One of the most distinctive voices in 1960s R&B, Ben E. King led the second version of the venerable Drifters to chart-topping glory with "There Goes My Baby" (1959) and "Save the Last Dance for Me" (1960), before enjoying solo success with one of the most enduring ballads of all time, 1960's "Stand by Me." Possessed of a burnished baritone and exceptional phrasing, King was one of the key vocalists who helped to bridge the worlds of R&B and pop in the early 1960s, and remained a popular singer until the mid-1960s, when he was displaced by the British Invasion. King rebounded briefly in the 1970s with the funky "Supernatural Thing," but returned to the spotlight in full force with the 1986 reissue of "Stand by Me," which was featured in the 1986 Rob Reiner film hit of the same name. King continued to mine his extraordinary catalog of hits for the next two decades while collecting numerous accolades, including his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. A defining figure in R&B for over half a century, Ben E. King was one of its most beloved and enduring architects. King died at the age of 76 on April 30, 2015.
Born Benjamin Earl Nelson on Sept. 28, 1938 in Henderson, NC, his first taste of live performance came with his local church choir. When King turned nine, his family relocated to New York City, where he performed with a street corner vocal group called the Four B's. The doo-wop outfit won second place in a talent contest at the Apollo Theater, and King himself was recruited to join the Moonglows while still in high school. His youth and inexperience made that an impossibility, so King honed his craft as a singing waiter at his father's restaurant. In 1958, his honeyed voice gained him admission into a vocal group called the Five Crowns. The quintet provided support to numerous top R&B acts, including the Drifters, with whom they performed at the Apollo. King and the rest of the Five Crowns vaulted to the mainstream in 1958 when manager George Treadwell fired the members of the original Drifters after they engaged in a brawl with Apollo management.
King and the new Drifters were met with open hostility during their first tour by audiences who knew that they had replaced the original lineup. But in 1959, King helped to turn the tide for the group by co-penning "There Goes My Baby" with veteran songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, for the Atlantic label. The track, which was among the first pop/R&B tracks to feature a string section in its arrangement, topped the R&B charts. More importantly, it reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts, which generated considerable crossover appeal for both the group and 1960s-era R&B in general. For the next two years, King provided lead vocals on a string of lush, romantic hits, including "This Magic Moment," "I Count the Tears" and the sweeping "Save the Last Dance for Me."
Despite the upswing in popularity he provided for the Drifters, manager George Treadwell rebuffed King when he requested a salary increase and a more equitable share of royalties. He subsequently quit the group, and redubbed himself Ben E. King. He moved to Atlantic's Atco imprint, where he scored a solo hit with 1960's "Spanish Harlem," a ballad penned by Leiber and Phil Spector. But it was quickly eclipsed by its follow-up, the stately, moving "Stand by Me," another writing collaboration with Leiber and Stoller which topped the R&B charts and broke the Top Five on the pop charts. The tune would become King's signature tune, and also his greatest success.
From 1961 to 1965, King's polished ballads enjoyed consistent placement on the Top 100 chart, most notably a 1963 English translation of the Italian song "I (Who Have Nothing)" that broke the Top 40 and spawned a host of popular covers by the likes of Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones. But like so many American artists, King's career was hobbled in the mid-1960s by the British Invasion, and by 1969, he had left the Atco stable for Maxwell. His 1970 album of covers, Rough Edges, for the Maxwell label, failed to find an audience, and King was soon reduced to working the oldies circuit. In 1975, his former boss, Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun, saw King perform at a nightclub in Miami and invited him to rejoin the label. The result, 1975's Supernatural Thing, spawned a Top 5 hit with the title track, and generated a modest comeback that included a pair of collaborations with the Scottish funk group Average White Band of "Pick Up the Pieces" fame.
By the 1980s, King had again parted ways with Atlantic and was unearthing his early hits with a version of the Drifters. In 1986, his greatest chart hit was featured prominently in Rob Reiner's nostalgic classic feature "Stand by Me," and returned to the top of the charts when it was re-released as a single. Though his vocals had lost the gleam, he gladly reprised the hit for any and all audiences while recording new material and re-recordings of his biggest songs with the vigor of an artist half his age. In 1988, King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Drifters. He continued to record material, including a foray into jazz with 1999's Shades of Blue, which featured a big band and such esteemed players as Milt Jackson and David "Fathead" Newman.
King also launched his own charitable organization, The Stand By Me Foundation, which benefitted civic groups and young people who attempted to better themselves and their community. His best-known material continued to reap rewards well into the new millennium: "Stand by Me" was elected as one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of American in 2001, and it was named, along with "There Goes My Baby" and "Spanish Harlem," as part of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" by the curators of the Rock and Roll Museum. Beset by coronary problems, Ben E. King died on April 30, 2015, at the age of 76.