Look. I’m a shitty guitar player and I know it. I have two guitars: one acoustic and one electric. I suck at both.
You may wonder why I have two instruments that serve to remind me of my incompetence every time I pick them up. I bought an electric guitar so I could make noise. All you need to create soul-satisfying noise with even the shittiest electric guitar is a distortion pedal, a crummy little amp and a knowledge of power chords (find the root, find the fifth and rock the fuck out). I have an acoustic guitar because a.) it’s easier to use a guitar to figure out the chords to rock songs since most are written on guitar and b.) with an acoustic, I don’t have to plug into an amp to identify various chord voicings (which are clearer on an acoustic guitar anyway).
I know exactly why I suck at guitar, and no, it isn’t because I’m a girl and girls simply must have long, manicured fingernails to complete whatever fashion statement they’re trying to make. I’ve never had long fingernails because they interfere with piano playing—when my fingernails are too long, it sounds like I’ve hired a castanets player to provide accompaniment. Long fingernails also screw up my flute playing because they make me think my fingers are longer than they really are and I wind up failing to press the keys with the necessary accuracy and pressure.
No, I suck at guitar for two reasons. First, I think standard guitar tuning is stupid and confusing. Violins, cellos and mandolins are all tuned to fifths so it’s easy to figure out where you are on the neck. Guitars are tuned to fourths with one interval tuned to a major third (the G-B transition). When I’m trying to identify the notes in a simple lead solo, that major third short-circuits my brain every time. Those little dots on top of the neck don’t help at all.
The second reason probably involves a recessive gene thing: I have a terrible time with guitar picks. I have trouble holding on to a pick when I’m trying to pluck individual strings, as in an arpeggio. It’s really a drag on the acoustic guitar because I usually drop a dozen or so down the soundhole in between string changes; I’ve tried all kinds of picks and they all wind up inside the body of my guitar. Playing on a solid-body Strat negates that problem, but even when the picks aren’t tumbling to the floor I can’t play anything beyond a two-note arpeggio on a power chord to save my life. It’s frustrating because I can play beautiful arpeggios on the piano and flute, but on a guitar all those damned strings get in my way. I suck on the downstroke, I suck on the upstroke. For years I believed I was doomed to remain a chords-only strummer, banished permanently from the realm of guitar heroes.
Recently I sought help for my disability. A friend in the States sent me a guest pass to Master Class, an online video training site with loads of courses on everything from self-help to cooking to music. I immediately honed in on two guitar classes, one with Carlos Santana and the other with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame. I should have known that Carlos would take a New Age approach to the topic, so his advice on how to locate my “feel” and get in touch with my inner spirit didn’t really scratch my particular itch. Tom was infinitely more helpful in terms of providing useful techniques and I’ve been using his ideas from the module on increasing speed to improve my arpeggio picking. I can now pick the legendary intro to “Supersonic” with an accuracy rate of 50% if I play it at half-speed and don’t breathe.
That’s an improvement over my usual accuracy rate of 20% at no speed peppered with lots of “fuck!s.”
A couple of weeks after my last lesson with Tom, I took another look at my review plan for 2021. Nothing really grabbed me, so I started scrolling through my music library and found King of the Blues Guitar. My first reaction was, “Haven’t I already done this one?” but a quick check of my posts told me I’d missed it. “Yay!” I said to no one in particular. “I love that album!” I loved it even more after I began my research and learned more about Albert King’s bizarre approach to the guitar:
- Because he was left-handed, he played right-handed guitars upside-down—but rather than restringing the guitar, he left it as is, with the high E string on top.
- He used a variety of dropped open tunings to allow for more emphatic bends and to get around the limitations of standard tuning: C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#, open E-minor, F major and (when he moved to Stax) a C-B-E-F#-B-E pattern.
- Since he never used the 6th string, I don’t know why he bothered to tune it, but whatever.
- Most importantly, he rarely used a friggin’ pick! Albert King was a thumb-and-fingers kind of guy.
Lights flashing frantically in my little blonde brain, heart beating madly with hope and anticipation while desperately trying to avoid flagellating myself for not having thought of it sooner, I picked up my acoustic guitar, picks-in-the-hole rattling away, and tried to pluck “Supersonic” with my thumb. I nailed it within five minutes. Searching my memory for another arpeggio, I thought of the recently-departed Hilton Valentine and his guitar on “House of the Rising Sun,” and within fifteen minutes I had it down pat.
Albert King is my man!
Historical contradictions abound in blues biographies, and Albert King’s is no exception. The man we know as Albert King was born Albert Nelson in 1923, and could have been born in any one of three places in Mississippi: Indianola, Arcola or Aberdeen (most likely the latter). His father may have abandoned the family when Albert was five; it’s likely that Albert moved with his mother and two of his sisters to the area surrounding Forrest City, Arkansas when he was eight (I have no idea where the other ten siblings wound up). The only thing we know for sure is that Albert spent his youth on plantations picking cotton and manning a bulldozer in an area of the country where white supremacy was a cherished and strongly-protected institution (and in many ways still is).
Whether it was his father’s influence (unlikely, given his early departure) or an encounter with some itinerant picker on the plantation, Albert developed a fascination with the guitar, progressing from a self-made diddley bow to a self-made cigar box guitar to a real acoustic guitar that he purchased for $1.25. Eventually he was good enough to join a band, and spent several years traversing the Delta, picking up tips from guitarists like Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk.
Throughout the ’40s and early ’50s he was known as Albert Nelson, but once we get to 1953 things get a little weird. He changed his name to Albert King and told people he was the half-brother of the more famous B.B. King, offering B.B.’s father’s name (Albert) as “evidence.” Though he had identified (and misspelled) Aberdeen as his birthplace on his Social Security application, he now claimed he was born in Indianola, shrewdly relocating his roots from the Alabama border to the Mississippi Delta. He even named his guitar “Lucy” in line with B.B.’s christening of “Lucille.” These little white lies apparently increased his drawing power, and though B.B. was rather miffed about it at first, he let go of his irritation after meeting Albert. “He wasn’t my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in blues.”
