Soul singer with one of the most distinctive voices of his era
Friday 1 May 2015
Ben E King appeared at a time when pop music was pausing for breath between the wakeup call sounded by the first generation of American rock’n’rollers and the blast of energy provided from across the water by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. His distinctive voice, shaped by the fervour of black church music but capable of a suavely seductive romanticism, was heard on such hits as Spanish Harlem and Stand By Me.
King, who has died aged 76, first made his name as the lead singer of the Drifters, with a handful of hit singles that embodied the best elements of Brill Building pop, in which the sounds of rhythm and blues and gospel music were brought to bear on custom-made songs with simple, catchy and inventive melodies, swathed in imaginative, often sophisticated arrangements.
His run of hits with the Drifters started in the summer of 1959 with There Goes My Baby, his own composition, which is generally thought of as the first R&B single to feature strings, thereby paving the way for the often elaborate, pop-slanted stylings of soul music. Along with his near-contemporaries Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown and Solomon Burke, King had a good claim to be considered a member of the first wave of genuine soul singers.
During the next year, his other hits with the Drifters included This Magic Moment, I Count the Tears and Save the Last Dance For Me. The last of those, along with the Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow, can be seen as representing the artistic peak of the Brill Building style. Spanish Harlem and Stand By Me were the fruit of his subsequent solo career, along with Don’t Play That Song and I (Who Have Nothing). They were followed almost a decade and a half later by Supernatural Thing, a disco favourite which gave him his last top 10 entry until 1986, when the appearance of Stand By Me in a successful film of the same name prompted a reissue that took the song back to the top of the UK charts, allowing a new generation to enjoy his polished but heartfelt delivery.
He was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, North Carolina, and moved to New York with his family at the age of nine, part of the migration of black workers from the southern states to the more prosperous cities of the industrialised north. As a teenager in Harlem, where he helped out in his father’s three restaurants, he sang in church choirs but also joined his school friends in a street-corner vocal group, the Four Bs, imitating the harmonies they heard in recordings by such doo-wop heroes as the Cadillacs, the Five Satins, the Charms, the Moonglows, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. His unusual vocal flexibility, spanning the range from bass to tenor, enabled him to sing virtually all the lead and harmony parts.
At 20, he joined a group called the Five Crowns, singing baritone and bass. His parents had tried to talk him out of a career in show business, but in their second year of existence the group had a sudden and unexpected stroke of luck when they inherited the name and high reputation of an already successful group, the Drifters. Founded in 1953, the Drifters had already enjoyed hits with Money Honey, Ruby Baby and other songs, featuring the lead vocals of Clyde McPhatter and Johnny Moore. In 1959, however, army conscription and arguments over money led their manager, George Treadwell, to fire the group and look for replacements, exercising the rights he had secured when buying McPhatter’s share of the name several years earlier.
Treadwell approached Lover Patterson, manager of the Five Crowns, and reached an agreement which saw Benny Nelson (about to be rechristened Ben E King) and three of his fellow group members – Charlie Thomas, Doc Green and Elsbeary Hobbs – become the new Drifters, with Patterson as their road manager. Legal proceedings were begun by various former Drifters, resulting in a variety of groups touring the world for many years afterwards under names such as the Original Drifters or the Fabulous Drifters.
The recording contract with the Atlantic label, however, was held by Treadwell, and an undisturbed flow of releases ensured that his group was associated with the name in the public mind – particularly when the producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller took There Goes My Baby and surrounded King’s song (for which Treadwell and Patterson were given co-composers’ credits) with a wholly novel arrangement featuring swirling violins, aggressive violas and strangely muffled percussion effects. Its murky aura caught the attention, taking the record to No 2 in the US pop charts and No 1 in the R&B lists.
King was now the undisputed lead singer of the group, and a cleaner, crisper version of the same formula allowed Dance With Me, written by Leiber and Stoller, to perform even better. The approach reached its zenith with Save the Last Dance for Me, an elegant combination of words and music by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, set to an orchestration based on the swaying Latin baion rhythm, with which Leiber and Stoller had fallen in love after encountering it on a soundtrack album.
But disputes between Treadwell on one hand and Patterson and King on the other, over a salary increase and a more equitable share of royalties, led to the singer’s departure from the group at the height of their success. Patterson had King under a personal management contract, and refused to allow him to continue touring as a part of Treadwell’s Drifters. His solo career had begun, with the invaluable backing of Atlantic records, on whose Atco subsidiary his releases were to appear.
It was with Spanish Harlem that he stamped his own identity on the airwaves and the pop charts in the early weeks of 1961. Here was an instant pop classic, Leiber’s romantic, evocative lyric perfectly matching a melody, composed by the 21-year-old wunderkind Phil Spector, that artfully heightened the drama by suddenly tightening in the middle couplet of each six-line verse before gently releasing the consequent tension. Accompanied only by a marimba, a double bass, a choked triangle, a bass drum and a discreet backing choir, with those swirling strings and a solo soprano saxophone creating an instrumental interlude, King’s rich, ardent voice was at its most compelling, and the record became his first solo top 10 hit.
