Ben E. King was one of the singers of the R&B/doo-wop vocal combo The Drifters before launching his solo career in 1960. While with the Drifters, King achieved R&B chart-toppers such as “Money Honey,” “Honey Love,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Save The Last Dance For Me” (also a US Billboard chart-topper). As a solo artist King is most famous for his number “Stand By Me” (which he co-wrote) in 1961, which he has been currently singing in his live performances. He also scored another Top 10 hit with “Supernatural Thing” in 1975. In 2010 CanAm Records released his album Heart & Soul. In 2012, The Songwriters Hall of Fame honored “Stand By Me“ with the Towering Song Award and King with the Towering Performance Award for his recording of his signature song. King died in 2015, aged 76.
Ben E. King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson on September 28, 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina. Nine years later, he and his family moved to Harlem, New York. He became a member of a doo-wop group the Four B’s. They competed at New York’s prestigious Apollo Theater talent contest, where they were placed second. He was invited to be the member of the Moonglows, but Nelson still wanted to hone his talents and experience.
As a member of the Drifters
In 1958, Nelson became a baritone singer for another doo-wop outfit the Five Crowns. Meanwhile, the Drifters manager George Treadwell was dissatisfied with his wards the Drifters, whose career struggled after the departure of member Clyde McPhatter. Treadwell fired the original Drifters and then hired the Five Crowns whom he bestowed the Drifters name.
Despite hostile response from fans who knew the original Drifters, the new version of the Drifters still toured and released a new single called “There Goes My Baby” in 1959. Co-written by Nelson (still using his real name), Treadwell, Lover Patterson, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and released on Atlantic Records, “There Goes My Baby” became a Top 10 on both pop and R&B charts. The Drifters’ exhibited a smooth brand of R&B backed with lush instrumentation – something which was virtually unprecedented at that time. This sophisticated R&B/soul production had been followed by almost every act ever since.
In addition to “There Goes My Baby,” Nelson also sang lead on many other Drifters hits “Dance with Me,” “(If You Cry) True Love, True Love,” “This Magic Moment,” and another R&B classic “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Solo career as Ben E. King
In 1960, Nelson left the Drifters after a dispute with Treadwell over salary and royalties. He pursued a solo career assuming a memorable stage name Ben E. King. Remaining on Atlantic Records, King issued his first single as a solo artist, “First Taste of Love” in 1960, which only became a minor hit.
Another single quickly followed called “Spanish Harlem” which was written by Leiber and Phil Spector. This R&B classic became King’s first big hit, peaking at #10 on the pop chart and #15 R&B.
“Stand by Me” and other hits
King rose to further prominence when he released another single “Stand By Me,” which he also wrote with Leiber and Stoller. The song rose to #1 on the R&B singles chart and #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Stand By Me” has become King’s signature song and another R&B classic.
Although he couldn’t duplicate the success of “Stand By Me” for the time being, King managed to cull other hits such as “Amor” (#18 pop, #11 R&B), “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” (#11 pop, #2 R&B), “I (Who Have Nothing)” (#29 pop, #10 dance, #16 R&B) as well as several minor placements on both pop and R&B singles rankings.
As his hits began to dry up, King was forced to take up the oldies circuit, mostly performing in clubs. Atlantic persuaded King back, and so he re-signed with the label. In 1975, he made an unlikely comeback via the disco single “Supernatural Thing Pt. 1,” which climbed all the way to the Top 10 pop chart at #5, and top of the R&B singles chart. After the success of “Supernatural Thing,” King was once again struggling to equal its success, although he continued to score R&B hits such as “Do It in the Name of Love” (#60 pop, #4 R&B) and “Music Trance” (#8 dance, #29 R&B).
In 1986, “Stand By Me” was re-released as a feature soundtrack for the Rob Reiner-directed film of the same name. The single once again rose to the Top 10 of the Hot 100 at #9. It also went to #10 on the US adult contemporary singles chart and #1 on the UK charts. In the wake of the single’s success King released his 14th studio album Save the Last Dance for Me (EMI-Manhattan) and a compilation album Stand By Me: The Ultimate Collection (Atlantic) in 1987. That best-of release went to #14 on the UK albums chart.
In later years, King has released a lot of material, among them Anthology (1993),Shades of Blue (1993), I Have Songs in My Pocket (1998), The Very Best of Ben E. King (1998), Eleven Best (2001), Person to Person: Live at the Blue Note (2003),Soul Masters (2005), I’ve Been Around (2006), Love Is Gonna Get You (2007), and Heart & Soul (2011).
Ben E. King passed away in Hackensack, New Jersey, on April 30, 2015 due to heart problems. He was 76 years old.
His songs “Stand By Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” and “There Goes My Baby” were included by “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.