To achieve that kind of acknowledgment from B.B. King was remarkable, given that nothing came easy for Albert King. One fundamental difficulty involved his physique: Albert King was a big, strong southpaw, somewhere between 6’4″ and 6’7″ and weighing in at about 250 pounds. With those big hands and fingers, he was unlikely to dazzle an audience with nimble, high-speed picking, so he had no choice but to break the rules and come up with other ways to create an authentic blues sound. All those alternate tunings loosened the strings to enable broader string-bending, but Albert still had to face the challenge of left-handedness in a right-handed universe. He solved that problem by teaching himself to pull the strings from on high instead of the standard bending technique of pushing from below, using his strength to bend multiple strings at the same time. As Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns would later observe, “Albert’s guitar was always out of tune with everything else, but he was such a strong man he would just bend the notes back in!”
For the next decade and a bit longer, Albert toiled in relative obscurity, playing the club circuits in the midwest and south and making a few records that were largely ignored. His career remained in hit-or-miss mode for a few more years, but during that period an Arkansas disk jockey by the name of Al Bell became quite the fan of Albert’s inimitable style. The magical threads of the universe finally came together when Bell became a promotions man at Stax Records in Memphis and sweet-talked Albert into signing with the label. It certainly didn’t hurt Albert’s prospects that his new backing musicians were Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns, imbuing his music with the signature Stax sound, strengthening his connection to R&B and adding touches of funk and soul to his music. Stax released several singles that eventually formed the bulk of the 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign, and though the album itself did not chart (R&B albums rarely charted during that period), three of the singles did—and Albert King finally started drawing serious attention within the music world at the age of forty-four. Later that year, Albert King found himself playing at Fillmore West; a year later, Cream covered “Born Under a Bad Sign” on Wheels of Fire; a year after that, Albert King was a featured soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The original version of King of the Blues Guitar was released in 1969 and consisted of eleven tracks. The version I chose to review is the 1989 reissue that contains all eleven tracks from Born Under a Bad Sign and six more Stax recordings released on 45’s, including two instrumentals that showcase Albert’s distinctive guitar stylings. The Born Under a Bad Sign tracks are marked with an asterisk because I’m an anal bitch and I like to keep things straight.
“Laundromat Blues”*: This clever little pun-filled number from Stax songwriter and session musician Sandy Jones Jr. tells the tale of a babe so horny that she can’t wait to compile a full load of laundry before heading down to the laundromat to receive a full load from the guy she keeps on the side. Exactly where these two lovebirds consummate their relationship is unclear, but I hope that the laundromat is just the rendezvous point and that she doesn’t get banged with her head in a clothes dryer while pretending to look for that missing sock. Unlike most men who pride themselves on their obliviousness, Albert is “gettin’ madder every day” and issues two warnings: “I don’t want you to get so clean, baby/You just might wash your life away” and “The laundry’s gonna trap you, darlin,'” a line that indicates that Sandy did some field research and knew his way around a lint trap.
The interplay between Albert’s voice and guitar is fascinating. First, he never plays while he’s singing, making a clear distinction between vocal lines and guitar fills, giving both more prominence. I’ll let Mike Bloomfield explain the more complex levels of interaction:
. . . And he approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he plays exactly like a singer. As a matter of fact, his guitar playing has almost more of a vocal range than his voice does—which is unusual, because if you look at B.B. or Freddie King or Buddy Guy, their singing is almost equal to their guitar playing. They sing real high falsetto notes, then drop down into the mid-register. Albert just sings in one sort of very mellifluous but monotonous register, with a crooner’s vibrato, almost like a lounge singer, but his guitar playing is just as vocal as possible . . . He makes the guitar talk.
That “crooner vibrato” melds beautifully with the smooth sound of the Memphis Horns and would serve Albert well as he expanded the range of his song selection to include R&B and soul. Those deep bends on the solo express both his outrage and a firm resolve that his baby’s got to stop this shit right now—a communication much more effective than his linguistic threats.
“Overall Junction”: This is a nice little warm-up number credited to the man himself that opens with Steve Cropper supplying the classic three-chord blues riff in the key of E as the horns provide a countering rhythmic response. Albert’s contribution alternates between a single-string solo and a multi-string bend attack that sounds so sharp and clean that you’d swear he was using a pick if you didn’t know any better. I imagine that all those years of picking cotton and guitar must have resulted in some of the thickest callouses known to medical science, which may help to explain his rare mingling of power and ease.
“Oh, Pretty Woman”*: A.C. “Moohah” Williams was a high school biology teacher who made the leap to promotions director at WDIA Memphis when they switched from country to R&B in 1949. A. C. would stay with WDIA for over thirty years, serving as a disk jockey and program director while writing a few songs on the side, including his most famous number, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” This ode to the unattainable natural beauty who “Says all your cheap paint and powder ain’t gonna help you none” is a perfect foil for Albert’s understated, shy-guy vocal style, suitable for pleading but never coarse enough to cross the line into actionable threats. His guitar solo is appropriately understated, expressing sweet anguish in the bends but refusing to extend the emotional range to a point-of-no-return. When comparing and contrasting Albert’s approach to Mick Taylor’s version on the Bluesbreakers’ Crusade album, I have to give the edge to Albert for managing those boundaries—Mick comes across too strong, just what you’d expect from a younger man with excess testosterone and insufficient life experience.
