Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Ben E. King: King Ben E

Ben E. King
Ben E. King Ben E. King Ben E. King

Currently celebrating an incredible 55 years in the music industry, one of soul music’s most enduring and accomplished male vocalists - Ben E. King - returns to the UK this summer to join UK soul veteran Jimmy James for a national Superstars Of Soul tour which runs from August 23 to September 21 inclusive.

Born Benjamin Earl Nelson on September 28, 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina, at age nine Ben would move to Harlem, New York. Where, in 1958, he would begin his singing career by joining a local doo-wop group called The Five Crowns. Who later the same year, after performing at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre, would out-of-the blue be approached by then-big-time manager George Treadwell to become the new line-up for his already-successful soul vocal group The Drifters, following Treadwell’s infamous firing of the entire existing Drifters line-up allegedly for turning up to the venue drunk!

Indeed, with The Five Crowns now having being taken under Treadwell’s wing as the new Drifters, throughout 1959 and 1960 Ben (at the time still using his birth-name) would go on to sing lead on several of the iconic group’s best-known classic pop and R&B hits - ranging from the chart-topping “There Goes My Baby” (which he co-wrote) and globally-successful “Save The Last Dance For Me” to such other international hit singles as “Dance With Me”, “This Magic Moment” and “I Count The Tears”.

Nevertheless, following a contract dispute May 1960 would unexpectedly see Ben leaving The Drifters and assuming the new, more memorable stage-name of Ben E. King for an immediately-successful solo career on Atlantic Records’ Atco imprint. Where, working with chart-topping writer/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, he would enjoy a string of hits with such enduring classic ballads as “Spanish Harlem” (1961), “Stand By Me” (1961) and “Don’t Play That Song” (1962). All of which have since been hailed as groundbreaking for their time due to their then-innovative combination of Ben’s gospel-raised R&B vocals with haunting pop melodies and near-classical orchestration.

However, while Ben would continue to chart on the middle and lower-end of the US R&B and Pop charts for the remainder of the decade, the Top 10 success of his early-Sixties hits with Leiber & Stoller would prove short-lived. A situation which would ultimately find him leaving Atco in 1969 and in the early-Seventies recording for the lesser-known Maxwell and Mandala labels. Nevertheless, it was interestingly his return to Atlantic Records which would in turn prompt his return to the top of the US charts - with the disco-funk of the 1975 Number One single “Supernatural Thing” proving one of the biggest records of his career. Unforeseen success which in turn not only led to a successful solo album (1975’s “Supernatural”) but also to King hooking-up with Scottish funkers Average White Band for the 1977 album “Benny And Us”. Which, in addition to becoming his highest-charting album ever Stateside, also led to him pairing-up with AWB for a major American and European tour which found him playing arenas for the first time while also prestigiously taking in a memorable performance at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival.

Meanwhile, come 1986 and yet more unexpected success would come Ben’s way with his aforementioned 1961 US chart-topper “Stand By Me” - following its use as the theme-song to the River Phoenix-starring blockbuster movie of the same name - re-entering the US Top Top Ten after a 25-year-absence while also becoming a major global hit, impressively hitting Number One in the UK along the way. Since which time King has continued to release albums for numerous labels (EMI, Ichiban, True Life, etc), his latest being 2010’s jazz-flavoured “Heart & Soul” for Canada’s CanAm Records.

… Which brings us back to today and Ben’s upcoming UK tour. As an affable and relaxed Mr. King hooks up with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis from his New York home to reflect back on his five-decade-plus career. Which has prestigiously seen no less than four of his best-known recordings (“There Goes My Baby”; “Save The Last Dance For Me”; “Spanish Harlem”; “Stand By Me”) all being given a Grammy Hall Of Fame Award - with “Stand By Me” even being voted one of the Songs Of The Century by the Recording Industry Association Of America!

PETE: I understand your first foray into the music business came in 1958 when you joined a local Harlem doo-wop group called The Five Crowns, which eventually ended up becoming The Drifters…

BEN: “Yeah, The Five Crowns pretty much came about by accident. What happened was, a guy that lived across the street from my dad’s restaurant used to come in all the time trying to find a singer to join his group called The Crowns. You know, because he thought a lotta my young guy-friends would come in, he’d be like ‘Have you found anybody yet who’d like to sing in the group?’ - to which I’d always say ‘No, none of my friends SING’. So anyway, he kept coming in week after week - until finally one afternoon I got up enough nerve to say ‘Well actually, I sing a bit’, which I DID!… So one day, when I wasn’t busy and there were no customers in the restaurant, he brought the group over, we harmonised together - and he basically went away saying ‘You sound GOOD - would you think about JOINING?’... So once my father got home I told him the whole scenario, and he was like ‘OK, as long as it doesn’t interfere with what you’re doing to help me in the restaurant, you can go and have fun with whatever you wanna DO!”’… So I told Mr. Patterson my dad said it was cool for me to join the group, and I DID so - which marked the beginning of the Five CROWNS! You know, from there we went on to make a record - I think “Kiss And Make Up” was the title - and then eventually ended up as the opening act at The Apollo THEATRE! And it was actually at the end of that week when we were booked at The Apollo that we were approached by a guy name of George Treadwell who decided to ask us to be his new set of DRIFTERS!”

