Ben E. King’s “discovery” is the stuff of legend. He was working in his father’s lunch counter in Harlem in 1956 when Lover Patterson, a Harlem promoter, heard him singing to himself. Patterson persuaded the 18-year old King to join a group Patterson managed, the Five Crowns.
In 1958, the Five Crowns opened for the original Drifters at the Apollo Theater. The Drifters were in decline; lead singer Clyde McPhatter had been drafted into the U.S. Army. The Drifters’ name was owned by George Treadwell. Treadwell has been quarreling with his group and, in a fit of pique, Treadwell fired all of the then-members of the group and hired King and three of the Five Crowns as his new Drifters. Their label Atlantic, teamed the newly constituted group with the songwriting team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. King, Lieber and Stoller wrote a series of immensely popular songs and the rest is rock music history.
King fused gospel and the blues, blending the grit and strain of gospels with an easy, debonair style that was new and, under the skilled musicianship of Mike Stoller some pretty wonderful tunes were written. As a Drifter, King only recorded a baker’s dozen songs, but it was quite a set, including Top 10 hits “There Goes My Baby,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “I Count the Tears.”
In 1960, King went solo, still associated with Leiber and Stoller, and the hits continued, including “Spanish Harlem,” and his most memorable song, “Stand by Me.” Over the next few years he released “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”, “Amor”, “Seven Letters”, “How Can I Forget”, “On the Horizon,” “Young Boy Blues,” “First Taste of Love,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Ecstasy,” and “That’s When It Hurts.” In the summer of 1963, King had a Top 30 hit with “I (Who Have Nothing).”
Five #1 Hits. 12 Top Ten hits. 26 Top 40 hits. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Founder of the Stand By Me Foundation. He was still performing as late as 2014. His songs have been covered by pretty much everybody. “Stand by Me” likely has been covered by everybody.
He was one of the true giants of Rock and Roll.
WC’s sympathies to King’s wife of 51 years, Betty. Requiescat in Pace, Benjamin Earl King.