“Funk Shun”: The second King-penned instrumental is an example of false advertising, as there isn’t anything funky about this straight-up slow blues number. Though the track features Albert’s longest solo, I don’t think it’s one of his best efforts as he seems to lose touch with the sense of economy that marks his best guitar work. The one spot where he recovers that discipline is in the stop-time passage about two-thirds of the way through the song. For the most part, I focus most of my attention on Donald Dunn’s always marvelous bass and the horn section.
“Crosscut Saw”*: OUCH! While I usually appreciate the double-entendre featured in dirty blues songs, I ain’t gonna let no man with a crosscut saw anywhere near my delicate privates! And I’m sorry, but “I’m a crosscut saw, just drag me ‘cross your log,” sounds like two guys attempting penis-to-penis sex, which I didn’t know was even a thing. Here I ignore the gruesome lyrics and just enjoy Booker T. and the MG’s as they nail the Afro-Cuban rhythms and Albert’s sprightly guitar work. I’d really like a demographic breakdown of this record’s purchasers, as I’d like to prove my hypothesis that the buyers who drove “Crosscut Saw” to #34 on the R&B charts were all men who like their women dry. DOUBLE OUCH!
“Down Don’t Bother Me”*: Albert is on top of his game in yet another of his own compositions that revives the classic there-ain’t-nothin’-I-can-do-to-please-this-woman-woe-is-me tale. Singing at the top of his narrow range with feeling that approaches the bursting point, he wisely leaves the bursting to his guitar fills, which follow the lines in unusually short order. The solo is a knockout call-and-response between Albert and the horn section that matches the intensity of the verses and anticipates the gloriously strong finish. It may be the shortest song in the collection, but as I’ve always told the insecure men I’ve bedded over the years, “It doesn’t matter how long it is—what matters is what you do with what you’ve got.”
“Born Under a Bad Sign”*: Listed as a songwriting collaboration between Stax R&B singer William Bell and Booker T. Jones, we must also give credit to Lightin’ Slim, whose “Bad Luck Blues” featured the key line, “Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” as well as the astrological portents Bell referenced as a starting point for “his” creation. The song’s crossover potential involved replacing the standard 12-bar blues structure with 10 bars in an I-V-IV pattern and a sinuous minor blues scale rhythmic line that gives the song a rock/R&B tinge. I don’t know exactly why I feel this way, but this song cries “Memphis” more than any other song from the city that claims to be The Birthplace of Rock & Roll and Home of the Blues. It feels like a warm summer night on Beale Street with its moderately slow tempo, slick and sexy horns and plenty of sweet, soulful bends from Mr. King. His single-string solo is the epitome of simplicity and in an unintentional tribute to Peter Green, Albert lets out a little scream of appreciation in response to one bent note. The man is feeling it!
I’ll end any suspense right here and now and endorse the Jack Bruce-Clapton version as a more than credible cover, and while I’m into mini-appendixes, allow me to remind you that if you are lucky enough to be able to select the time, place and circumstances of your demise, there’s only one way to go:
You know, wine and women is all I crave
A big-legged woman is gonna carry me to my grave
Hopefully you will have pulled out before having your coronary.
“Personal Manager”*: The B-side to “Born Under a Bad Sign” was co-written with David Porter, one of music’s greatest, most-honored and least-known contributors. In addition to his prolific songwriting in multiple genres, Porter was the very young man who convinced a little record company in Memphis to start recording soul music and brought his buddy Booker T. into the fold as a recording artist for what would soon become Stax Records. At this point in his career, Porter was a songwriter for Stax and had just begun to work with another young songwriter named Isaac Hayes.
Albert King may have been born under a bad sign, but at this point in his career, he had arrived at the gates to musical heaven.
“Personal Manager” is a slow blues number that opens with Albert clipping off a few two-note chords before settling into his more comfortable one-note-at-a-time style. While the interplay between Albert and the horns isn’t as crisp as it was on the A-side, his solo validates the phrase in his Stax biography: “master of the single-string solo.” The lyrics are pretty much the old “Let me careth for thee, O sweet and fragile creature,” and though I’m intrigued to learn more about what he means by the offer “to be your milkman every morning/Your ice cream man when the days are through,” he loses me with a deal-sweetener that simply won’t cut it with a girl who has now experienced three lockdowns (with a fourth on the way):
I’ll take care of all of your business
So you can stay at home
No! No! Anything but that! Go ahead—whip out that crosscut saw but please let me out of the house!
“Kansas City”*: What the hell, everyone else has recorded this song, so why not Albert King? His voice is perfectly suited to the toned-down Wilbert Harrison approach and he’s got a first-rate rhythm band behind him, so why not? One could argue that Albert gives the horns too much room during his solo, but shit, they’re Stax horns and they sound good anywhere and everywhere. Donald Dunn is coming through nice and clear on my right . . . so yeah, I’m good with it.
“The Very Thought of You“*: What the hell? Well, this is certainly out of the . . . blue(s)! This song was first recorded in 1934 by the Ray Noble Orchestra featuring Al Bowlly on vocals, and proved to be something of a precursor to the British Invasion in that it was one of the few British recordings to become a #1 hit in the USA before all those scruffy guys showed up thirty years later. Ricky Nelson came out with a “rock ‘n’ roll” version (probably due to a suggestion from his cornball father), giving new meaning to the word “dreadful.” Little Willie John made some noise with a doo-wop version that’s probably the best of the lot, but this isn’t much of a lot.
Albert was apparently so obsessed with this song that he re-recorded it in 1978 on an album called (ironically) New Orleans Heat. Even the most powerful microwave oven in the universe couldn’t heat this sucker, so I’m not exactly why Albert found the song so appealing . . . though there may be something in Mike Bloomfield’s specific use of the world “crooner” in describing Albert’s vocal style. I will give Albert credit for a sincere and heartfelt performance—but any thoughts he had about becoming the next Billy Eckstine were seriously misplaced.
