Ben E. King, the unforgettable lead singer for the Drifters and solo star whose plaintive baritone graced such pop and rhythm ‘n blues classics as “Stand by Me,” ‘’There Goes My Baby” and “Spanish Harlem,” has died. He was 76.
King died Thursday of natural causes in Teaneck, New Jersey, his longtime residence, publicist Phil Brown told The Associated Press on Friday.
A native of North Carolina who moved to New York City as a boy, King was singing with the Five Crowns when they were hired in 1958 to become the new incarnation of the Drifters, a top act for Atlantic Records who had several doo-wop hits featuring tenor Clyde McPhatter. The new Drifters, their records among the first in the rock era to use strings, had a more polished production and vocal style and became key influences on numerous ’60s recordings.
King co-wrote and sang lead on “There Goes My Baby,” and he and the Drifters followed with such favorites as “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment,” romantic and emotional ballads mostly written by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.
Known for his warm smile and trim mustache, King didn’t stay long. He left the Drifters in the early ’60s because of a dispute over salary and royalties, but quickly found success on his own. He broke through with “Spanish Harlem,” co-written by Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber, and sealed his name in music history with “Stand by Me.” A reworked gospel number co-written by King, Leiber and Mike Stoller, “Stand by Me” was a soaring declaration of dependence and devotion, chosen as one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and added earlier this year to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
John Lennon covered it in the 1970s and “Stand by Me” found new listeners in the ’80s when it was featured in the Rob Reiner movie of the same name. The song returned to the charts and King appeared in a promotional music video along with cast members River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton.
“Of course, the kids who had never heard of a person called Ben E. King were then aware of the name associated with the song,” King told the web site classicbands.com in 1993. “That gave a tremendous lift to me as an artist.”
Like many early rock performers, King had seen his career fade when the Beatles and other British acts arrived in the mid-1960s. He did manage a hit during the disco era in the ’70s with “Supernatural Thing” and continued to record and tour, including with an ’80s edition of the Drifters. According to Billboard, he had 21 songs in the top 100 between 1961 and 1975. King and assorted other Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
He is survived by his wife, Betty; three children and six grandchildren, according to Brown.
Ben E. King was a stage name. He was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, North Carolina and moved to Harlem at age 9, giving him early exposure to both country and urban music. He sang in church and joined local street corner groups in Harlem, although admittedly as much to impress girls as for the music. By age 20, he and some friends had formed the Five Crowns, who shared a bill at the Apollo Theater with a previous version of the Drifters and were noticed by manager George Treadwell when he needed to recruit new singers.
“There was an honesty about all that was going on,” he told classicbands.com about his early career. “It connected with the people in the street. You were able to sing something they related to instantly, because it was part of what you felt. It was part of what you had already traveled through.”
“Those things don’t happen today,” he added. “I feel sorry for the kids in the industry today. They have on sunglasses, eat caviar in jet planes, but they’ll never know the true feeling that we did.”