June 23, 2015 In honor of Ben E. King – An R & B Legend
Songs come and go. Musicians come and go. Yet, there are few voices and lyrics that resonate throughout time, throughout genres and throughout history. Ben E. King is one of those stellar voices and lyricists that will remain with music lovers, forever, even if he may not. Sadly, on April 30, 2015, King passed on, through those pearly gates that many a great musician has passed through. His cause of death was reported as complications of a coronary condition, which he had sang through up until 2014 when he was touring the UK and the US. Survived by his lovely wife, Betty, of fifty-one years, three children, and six grandchildren. King was an adored man by colleagues in the music industry, as well as fans.
Born Benjamin Earl Nelson, on September 28, 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina, he soon moved to Harlem, New York at the age of nine, in 1947. He had the influences of good old Southern Gospel, singing in church choirs, and then pleasantly surrounded by the Harlem Renaissance, where the arts flourished in Harlem, drawing African American artists, writers, musicians, photographers, poets, scholars, and of course, musicians. King was right there soaking it all in, thus it is no wonder he was such a great talent who go on to touch so many people with his music.
Beginning his journey into music while in High School, he started out in a small Doo-Wop group, The Four B’s, and even performed at the world famous Apollo Theater. Soon after, in 1958, The Drifter’s manager fired all the original Drifters replacing them with King as lead tenor and his Doo-Wop buddies Charlie Thomas as tenor, Dock Green as baritone, as well as Elsbeary Hobbs as bass. King would become the intrigue part to keep The Drifter’s name alive, singing lead on their single hits, “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and “There Goes My Baby,” which was in fact the first commercially successful Rock-n-Roll song to feature string orchestra. With King’s smooth, soulful voice leading them, The Drifters would become one of the most popular groups of the time. Unfortunately in 1960 there was a contractual dispute between King and management regarding royalities and he decided to go it alone. Proving he had the talent to do so, he had a hit in 1961 with “Spanish Harlem,” a song co-written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector. Then came the phenomenal and song of a lifetime, “Stand By Me,” co-written by King himself, Mike Stoller, and Leiber. This launched King into the orbit of The Greats of Music, earning him multiple awards.
Rightfully he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1988, along with the Drifters and nominated for solo performer. His accolades include being inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009, Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012, and also in 2012, he was awarded the Towering Song Award for “Stand by Me.” His songs, “Stand By Me,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Spanish Harlem” made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll. Besides these, he was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame award for all three songs plus “Save the Last Dance for Me.” When he was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, he was most proud of this, saying, that his children’s, children’s, children could say,”Wow, Gramps did that!”
“Stand By Me” was considered the fourth most played song of the 20th century. Two times, his version of this incredibly popular song was on Billboard, in 1961 and 1986. Nine times, it made the Billboard 100; King’s versions two times and seven times with covers. His songs have been covered by the most prestigious of music makers, including Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, John Lennon, Mickey Gilley, and Rock bands Siouxsie and the Banshees and Led Zeppelin. From 1959 to 1986, he earned twelve top ten hits, and twenty-six top 40 hits. The popularity of “Stand By Me” resurfaced for a new generation with the Rob Reiner movie, Stand By Me, in 1986 as it was the title song. The movie, about boyhood friendships and the issues of growing up, resonated with audiences everywhere, as did this ever popular song which King made a music video for with cast members Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix. The song was even used in a British TV commercial for Levi’s at this time. Certainly proof of universal appeal.
Furthermore, King established the Ben E. King Stand by Me Foundation, which is a charity that helps youth working to further their education and assists various civic associations in efforts to improve the quality of life. There is no question the man was great in so many ways, from his creative genius and his ability to have compassion for others. His influence runs deeper than many may think, having been covered by everyone from Dusty Springfield, Otis Redding, John Lennon, and Led Zeppelin. He also inspired New Wave artists Siouxsie and the Banshees recording of the track “Supernatural Thing.” Aretha Franklin, when hearing of his passing, told Rolling Stone, “So sorry to hear of his passing. He was a 60’s trendsetter, classic vocalist, and an all-around very nice man.”
Fifty seven years in the music industry, his memory leaves many to believe in the music and its power. The great Ben E. King will live on forever through his iconic music, his ability to write and sing songs that effect everyone, and his contribution to the start of Rock-n-Roll and the Motown sound. A true legend has passed, but he truly will never to be forgotten.