“The Hunter”*: Y’all know I have an absolute hatred of real guns, but I’m 100% cool with love guns. Etymologically speaking, I wonder which came first—“shoot” as in “shoot your wad” or “shoot” as in “shoot a gun?” Why do we “shoot” photos and golf and drugs and dice? And why is “shoot!” a polite substitute for “shit!?”
Stand by for my new website: altetymologychick.com.
Albert King never quite attained the levels of testosterone expressed in the work of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson, but he’s definitely “up” for this one. After a somewhat tentative opening featuring Albert plucking a single string over a duet of Booker T. on percussive piano and Steve Cropper on guitar (nice neck slides there), a snare hit cues those marvelous horns so we can get down to the serious business of displaying male bravado. Albert seems to particularly savor the descending notes that end the key line, “I’ve got you in the sights of my love gun,” pausing just a bit before he sings the words “love gun.” He delivers those two words as if he’s looking his babe straight in the eye with his big one forming a noticeable bulge in his trousers, and damn, is he proud of his reliable member or what? He abandons all pretense of gentlemanly behavior when he almost-but-not-quite growls the line, “And when I pull the trigger, there will be no misses.” That’s my man! Leave it all in my playing field and don’t spill a drop on my sheets! He cools off a bit during his guitar solo but finishes strong with even more bravado. “I’m the big bad hunter baby,” he cries. “You ARE the MAN!” I reply, cleverly manipulating the male ego to inspire a second go-round. “How can I miss when I’ve got dead aim?” “You can’t, baby—now aim that thing right at my sweet spot.” The music fades, leaving the rest of my fantasy to your wicked imaginations.
“I Almost Lost My Mind”*: This Ivory Joe Hunter number is a perfect vehicle for Albert’s voice, with a melody comfortably within his vocal range and a narrative that demands a singer who knows what it’s like to feel the pain of loss. Everybody who’s anybody has covered this song—Nat King Cole, Eddy Arnold, Eddie Cochran, Bing Crosby, Fats Domino, Jerry Butler, Willie Nelson—and it speaks volumes about American culture that the most popular version came from Pat Boone, the paragon of white bread entertainment who absconded with many a song of black origins and made them palatable to the sexless masses. Of the versions I’ve listened to, the one that most resembles Albert’s is Solomon Burke’s, but Solomon doesn’t come close to matching Albert’s ability to express difficult emotions. I love the arrangement, especially the surprising inclusion of Joe Arnold’s flute, reinforcing the fleeting nature of romantic love.
“As the Years Go Passing By”*: Another perfect fit for Albert’s vocal talents, this Peppermint Harris minor blues was first recorded by Chicago blues guitarist Fenton Robinson back in 1959. The original featured a rather energetic piano counterpoint, replaced here by a more subtle but still remarkably nimble performance by Booker T, who gets a chance to show off both his R&B and classical training in support of Albert’s suitably lonesome vocal. Albert does some of his finest guitar work on this song, especially in the beautifully fluid solo, which contrasts nicely with the texture of the punctuating horns. My only complaint here involves track placement—surely the compilers could have separated the two of the saddest and best songs in the collection to reinforce the diversity of the album.
“Cold Feet”: Hmm. This sounds more like an advertisement for Stax artists than a real song, but it made the R&B Top 20 in ’68 as an A-side single, so what the hell do I know? If Peter, Paul & Mary could name-drop the Mamas and the Papas, Donovan and The Beatles and make the charts, I’m certainly not going to begrudge Albert King a little low-effort success.
“You Sure Drive a Hard Bargain”: The B-side of “Cold Feet” is a much stronger effort and clearly the better song. Written by Stax songwriter Bettey Crutcher and producer Allen Jones, the thrills in this song are found in the obvious confidence and heightened spirit of the post-Born Under a Bad Sign Albert King. His guitar playing is crisp, his voice strong and the interaction with the band is both tight and seemingly effortless.
“I Love Lucy”: This is a one-time-only joke with a weak punchline that only works if you don’t know that Lucy is Albert’s guitar.
On second thought, it doesn’t work either way.
“You’re Gonna Need Me”: Once again, the B-side trounces the A-side, making us forget all about Lucy. This King composition is a straightforward blues with some interesting chord variations and a far more intricate horn arrangement than you hear in any of the songs on Born Under a Bad Sign. Albert’s solo is loaded with bite and bend, and though you don’t notice it at first, the connection between the fills and his solo phrases feels more fluid—the man is now in full command of his faculties.
While I was working on this piece I remembered that this is Black History Month in the United States. I had to remember it because the French have yet to recognize that particular observance due to their belief in the doctrine of universalism, or “color-blindness.” The French would rather avoid the topic of race entirely and pretend that everything’s hunky-dory. It’s difficult to square that head-up-the-ass attitude with reality or with the historically documented Parisian embrace of African-American musicians, writers and artists, but the French are often a mystery to everyone except themselves.
So let’s place Albert King in the proper historical context, and we do that by admitting that our awareness of Albert King qualifies as pretty damned close to miraculous. Any black person born in the United States goes to bat with an 0-2 count while a hostile crowd screams for the strikeout. Though certain legal protections have been introduced in an attempt to mitigate those profound disadvantages, dealing with racism remains a daily reality for African-Americans to this day. Albert was also born dirt-poor, bereft of high-powered connections and had little in the way of formal education—traditional or musical. Though his demeanor was anything but threatening, nothing can trigger white fragility as effectively as a big, strapping black dude, so he was unlikely to find much in the way of assistance from the white power structure. Despite those enormous obstacles, once he fixated on the impossible dream of escaping the plantation via a musical career, he refused to let anything get in his way.
