Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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News Item

Ben E. King R.I.P.

R.I.P. Ben E. King
R.I.P. Ben E. King Ben E. King

Soul legend Ben E. King, best known for the classic song "Stand By Me," has died at the age of 76.

Yet another music great heading for the big gig in the sky, and very shortly after the death of the great Percy Sledge.

His death on Thursday 30th April, was confirmed on Friday 1st May by his US publicity agent. He died at his New Jersey home from a "coronary related illness."

In 2011, he was in the UK for a package tour with fellow US singing legend Gary US Bonds, singing the “Great American Soul Book.” Gary and Ben E had been friends for over 50 years, and Gary told me at the time that he had talked Ben E. out of retirement to do the tour with him, after Ben E. had suffered a stroke some time before.

Gary said today that Ben E. King was "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." He said he had a "heavy heart" with news of his death.

"I can tell you that Ben E. will be missed more than words can say. Our sincere condolences go out to Betty and the entire family. Thank you Ben E for your friendship and the wonderful legacy you leave behind."

US record producer and respected musician Jon Tiven, worked with Ben E King on a couple of projects, and speaking exclusively to Blues & Soul magazine, described him as an amazing singer and a great soul.

"I produced Ben on two tracks on the Don Covay tribute album in 1994, and he was delightful to be around. An amazing singer.

"A few years later, when I got asked to play for a benefit/tribute to the ailing keyboard genius Paul Griffin, Ben E jumped in to sing a few tunes with the band (aside from myself, Dr John, Paul Shafer, Richard Crooks, Al Kooper, etc,) it was a beautiful and memorable night.

"Ben E was a Prince, as always. He made you feel like he was an old friend. The last time i saw him, was at Jerry Wexler's memorial where i was bandleader. Ben E didn't sing, but his presence was all we needed. A great soul."

I spoke with Ben E., born Benjamin Earl Nelson, in his dressing room in Derby when he was here for the March 2011 tour. I was catching up with him for the first time since we were together back in the 1980s, when he was re-united with Johnny Moore and The Drifters for a UK theatre tour.

Back then I was commissioned to shoot backstage and performance photographs for a national newspaper feature on the group. It was a Sunday afternoon at Northampton’s Derngate Theatre, and Johnny Moore was introducing me to the group members when the door of the dressing room opened behind me and in walked Ben E. King. No one had mentioned he was back with them. I was gob-smacked for a few seconds.

He and the group were humble, lovely guys and nothing was too much trouble. I posed Ben E. in the dressing room, pouring tea from a stainless steel tea pot while the others played cards. Shot them extensively backstage and the entire concert. Before the show, Ben E. was relaxed in a sweater and smart trousers.

On stage, they all wore white suits and shiny black shoes, showing off slick faultless dance moves and perfect harmonies. Their voices as good as they were “back in the day.” It was a memorable afternoon and evening, and all the more for Ben E. King being there. I asked him if he ever got fed up singing any of his solo hits and the Drifters songs night after night, and he told me they were like his children, and he was proud of all of them and would sing them until he had "no more breath." And he would sing them always with a smile on his face.

Fast forward circa 25 years, and I am sat with Ben E. showing him the contact sheets of the photographs I took of him and the group in the 1980s. He was beaming away at the memories, recalling exactly which songs they were singing for each photograph, spotting the dance moves! He actually and genuinely remembered me from the shoot back in the 1980s, and recalled that tour and the exact dates.

He was clearly not too well, very tired and was resting in his dressing room between his spots in the show. It was clear the stroke and illness had taken its toll, and he was finding the tour and the travel hard going.

But he was in fine voice and the audience reacted to his performance as they should; with loud cheer, loud applause and a standing ovation when he sang "Stand By Me."

In 1958, North Carolina-born and Harlem-raised Ben E., under his real name joined doo wop group The Five Kings. Later in 1958, the manager fired all the original members of The Drifters and replaced them with The Five Crowns. In May 1960, Ben E left the Drifters after a row about pay. Despite the group selling many records and hitting the top of the US charts, each member was being paid just $100 a week. He adopted the surname King for his solo career.

Ben E. sang on big hits with The Drifters, including "There Goes My Baby," which he co-wrote and "Save The Last Dance For Me."

The singing group were given the song "Stand By Me" written by King with hit makers Leiber and Stoller, and began to rehearse it for their live act, preparing to go on to record it. But their management decided this was not a song for them and they were not able to record it.

Ben E. had spotted the potential of the song and cut it himself, releasing it as a solo artist, hitting the US top five in 1961, making it his second solo hit after "Spanish Harlem."

"Stand By Me" was re-released in the 1980s, and had a three-week period at number one in the UK, following its use in the film of the same name and a television commercial.

The song has charted nine times on the US Billboard chart so far - King's version twice and another seven times when covered by various artists, including John Lennon.

In 1999, it was revealed as the fourth most-played track of the 20th Century on US radio and TV. The US Library of Congress has entered it in to their National Recording Registry.

His other solo hits include; "Play That Song" (You Lied), "I Who Have Nothing," "I Could Have Danced All Night", "What Now My Love," "We Got a Thing Goin' On" with Dee Dee Sharp, "Don't Take Your Love from Me," and "Into the Mystic." He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame as a member of The Drifters.

Ben E. King played three shows at The Jazz Cafe, in London in April 2012, which I believe was his last trip to the UK. He will be sadly missed and all at Blues & Soul magazine send their condolences to his friends and family.

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