ I didn’t take it all that seriously. I still think my whole career was accidental. I didn't pursue it.”
King was fired from the Drifters for asking for a fair share of royalties rather than the flat weekly rate the group was being paid. Lover Patterson, King’s manager, pawned all his valuables to keep the newlywed singer from being evicted.
“That was my first and last best friend in this whole wide world,” King remembered, “and that was the first person that had convinced me that I was worth something, and that’s how I made up my mind I’d stay in, for him more than for myself.”
Of all King’s hits with and without the Drifters, “Stand By Me” has proved immortal. He conceived of the song after listening to future pop star Sam Cooke and his gospel group the Soul Stirrers.
“They had a song called “Lord I’m Standing By” or something like that,” King remembered, “and I just snipped that a little bit out, and I went home one night, and I grabbed my little guitar, and I started playing around with that, and I started thinking about all the things that I loved the most, and … all of a sudden the title fell in place.” He intended for the Drifters to record “Stand By Me,” but they passed.
Mike Stoller, a songwriter and record producer, remembered the day he first heard “Stand By Me,” under a skylight in the fifth-floor Manhattan publishing office he shared with Jerry Lieber. Stoller said, “When I walked in, Jerry and Benny 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.’”
The song was finished in two hours, including the memorable bass line that opens the recording. Stoller sent it to string arranger Stanley Applebaum, telling him “to write some Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov. Stanley wound up writing a beautiful invention in two parts for the song.”
“Stand By Me” and “Spanish Harlem” were recorded in one four-hour studio session.
Released in 1961, “Stand By Me” topped the R&B charts and peaked at No. 4 in the U.S. A young black boxer named Cassius Clay, who would later rename himself Muhammad Ali, covered it in 1964. John Lennon sang it for his 1975 “Rock ’n’ Roll” album, giving it an altogether more full-throated treatment. It proved to be Lennon’s last hit before his five-year retirement from music. “Stand By Me” was rereleased in 1987 to coincide with the hit movie of the same name and again broke the top 10. It went to No. 1 in the U.K. after appearing in a Levi’s jeans commercial. Various versions of the song have appeared in the U.S. Billboard top 100 nine times since its first release. In 1999, BMI credited “Stand By Me” with being the fourth-most-played track of the 20th century in American radio and television.
This year, the Library of Congress inducted the original recording of “Stand By Me” into the National Recording Registry. In its description of the song, it mentions the iconic bass line, the “soaring string arrangement” and the clever use of percussion. “All these elements contributed to the song’s success,” the Library of Congress noted, “but it was King’s incandescent vocal that made it a classic.”
“Among all the kids singing back then,” Stoller once said, “Ben was the most mature-sounding young man. His delivery and the timbre of his voice was advanced beyond his years … His sound was settled. It wasn’t in a hurry. That was a wonderful characteristic about Ben.”
Another wonderful thing about King was his pointed emotional honesty, something that informs every word of his performance of “Stand By Me.” The song is a testament to steadfastness and loyalty, qualities King was shown by his first manager, Patterson.
“Because of him believing in me and standing behind me and thinking that I was worth getting up in the morning for, I happened to stay in the business,” King told WGBH in Boston. “Other than that, I wouldn’t have stayed too long.” There is little doubt their relationship inspired King’s vocal for “Stand By Me.”
“There was an honesty about all that was going on,” King said about the music business in the early 1960s. “It connected with the people in the street. You were able to sing something they related to instantly, because it was part of what you felt. It was part of what you had already traveled through. It’s part of the people you were associating with daily. It was all of that.”