The essence of Albert King lies in a rare combination of self-assurance, ingenuity and an almost unfathomable optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. If you’re going to celebrate anyone during Black History Month, Albert King deserves your serious consideration.
Ben E. King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, North Carolina, on September 28, 1938, to two very smart parents.
Little Ben didn’t spend much of his life in his home state; his family was part of the Great Migration of the postwar period, abandoning the world of Jim Crow for Harlem when Ben was only nine. The move was serendipitous indeed—in addition to providing plenty of opportunities for a young singer to develop his chops in the choirs of neighborhood churches, Harlem was becoming the epicenter of the burgeoning doo-wop movement. From Wikipedia: “Blacks were forced by legal and social segregation, as well as by the constraints of the built physical environment, to live in certain parts of New York City of the early 1950s. They identified with their own wards, street blocks and streets. Being effectively locked out of mainstream white society increased their social cohesion and encouraged creativity within the context of African American culture. Young singers formed groups and rehearsed their songs in public spaces: on street corners, apartment stoops, and subway platforms, in bowling alleys, school bathrooms, and pool halls, as well as at playgrounds and under bridges.” The Apollo Theater sponsored regular talent contests for budding doo-wop artists—contests monitored by record company A&R men and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts—giving doo-wop groups an exceptional opportunity to attract industry attention.
During his high school years, Ben appeared at the Apollo with his group The Four B’s, and though those performances did not result in a recording contract or an appearance on the Godfrey show, Ben became a more familiar name in the music community. The real break came when a more established group called The Five Crowns had an opening and brought him into the fold. As luck would have it, the group known as The Drifters were in an extended free-fall that began years before with Clyde McPhatter’s departure. The unstable bunch that followed couldn’t hold it together, and after one of the itinerant members picked a fight with the emcee at the Apollo, manager George Treadwell fired the lot—and The Five Crowns found themselves transformed into The Drifters, with Ben E King moving into the role of lead singer. Later he would receive a promotion of sorts when the group became Ben E. King and the Drifters, but this particular employee retention plan failed to impress Ben, who had asked for a raise and a piece of the royalties. He left in early 1960 to launch his own solo career.
Once again, his timing couldn’t have been better. The deaths of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran had pretty much taken the steam out of guitar-based rock; except for a few hits by Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and Ricky Nelson, the guitar would fade into the background until surf music scene began to . . . make waves. Solo male vocalists (along with girl groups) would dominate the scene for the next few years, and most of those guys followed the lead of the softer, post-Army Elvis by focusing on ballads, extremely light rock and dance-oriented tunes. Although the quality of those male vocalists was highly variable (I wouldn’t even classify whatever Fabian did as “singing’), this period produced some of the greatest male vocalists of all-time—Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, Dion and Ben E. King.
It’s important to note that Dion and Ben developed their superb vocal abilities through doo-wop. It is a vocal style that demands exceptional melodic and harmonic precision as well as a highly developed sense of rhythm. The best doo-wop lead singers knew they had to clearly distinguish themselves from the group while remaining in perfect sync with their supporting cast. When you’re part of a cohesive musical group, you realize that it’s not all about you, even when you step up to the mic for your solo. Ben E. King certainly brought that sensibility with him when he launched his solo career, his distinctive voice mingling beautifully with his supporting instrumentalists and vocalists.
This compilation includes three Drifters songs and two Ben E. King and the Drifters songs, with the balance devoted to Ben’s solo career spanning the years 1960-1963 and 1974-1975. Thankfully, the ’60s recordings are presented in the original mono versions. As I reviewed the history and background of each song, I was struck by the sheer number of covers of Ben’s work and the diversity of the covering artists—everyone from Donna Summer to Lou Reed to Dolly Parton to Siouxsie and the Banshees. While you have to give credit to the A-Team songwriters Ben worked with (Lieber, Stoller, Spector, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman and others), it was Ben E. King’s voice that brought the best out of those songs.
The sad aspect of Ben’s career is he fell out of favor with the general audience only a couple of years into his solo career. Though most blame the British Invasion for his decline in the charts, the facts do not support that hypothesis: his last early-career hit to break the Top 20 came out in April 1962, almost two years prior to February 9, 1964 (I don’t have to remind my readers of the significance of that date). None of the other singers I mentioned were wiped out by the Invasion per se: Ray Charles and Roy Orbison continued spinning out hits; Dion developed a fascination with the blues and chose to abandon pop music; Sam Cooke fell victim to gun violence (but still managed to crack the Top 10 posthumously).
No, Ben E. King’s career took a dive because for several years he was given lousy material to work with.
“There Goes My Baby”: Depending on your source, this is either one of the worst-recorded songs of all-time or an innovative breakthrough in monaural recording. According to Songfacts, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler blew his top when he first heard it: “I’d never release shit like this. It’s dog meat!” When Jerry Lieber first heard the results of his co-writing effort on his push-button-operated car radio, he thought he was picking up two stations at the same time. His buddy Mike Stoller described the recording process as follows: “We slapped on soaring strings, and exotic baion beat, kettledrums, timpani and every other god-damn sound we could think of.” In an interview on his 70’s album The Beginning of It All, Ben noted that he and his mates entered the studio cold, had not properly rehearsed the song and lacked any studio recording experience. Because Ben co-wrote the song, Lieber and Stoller made a snap decision to reward Ben with the job of lead vocalist.
