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.