PETE: So what was the story behind you leaving The Drifters in May 1960?

BEN: “Well, what happened there was we had a record out, we were on the road as the new set of Drifters... And then one of the members of the group by accident saw an original contract showing an amount which was much, much more than the manager was TELLING us we were all making! So of course we were like ‘Look how much we’re doing these shows for and look at what he’s giving us - it’s UNFAIR! Let’s talk to him after the tour and tell him we’d like an increase in SALARY!’… So after the tour we went to his office, he was like ‘I understand you guys want to discuss something - what is it ABOUT?’… So they looked at me and said ‘Ben will speak’ - which completely took me my surprise! But anyway, I stood up and said ‘We thought that, based on the amounts we’ve seen on the contract, we’re due a SALARY increase’... So he was like ‘OK’, looked at me eye-to-eye and said ‘If you’re not happy you can LEAVE’... So I said ‘OK’ and, without turning around to look at the members in the group, went directly to the door, opened it, went outside, and stood there assuming they were gonna come out WITH me... However, I was DEAD WRONG! Because, after being out there a while I realised NOBODY was coming out of this office! So I figured ‘Well. I’m not going back in there - this man is not a good person’... But then, as I went to the elevator, I heard the door open and - though I was thinking ‘Oh, here they come’ - the only person that came out was Mr. PATTERSON, who’d originally managed us as The Five Crowns and was now our ROAD manger. And he basically just threw his arms around me and said ‘I’m going with YOU! Don’t worry - we’ll make it!.... And he stayed with me until I DID!”

PETE: You then of course went on to major solo success in the early-Sixties recording with writer/producers Leiber & Stoller such enduring classic songs as “Spanish Harlem”, “Stand By Me” and “Don’t Play That Song”…

BEN: “Well, if it wasn’t for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller my career would not BE a career! Because what happened was, when we finished doing “Spanish Harlem” - which was my last commitment to fulfilling my obligations as a Drifters recording artist - I think it was Jerry Leiber who came up to me and said ‘What are you up to next?’… And when I said ‘I don’t know’, the two of them went to Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler and said ‘Ben just finished this track and it sounds great. If you don’t mind, why don’t you let this be his first solo recording?’... And that was what actually started my solo CAREER! Because from that I moved over from Atlantic Records to (Atlantic imprint) Atco Records; Jerry and Mike still stayed as my producers - and we just had fun making those hit RECORDS! You know, we’d rehearse everything with just piano and voice before we’d start recording - and I guess you could say we had that same kind of perfect musical marriage that Dionne Warwick had with Bacharach and David.”

PETE: Of course the biggest of those classic tracks you recorded with Leiber & Stoller - 1961’s “Stand By Me”, which you co-wrote - became an even-bigger global hit upon its re-release in 1986 following its use in the movie of the same name, completely rejuvenating your career in the process...

BEN: “To me that’s just one of the biggest things that can HAPPEN to an entertainer, especially a songwriter. You know, just when you think things are basically finished and you’re like ‘Whatever I do from now on will never top all the good things that have already happened’, I wake up one day and I get a call from Norman Lear saying ‘I’m gonna send you two tickets to the premier of this movie we’ve done - your song is involved’! And though initially I’m a bit like ‘Who is this idiot playing around saying he’s Norman Lear?’, he does send me two TICKETS! So my wife and I go to Downtown New York, we go in this theatre - and there it IS, hitting us straight in the FACE! I mean, when he’d said the song was in a movie I thought it would just be playing in the background to some scene or other. But all of a sudden, when the movie opens and starts playing, the title comes up - and it’s MY SONG! Which was a complete SURPRISE! So we sit in the theatre watching it and thinking it’s a nice movie… Then we go home, watch the 11 o’clock news and Rex Reed - the guy in New York who critiques all the big films - is on giving us a great REVIEW!... So we’re like ‘OK, something crazy is goin’ on but let’s just sit back and ENJOY it!’!... Then a few days later we’re riding along the highway in New York and we see a huge BILLBOARD saying “’Stand By Me’ Will Be In Cinemas Next Week’!... So yeah, we just pulled over, enjoyed the moment… And I guess the rest is HISTORY!”

Ben’s “Superstars Of Soul” UK tour with Jimmy James runs from August 23 to September 21 inclusive. Dates include: Floral Pavilion, New Brighton (25); Jam House, Edinburgh (30); Jam House, Birmingham (4); Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth (15); Concorde Club, Brighton (20)


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