The finished product is somewhat disorienting the first time through. The Northern Brazilian beat Stoller referred to is very faint, as if it was recorded for the sole purpose of giving the singers a reference point. Ben is located on the left of the sound field (yes, you can employ panning in monaural recording), but oddly enough, he defies acoustic science by coming through loud and clear. The Drifters enter in their doo-wop supporting role close to center stage, and despite Ben’s best efforts, science reasserts itself, and The Drifters come close to overpowering Ben. As this was one of the first recordings to use strings to emphasize the emotional content of R&B (a hit-or-miss proposition indeed), the technique was still in its experimental stage. The first string segment swoop emphasizes the violins and abruptly comes out of nowhere, forming a kind of cleavage between Ben and The Drifters; when the strings return for a second go-round, rough-bowed cellos dominate, drifting to the bottom of the sound field like something out of Mussorgsky. And though there are technically verses and a chorus, the song feels more like blank verse due to the lack of rhyme.
After a few more whirls, though, it all begins to make sense. Ben’s relative isolation serves to enhance the utter loneliness of a man who just lost his baby, while The Drifters serve as the empathetic, “Yeah, man, we’ve all been there” supporting chorus. What is very clear from this first recording is that Ben E. King possessed a distinctive, memorable, gospel-influenced voice capable of carrying significant emotional punch. I’ll bet Jerry Wexler became quite enamored with “There Goes My Baby” when it shot to #2 on the Billboard charts (and #1 on the R&B side).
“Dance with Me”: For many teens in the pre-Pill era, dancing was the most practical way to ignite a little tingle in the nether regions. For the guys, dance also represented an opportunity for some chest-to-chest action and a chance to cop a feel when the chaperones weren’t looking. Dance was also a way to demonstrate one’s flexibility and/or grace, and those who couldn’t dance were often considered social outcasts.
A record’s danceability also had a lot to do with its commercial success. The Rate-A-Record segment on American Bandstand was wildly popular, and when the teenage judges honored a song with the legendary phrase “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it,” you could bet your bottom dollar that DJ’s around the country got the message.
“Dance with Me” turned out to be a respectable follow-up to “There Goes My Baby,” entering the Top 20. The recording is much clearer and cleaner, the latinate beats more pronounced and the lyrics actually rhyme (sometimes awkwardly). Ben sounds a bit more comfortable in the studio and the vocal arrangement is more balanced. Still, I can’t see this song passing muster with the American Bandstand crowd, as its mid-tempo pace falls somewhere between grab-and-grind and swing-your-partner. Using the AB scale of 35 to 98, I’d have to give it a 65.
“This Magic Moment”: The title turned out to be predictive, as this was clearly Ben’s first magic moment as lead vocalist. The mix is a vast improvement, placing Ben’s voice front and center while The Drifters do what they should be doing and doing it where they should be doing it—in the background. I would have dispensed with the flurry of strings that opens the song and reappears in a few awkward places; instead of conveying “magic,” the rising and falling notes are reminiscent of a police siren on the fritz. The song has no proper chorus; the hook is found in the repetition of the song title at the start of three of the verses. The best part of the song comes in the form of a bridge, featuring a brief moment of stop-time a capella where Ben tempers the passion he applied to the verses and delivers the line “Sweeter than wine” with appreciative tenderness for the magic in a kiss. Better still, the strings vanish completely for a moment, replaced by a lovely Spanish-style guitar played by big band jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (who himself sired another accomplished guitarist and an equally competent jazz bassist). Somewhat disappointingly, the strings return for the instrumental break, but Ben soon returns to delight the listener with his strong, confident vocal.
“Save the Last Dance for Me”: I’d heard this song a hundred times but could never quite get my head around it. Every other love song of this period and beyond clearly defined love as an act of possession—“You’re mine, baby!” I figured that the narrator was perhaps a superior, enlightened human being, an extraordinarily confident son-of-a-bitch or a complete fool for letting another guy move in on his girl:
You can dance
Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight
You can smile
Every smile for the man who held your hand ‘neath the pale moonlight
But don’t forget who’s taking you home
And in whose arms you’re gonna be
Save the last dance for me
Then I read the backstory. From Songfacts:
The songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote this song. In Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus, Alex Halberstadt explains that one night, Pomus found a wedding invitation in a hatbox, and back came his most vivid memory from his wedding: watching his brother Raoul dance with his new wife while Doc, who had polio, sat in his wheelchair. Inspired, he stayed up all night writing the words to this song on the back of the invitation. Shuman had played him a soaring Latin melody that afternoon, and he wanted the words to sound like a poem translated into English – something along the lines of Pablo Neruda. By the second verse, a hint of jealousy and vulnerability creeps in with the lyrics, “If he asks if you’re all alone, can he take you home, you must tell him no.” Pomus ended his night of songwriting by writing down the words that would become the title: “Save The Last Dance For Me.”
The song becomes even more poignant when you consider that Doc’s wife was an actress and . . . dancer.
Obviously, the song presents a challenge for the singer in terms of expressing complex emotional content, but Ben somehow manages to find the sweet spots between confidence and insecurity, passion and regret, joy in seeing his woman express herself through dance and a certain unease in regards to his competitors. His rendering of the lilting lines of the chorus (“But don’t forget who’s taking you home/And in whose arms you’re gonna be”) express both the fragility of a reminder and a quiet faith that all will turn out well in the end. His marvelous delivery of the “Hmmm” sounds like a man savoring images of intimacy once the night is over and the two are alone in the boudoir. Though other songs in the collection highlight Ben’s wide vocal range, “Save the Last Dance for Me” demonstrates his gift for phrasing that remains true to melody, rhythm and narrative.
