Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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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 musicâs 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 Harlemâs 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 Treadwellâs 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 Treadwellâs 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 groupâs best-known classic pop and R&B hits - ranging from the chart-topping âThere Goes My Babyâ (which he co-wrote) and globally-successful âSave The Last Dance For Meâ to such other international hit singles as âDance With Meâ, âThis Magic Momentâ and âI Count The Tearsâ.

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 Recordsâ 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 âSpanish Harlemâ (1961), âStand By Meâ (1961) and âDonât Play That Songâ (1962). All of which have since been hailed as groundbreaking for their time due to their then-innovative combination of Benâs 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 âSupernatural Thingâ proving one of the biggest records of his career. Unforeseen success which in turn not only led to a successful solo album (1975âs âSupernaturalâ) but also to King hooking-up with Scottish funkers Average White Band for the 1977 album âBenny And Usâ. 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 Benâs way with his aforementioned 1961 US chart-topper âStand By Meâ - 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 2010âs jazz-flavoured âHeart & Soulâ for Canadaâs CanAm Records.

⦠Which brings us back to today and Benâs upcoming UK tour. As an affable and relaxed Mr. King hooks up with âBlues & Soulâ 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 (âThere Goes My Babyâ; âSave The Last Dance For Meâ; âSpanish Harlemâ; âStand By Meâ) all being given a Grammy Hall Of Fame Award - with âStand By Meâ 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 Driftersâ¦

BEN: âYeah, The Five Crowns pretty much came about by accident. What happened was, a guy that lived across the street from my dadâs 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, heâd be like âHave you found anybody yet whoâd like to sing in the group?â - to which Iâd always say âNo, none of my friends SINGâ. So anyway, he kept coming in week after week - until finally one afternoon I got up enough nerve to say âWell actually, I sing a bitâ, which I DID!⦠So one day, when I wasnât busy and there were no customers in the restaurant, he brought the group over, we harmonised together - and he basically went away saying âYou sound GOOD - would you think about JOINING?â... So once my father got home I told him the whole scenario, and he was like âOK, as long as it doesnât interfere with what youâre doing to help me in the restaurant, you can go and have fun with whatever you wanna DO!ââ⦠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 âKiss And Make Upâ 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!â

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

BEN: âWell, 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 âLook how much weâre doing these shows for and look at what heâs giving us - itâs UNFAIR! Letâs talk to him after the tour and tell him weâd like an increase in SALARY!â⦠So after the tour we went to his office, he was like âI understand you guys want to discuss something - what is it ABOUT?â⦠So they looked at me and said âBen will speakâ - which completely took me my surprise! But anyway, I stood up and said âWe thought that, based on the amounts weâve seen on the contract, weâre due a SALARY increaseâ... So he was like âOKâ, looked at me eye-to-eye and said âIf youâre not happy you can LEAVEâ... So I said âOKâ 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 âWell. Iâm not going back in there - this man is not a good personâ... But then, as I went to the elevator, I heard the door open and - though I was thinking âOh, here they comeâ - the only person that came out was Mr. PATTERSON, whoâd originally managed us as The Five Crowns and was now our ROAD manger. And he basically just threw his arms around me and said âIâm going with YOU! Donât worry - weâll make it!.... And he stayed with me until I DID!â

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 âSpanish Harlemâ, âStand By Meâ and âDonât Play That Songââ¦

BEN: âWell, if it wasnât for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller my career would not BE a career! Because what happened was, when we finished doing âSpanish Harlemâ - 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 âWhat are you up to next?â⦠And when I said âI donât knowâ, the two of them went to Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler and said âBen just finished this track and it sounds great. If you donât mind, why donât you let this be his first solo recording?â... 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, weâd rehearse everything with just piano and voice before weâd 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.â

PETE: Of course the biggest of those classic tracks you recorded with Leiber & Stoller - 1961âs âStand By Meâ, 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: âTo me thatâs 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 youâre like âWhatever I do from now on will never top all the good things that have already happenedâ, I wake up one day and I get a call from Norman Lear saying âIâm gonna send you two tickets to the premier of this movie weâve done - your song is involvedâ! And though initially Iâm a bit like âWho is this idiot playing around saying heâs Norman Lear?â, 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 heâd 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 itâs MY SONG! Which was a complete SURPRISE! So we sit in the theatre watching it and thinking itâs a nice movie⦠Then we go home, watch the 11 oâclock news and Rex Reed - the guy in New York who critiques all the big films - is on giving us a great REVIEW!... So weâre like âOK, something crazy is goinâ on but letâs just sit back and ENJOY it!â!... Then a few days later weâre riding along the highway in New York and we see a huge BILLBOARD saying ââStand By Meâ Will Be In Cinemas Next Weekâ!... So yeah, we just pulled over, enjoyed the moment⦠And I guess the rest is HISTORY!â

Benâs âSuperstars Of Soulâ 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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