With Stand By Me, a few months later, he had his first R&B No 1, and went to No 4 on the pop charts. Credited to Leiber and Stoller (under their regular nom de plume) and King, it was based, like many early soul songs, squarely on an old gospel tune. Again the arrangement was spare but highly effective, inspiring King to respond with a majestic performance in which powerful emotions were typically expressed with a dignified restraint – King wrote the words about his wife-to-be, Betty, whom he would marry in 1964. Taking his birth surname, she was known as Betty Nelson, and survives him, along with a son and two daughters.
There had been a Latin rhythmic undertow to all these records, and Amor made it more explicit, not entirely to King’s benefit. Pomus and Shuman’s Here Comes the Night, his last release of a hectic year, was perhaps too subtle to win great success – it barely crept into the top 100 – but showed the singer at his very best, his phrasing beautifully judged over the melody’s complex, flamenco-inspired syncopations and yet another imaginative orchestration.
The last big hit of this phase of King’s career came in 1962 with Don’t Play That Song (You Lied). Co-written (with Betty Nelson) under a pseudonym by Ahmet Ertegün, a Turkish diplomat’s son who had founded Atlantic Records, its plaintive accusations suited the singer perfectly. Like Spanish Harlem, it would find a second life in the hands of Aretha Franklin, another Atlantic artist, while Stand By Me eventually found another effective interpreter in John Lennon. All three songs have become standards.
King continued to record throughout the 60s, but the uneven quality of albums such as Ben E King Sings for Soulful Lovers and Seven Letters indicate that he, or his producers, was unsure of his direction. Yet cheek by jowl with the likes of Jamaica and Si Senor, where he was unwisely persuaded to croon in the accents of the Caribbean and Central America, came It’s All Over, a classically proportioned ballad written by Bert Berns and Mike Leander, on which his core credentials were triumphantly reaffirmed, enabling him to provide the answer to the question posed by the title of another of his mid-60s singles: What Is Soul?
Further success proved elusive, however, until 1975, when Ertegün encountered him singing in a Miami nightspot and invited him to return to Atlantic. The slinky Supernatural Thing, the first record under the new deal, became part of the overture to the disco boom, its success allowing him to emerge from the world of supper clubs and oldies shows. Later in the decade he collaborated with the Average White Band, and subsequent recordings found him diversifying into jazz alongside Milt Jackson, the vibraphonist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and David “Fathead” Newman, Ray Charles’s longtime tenor saxophone soloist, with a 2003 album recorded live at the Blue Note club in New York. His last album, Heart & Soul, was released in 2010.
King was arguably too urbane and mature a performer, despite his southern roots, to upstage his more unbuttoned rivals at a time when soul music was at its peak. He could nevertheless claim to possess one of the era’s most distinguished voices, his warm tone and polished phrasing indelibly associated with definitive performances of a handful of songs that were written with short-term success in mind but whose appeal now seems ageless.
• Ben E King (Benjamin Earl Nelson), singer and songwriter, born 28 September 1938; died 30 April 2015
Fifty-five years after it was written, the original version still wields the kind of emotional heft that can reduce people to tears
Friday 1 May 2015
As is the case with all the great pop songs, you can identify Stand By Me by its opening few notes. Mike Stoller’s simple bassline, built around a 50s doo-wop chord progression, is decorated with little more than the faint ting of a triangle and the scrape of a gourd guiro – yet the effect is instant. King’s gospel-infused vocals followed this approach: the strength of his feelings imparted with no need for histrionics.
Fifty-five years after it was written, King’s original version still wields the kind of emotional heft that can reduce people to tears, and get others on their feet at weddings. Yet not everyone saw its magic at first. King had originally intended the song for his band the Drifters, before he left that group in 1960 – it was only after a songwriting session with Stoller and Jerry Lieber had come to an end, and they asked if he had any other songs in the locker, that he put it forward. “I wasn’t trying to make a hit,” he told the Guardian in 2013. According to King, legendary producer Jerry Wexler was even less aware of its magic: “He hated it because we’d gone into overtime in the studio with an expensive orchestra.”
Such disregard for the budget probably didn’t bother Wexler for long. Stand By Me was a top-five hit in the US, and the list of names who went on to cover it includes not just John Lennon – who delivered an iconic performance of it on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975 – and Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, but also Muhammad Ali and the writer Stephen King.
King’s novella The Body inspired Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand By Me, and the inclusion of the original version of the song on the soundtrack helped make it an even bigger hit in 1987, when it topped the UK singles chart. The renaissance continued shortly afterwards when Stand By Me was one of several soul classics to appear on adverts for Levi’s 501 jeans. Such ongoing success thrilled King, who vowed to keep performing the song “as long as I’m breathing”.
On paper, Stand By Me seems a simple song, and certainly King wrote it with simple intentions: a love song to his partner at the time, Betty Nelson. Pop songs are seldom expected to mirror the lives of the artists who created them, but it certainly adds a sparkle to the song to know that Nelson would go on to celebrate five decades of marriage with the man who sang to her: “If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall / All the mountains should crumble to the sea / I won’t cry, I won’t cry / No, I won’t shed a tear / Just as long as you stand, stand by me.”
It’s especially fitting that a song about enduring love – a love able to survive, no matter what trials and traumas it encounters – was built equally strongly to stand the test of time.