The story behind the release of the song foreshadows Ben’s eventual decline. Ahmed Ertegün and Jerry Wexler considered “Save the Last Dance for Me” no better than a B-side, designating another Pomus-Shuman ditty, “Nobody But Me,” as the future hit single. The complete absence of “Nobody But Me” from this “very best” collection was not an oversight; the song has all the structural integrity of a Tinkertoy creation when you don’t shove the sticks in the holes all the way—weak melody, dumb chorus, mechanical call-and-response and an incredibly long instrumental break featuring (once again) a string section all a-flurry (amazingly, Ben sounds ab fab). Dick Clark wisely flipped the disc on American Bandstand, preserving the public reputations of Messrs. Ertegun and Wexler. This historical aside tells me that the suits at Atlantic/Atco didn’t have a clear grasp of Ben’s strengths and what sort of material would highlight those strengths. I would have collared Ahmed and Jerry and told them, “Look, guys. Just because Ben can sing anything doesn’t mean he should.”
“I Count the Tears”: This was Ben’s last hit with The Drifters, released (like “Save the Last Dance for Me”) after Ben had left the group. It’s not one of the best songs Pomus and Shuman ever wrote—it sounds like they gave it to Ben before they finished the lyrics:
And at na,na,na,na,na,na, late at night
Na,na,na,na,na,na late at night
I’ll sit and count the tears
It’s like McCartney saying, “Fuck it, let’s go with what we got” and recording those stirring lines, “Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs/Not as much as I love scrambled eggs.”
“Spanish Harlem”: Sigh. Another B-side that had to be flipped to give Ben his first solo hit. Written by Leiber and Spector with Stoller getting credit for the distinctive arrangement, Ben handles the extended, note-packed, rhythmically challenging verse lines with aplomb, hardly skipping a beat when he drops to the lower register to deliver the clinching line:
There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
With eyes as black as coal
That looks down in my soul
And starts a fire there and then I lose control
I have to beg your pardon
In the plethora of songs about romance with girls on the “wrong side of the tracks,” I’ll take “Spanish Harlem” over “Dawn,” “Down in the Boondocks,” “Hang On, Sloopy” or even “Poor Side of Town” any day of the week, largely because the narrator’s desire for this Latina is free from any hints of guilt or regret.
“Stand By Me”: While there are conflicting stories about the song’s origins and even more conflicting stories about the collaborative songwriting process, the one consistent thread involves Ben E. King’s transformation of a gospel song into a secular song that celebrates one of the most enduring themes in popular music: the concept that a relationship can serve as a refuge from a hostile, unfeeling society.
It was Ben’s idea to “update” a 1905 gospel hymn by one Charles Albert Tindley called “Stand By Me” that had recently undergone renovation courtesy of Sam Cooke and J. W. Alexander on behalf of the Soul Stirrers. Both gospel numbers call on the higher power to provide support in times of trouble: “When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.” Ben had the concept, the melody and some of the lyrics when he turned to Leiber and Stoller to help him put it all together. Leiber and Ben finished the lyrics while Stoller came up with the distinctive bass line that would open the song and serve as the song’s foundation. That bass line is built on the “50’s progression” of I–vi–IV–V, in this case A major, F# minor, D major and E major. Even the least nimble bass player in the world can play the four-note patterns without breaking a sweat—-further validation of my Count Basie Theory that simplicity is often more powerful than complexity.
The lyrics fascinate us with their mingling of the cosmic and cataclysmic with intimate-scale human commitment, but there is no doubt in Ben’s heart as to which is more powerful:
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid
Oh, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by meSo darling, darling
Stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand, stand by me
Stand by meIf the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountain 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
Ben delivers each line with distinct clarity and a deep sense of the awesome strength of the commitment inherent in unconditional love for another human being. Though in the first two verses he pleads for the support he needs, he offers the same in return as the song fades out, shifting the perspective from the cosmic to the daily world of toil and trouble: “Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me.” Ben spends most of the song in the upper part of his vocal range, the additional strain adding an irresistibly attractive grit to his voice, as it did for Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. The truly timeless appeal of “Stand by Me” has withstood the generational change test, as evidenced by the song’s reappearance in the Top 10 in 1986 following the release of the film carrying the same title.
“On the Horizon”: This is the B-side of “Stand by Me,” conclusive proof that Leiber and Stoller knew when to waste a song like Koufax knew when to waste a pitch. For some reason, this corny tune about a ship with golden sails calls up images in my brain of a shirtless, sweaty Victor Mature continuing to perfect his piss-poor approach to acting in horribly vivid Technicolor.
“Amor”: Premise: “We need a good strong follow-up to ‘Stand By Me’ and Ben sounded pretty good on those Latin numbers.” Conclusion: “Let’s give him that old Crosby number to work with. Latin’s all the rage now and so is Ben E. King. A marriage made in heaven!” Footnote: “Hey, I got an idea! We’ll have him do ‘Souvenir from Mexico’ for the B-side! It’ll be the first ‘concept single!’ You know how the guys got all hot and horny for Latin chicks with ‘Spanish Harlem.’ We’ll make a bundle on this one!”
The suits were technically right; “Amor” did make it to the Top 20, qualifying as a respectable follow-up. His voice having matured, Ben sings in a lower register reminiscent of Brook Benton that is intensely pleasing. The problem with the song is that it sounds like Ben’s turning into a square. If I were a gum-snapping teenager of the early ’60s, I’d say “‘Amor’ is something my parents would like. Yecch!” The cheesy B-side only strengthens that impression.
“Young Boy Blues”: This weird Pomus-Spector number makes the idea of shooting the piano player very appealing. I have no idea who is on piano or what the fuck that idiot is doing, but featuring a performance that has no rhythmic or melodic connection to any of the other parts of the song isn’t exactly a formula for pop chart success. The public wholeheartedly agreed, and this B-side peaked at #66.
“Here Comes the Night”: The A-side fared even worse (#81), and no wonder. It seems to be another attempt to capitalize on Ben’s Latin credentials, but runs into a couple of problems . . . booming timpani and triangle on the right channel . . . military snare rolls on the left . . . Ben slightly off-center in a desperate search for the melody . . . what a mess. Oh, wait . . . a distant memory appears on the horizon . . . it’s a music critic . . . the music critic has something to tell us . . . here it is . . . “Ben E. King’s career took a dive because for several years he was given lousy material to work with.”
