Ben E. King, a soul singer who spent a year with The Drifters, but had his greatest success with Stand By Me, which he co-wrote with the Brill Building stalwarts Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, died on Thursday. The song, covered countless times, was generally reckoned one of the foundational records of popular music and amongst the greatest songs of the 20th Century. He was 76.
Stand by Me reached the Billboard Top Ten twice—in 1961, and again in 1986, after the title and the song were used for Rob Reiner’s film of the same name. It was covered at least 400 times and, according to one estimate, was the fourth most-performed song of the last century. The recording was entered into the Library of Congress.
In stylistic terms, it was a simple chord progression drawn from gospel music (I-vi-IV-V) that later became so commonplace it was known as the doo-wop changes. The lyrics owed a good deal to the spiritual Lord Stand By Me, written in 1905 by the Rev Charles Tindley, with the addition of a sentiment from Psalm 46:2 (“Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;”).
Though there were mild differences of recollection about how the song was composed, Lieber and Stoller gave the majority of the credit to King. He had suggested an earlier version for The Drifters, but their manager judged it “not bad, but we don’t need it.”
As perfected with Lieber and Stoller, however, it was a triumph. Despite its generic roots in standard changes, and the distinctive input of the great jazz session bass player Lloyd Trotman (to a line which Stoller worked out on the piano while King sang a capella), there was no doubt that its greatest impact sprang from King’s powerful vocal performance.
If anything, the numerous covers—which included versions by Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), John Lennon, the unlikely duo of the writer Stephen King and Warren Zevon, a chorus of Disney frogs, its use in a Levi’s ad, and translations into Chinese and Hindi—served only to draw attention to the superiority of his original.
But King was no one-hit wonder. In his remarkably brief time with The Drifters (1959-60), they notched up at least half a dozen hits, of which three singles, There Goes My Baby; This Magic Moment; and Save the Last Dance for Me were not only chart successes, but were later recognized as pop classics.
As a solo artist, he was responsible for some 30 albums (including anthologies, collaborations and greatest hits) and almost 70 singles, of which the most notable were probably Spanish Harlem; Amor (both in 1961); the following year’s Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) and Supernatural Thing, Part 1 (1975).
Benjamin Earl Nelson was born on Sept. 28, 1938, in Henderson, N.C., and moved to Harlem when he was nine. His father ran a restaurant, and young Ben grew up singing in church and appeared on stage at the Apollo with a group of schoolmates called the Four Bs, covering songs by popular bands such as The Sparrows. But he claimed in a later interview that: “It was something to have fun with. I never thought of it as a profession at all.”
However, a local talent scout called Lover Patterson was looking for an additional member for a group that became the Five Crowns, and signed him up. Ben Nelson (as he still was) and other members of the band were then brought in to replace the original Drifters in 1958, and enjoyed their early successes on Atlantic.
King’s departure was something of an accident; the band discovered that, while they were being paid $100 a week each, the promoter was taking in $3,000 to $5,000 a night, King later told classicbands.com. At a meeting challenging their fees, their manager George Treadwell said anyone who wanted to walk out was welcome to do so. King left, expecting the others to follow, but they stayed put.
It was at this point that he adopted the stage name Ben E. King and had his first hit with Spanish Harlem, working with the producer Phil Spector. After Stand By Me, he had a string of other hits including, in 1963, I (Who Have Nothing), the first English-language version of a melodramatic Italian number, Uno Dei Tanti, which was later a hit for Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey.
Though his greatest hits were before 1965 and his career was less prominent after the changes in pop music wrought by the “British Invasion,” King had been successful enough to ensure his longevity and continued popularity. During his run of solo hits, he toured with artists as varied as Paul Anka, Gladys Knight and Fats Domino. “I’m extremely happy… that my career started at that time and that I met some of the greatest entertainers,” he said. “The industry now wants to be in charge of everything. At that time, we were in charge… We just did what was in our heart.”
King continued to tour and record and to enjoy a devoted audience, though it varied from small jazz and blues venues to residencies in Vegas. It was the 1986 reissue of Stand By Me that brought his name recognition beyond aficionados of soul and doo-wop, however. Rob Reiner, who had directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body, starring River Phoenix and Corey Feldman, had seized upon the song while looking for an alternative title, and it featured on the movie’s end credits. On the other side of the Atlantic it featured—as had Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman—in a highly successful series of retro-themed ads for Levi’s jeans.
King, though his career had never quite stalled, enjoyed a renewed lease of life, and released 13 more albums. He set up a charitable foundation based near his home in Teaneck, N.J., where he had lived since the early 1960s. He appeared frequently on chat shows and at awards ceremonies, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (initially, as one of The Drifters). His last album was Heart and Soul (2011) and he appeared in several concerts last year. On his 2013 tour of the U.K., he said: “I always felt I never chose music, it chose me.”
He is survived by his wife, Betty Davis, whom he married in 1964.