Whoever said that was a fucking genius.
“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”: This was co-written by Betty Nelson, who would remain married to Ben for half a century. Unfortunately, her co-writer was an industry pro who happened to be the head of Atlantic Records: Ahmed Ertegün. Perhaps noticing that Betty had employed the ’50s progression in her song, Ertegün grabbed the opportunity to imbue the song with figures that would remind listeners of “Stand By Me,” most notably in the song’s introduction, a mimeographed copy of that famous lead-in. Producing follow-ups that bear a striking resemblance to the original mega-hit isn’t all that unusual in pop music history; “Standing in the Shadows of Love” replicated the arrangement of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and cracked the Top 10. “Don’t Play That Song” just missed the Top 10, and I think the miss was caused by two production flaws: one, the appearance of an annoying female chorus whose timbre clashes mightily with Ben’s; and Ben’s loss of emotional discipline, probably occasioned by an overwhelming desire to do right by his wife. As things played out, this was the last time Ben would come close to the top of the charts for quite a while.
“How Can I Forget”: I’m really pissed off that the song doesn’t answer the question in the song title because there’s nothing I would love more than to forget this awful song where once again Ben throws discipline to the wind.
“I (Who Have Nothing)”: In comparison to the two previous songs, Ben actually does a good job of reining it in—not an easy feat for a song so melodramatic that Tom Jones jumped at the chance to record it. It’s the classic “he buys you diamonds and takes you to fancy restaurants and that’s why I lost you even though I love you so much I could die” crap—crap because it’s the worst possible argument a guy could make if he really wants to convince the girl to come back. Who wants to hang with such a whiny loser?
Now, if a guy said something to me like . . . “Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied. Tell me that you want the kind of things that money just can’t buy. I don’t care too much for money—money can’t buy me love . . . ” then I’d thank him for metaphorically slapping sense into my little blonde brain, hop into his arms and wrap my legs around his torso and hope that something good pops up in a sec.
This brings us to June 1963, still months away from regular sightings of ships bearing the Union Jack in American waters. Ben spent the next eleven-and-a-half years in the mid-to-lower reaches of R&B charts and barely made any dents in the Billboard Top 100. For a while, his material oscillated in a nowheresville between pop, easy listening and soul, but his pop wasn’t particularly catchy and his soul frequently lacked the strong bottom of the material released by Motown, Stax and even Atlantic (“What Is Soul?” is an obvious exception). In 1970 he moved from Atco to another Atlantic subsidiary (Maxwell) and released the first of two albums produced by Bob Crewe of “Music to Watch Girls Go By” fame. Rough Edges is a curious work with a laid-back feel notable for its extended play mashups combining popular songs on single tracks (for example, “In the Midnight Hour” with “Lay Lady Lay”). Eighteen months later, Ben switched to yet another Atlantic label (Mandala) for the album The Beginning of It All where he covered Elton John, Dave Mason and Van Morrison and added a few compositions of his own. I have to say I like Ben’s version of “Take Me to the Pilot” a lot more than the original, largely because Ben didn’t have to go through all kinds of vocal pretzelizations to sound like a black guy.
Yay! I made up another word! Somebody call the O. E. D!
The Beginning of It All ends with a 40-minute retrospective on Ben’s career including an interview with Richard Robinson. Though he didn’t say it, I got the feeling that he felt boxed in by the powerful nostalgia attached to his early hits and somewhat slighted that despite his best efforts, people had generally ignored the music he had released in the previous ten years. Ben then took a three-year break from recording. I couldn’t find out how he spent his time during those years, but when he returned, he’d figured out how to break out of the amber of nostalgia.
All he had to do was avoid sounding like Ben E. King.
“Supernatural Thing, Pt. 1:” This catchy little dance number combining smooth soul, disco and funk features a smoother version of Ben E. King singing in a much higher register than his typical baritone. Looking at the list of musicians who contributed to the album Supernatural, it appears that Ben was supported by a much stronger cast of session musicians, including Carlos Alomar from Bowie’s troupe and Bob Babbitt of the Funk Brothers. He was also working with a new songwriting team; this two-part tune in the tradition of “What I’d Say” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was penned by Hamas Frye aka Patrick Grant and Gwen Guthrie, who wrote hits for Sister Sledge, Roberta Flack and Martha Reeves as well as half the songs on Supernatural. While this song and the entire album benefitted from superior musicianship and production quality, there is no doubt that Ben E. King had really rediscovered his groove (and then some). “Supernatural Thing” moved up the charts slowly but steadily, eventually peaking at #5. Ben was back!
“Do It In the Name of Love”: The second single released from Supernatural didn’t fare as well as “Supernatural Thing,” its potential possibly limited by the song’s religious overtones (“Try with all your might/Get your strength from/The Lord up above.”) Given his early training in gospel, I’m actually kind of surprised that Ben’s catalog doesn’t contain all that many non-secular efforts . . . but I’ll stop right there before I get myself in trouble.
Ben E. King passed away on April 30, 2015, at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey at the age of 76, survived by his mother, his wife of 53 years, three children and six grandchildren. In a moving tribute to Ben, Gary U. S. Bonds described him as “one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than 50 years.” That description rings true; in the interview on The Beginning of It All, he comes across as soft-spoken and gracious, eager to express appreciation for the people he worked with and deeply thankful for the rare opportunity to share his music with fans all around the world. In a time when we have been inundated with stories of disgusting, selfish, greedy, paranoid and thoroughly corrupt human beings, the music of Ben E. King is there to remind us that nice guys can succeed in this heartless world of ours and leave legacies certain to outlive the cacophony of human ugliness.