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Ben E King came to prominence as lead singer with the Drifters when ‘There Goes My Baby’ took both US R&B and pop charts by storm and very nearly became an international hit. This classic recording not only changed the Drifters fortunes but it was so different that it created a swing of greater interest in soul music and broke down any remaining barriers to the Hot 100 chart. It was Ben’s first record as a lead vocalist. Charles Thomas, the lead singer up to now had been unable to sing the song convincingly in the studio and Ben, who was the songs co-author stepped in. Having played such a big part in the records success King wanted a better deal than wages but Treadwell disagreed and Ben walked. Atlantic Records and producers Leiber & Stoller were dismayed, they had a huge success on their hands but no lead singer for the follow up. Ben wanted a solo career so they signed him to sister label Atco. He no longer toured with the Drifters but agreed to record with them until a new lead (enough like him) was found to make the transition. Over the following year King’s voice and Leiber Stoller productions provided five stunning hit singles that changed the direction and acceptance of soul music. ‘Dance With Me’ established the Drifters internationally. ‘This Magic Moment’ and ‘Lonely Winds’ consolidated their popularity and the classic ‘Save The Last Dance For Me ‘ was so big that it made them a household name worldwide. Bens last hit with them ‘I Count The Tears’ was also a sizeable international hit and then he passed the mike to Rudy Lewis.
Ben’s earliest solo singles didn’t take but after he linked up with Leiber & Stoller ‘Spanish Harlem’ hit the US top ten and though popular in the UK the flipside ‘First Taste Of Love’ was preferred and became his first British hit. This team made an excellent debut album Spanish Harlem that also sold well and went further to establish King as a solo act. His career hit ‘Stand By Me’ topped the charts in America and became a top 20 hit internationally and the follow up ‘Amor’ also sold well. While UK cover versions of Bens and the Drifters records slowed their progress in Europe in the early sixties, they both established a solid fanbase that kept them popular. Ben toured the UK and Europe on an annual basis and developed a cult following. He stayed with Atco until ’69 and scored 17 US R&B hits for the label and his three following albums …For Soulful Lovers, Don’t Play That Song and Seven Letters all sold steadily without becoming big hits. Though sales dropped off the standard of his records rarely did ‘Here Comes The Night’, ‘Ecstasy’, ‘How Can I Forget’ and ‘I (Who Have Nothing)’ were all great records. After L&S quit Atlantic in ‘63 Bert Berns became Ben’s producer for the next 18 months and tried to spice up his recording career with a more soulful approach. Though sales stayed about the same the direction they took created more interest and ‘Seven Letters’ a country/soul ballad gave him a top ten US R&B hit in January ’65. After Berns moved on, King like many other Atlantic artists was sidelined and made a series of good singles with a number of different producers but scored no significant hits. He toured constantly and his consummate performances never ceased to entertain audiences all over the globe.
Ben signed to Bob Crewe’s Maxwell label in ’69 and though his single ‘I Can’t Take It like A Man’ made top 50 US R&B, his experimental album Rough Edges sank without trace. He tried again with Bob Gallo on Mandala records in ’71. Bob had previously produced ‘What Is Soul’ and ‘Tears, Tears, Tears’ for Ben in ’67. King hit another hot writing streak and their combined efforts produced a more commercial album The Beginning Of It All but Mandala ran out of money and like Maxwell before it went under before they really got started. Ben took these disappointments in his stride, he tired of waiting for others to make the running and set up a production company with JJ Jackson developing new talent.
In the winter months of ‘74 Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records supremo, saw Ben perform in Miami. Ahmet was inspired enough by what he saw to go backstage and re-sign Ben to Atlantic. ‘Supernatural Thing’ his new single went to #1 R&B/5 pop in January '75 and this unequivocal success bought Ben E King right back into real contention. He went out on tour with other headliners at bigger venue gigs. He had never really been away but media attention gave him new incentive. The follow up ‘Do It In The Name Of Love’ also did good follow on business and the Supernatural album was a big hit on the US R&B albums chart and went to #39 pop. His old fans came back in droves and a whole new generation joined them in the celebration. ‘I Had A Love’ went to #23 R&B but good as it was pop sales flopped. Some of us preferred the I Had A Love album to Supernatural but the public in general did not. Once again Ben weathered the disappointment and his next album recorded with label mates Average White Band took Benny & Us to a career high. It produced three US R&B hit singles and scored high on the R&B album and pop album charts. They toured the US and Europe in tandem and appeared together at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in ’77.
Following these hits was difficult and a number of projects like the scrapped Rhapsody sessions with Lamont Dozier caused a loss of momentum. When Let Me Live In Your Life was eventually issued it met with a luke warm response. ‘Music Trance’ went to #29 US R&B in February 1980 but the album only managed to get to #73. Kings new audience had lost interest and after the Street Tough album flopped so did Atlantic.
King’s next step was to reinvent the Drifters, something that up he had also avoided, though he had written for the Drapers and appeared (for one or two events only) with the group that became Charlie Thomas and the Drifters in the past. They came up with an excellent revival of the Arthur Alexander classic 'You Better Move On'. Initially this liaison looked very promising, it was a very good single, cut in the UK with a great Mike Leander production. Sales started to pick up, the group went out on tour and made several UK TV appearances.
Faye Treadwell owner of the Drifters name mark (though currently without a group) soon nipped their hit in the bud with a lawsuit. Once Treadwell had prevented them working in the UK, she was in a position to negotiate management on her terms and had a Drifters group once again. Bill Fredericks and Louis Price soon departed but Benny remained with the Drifters until ’86.
Ben’s solo career underwent a massive relaunch in 1986/87 after Atlantic reissued ‘Stand By Me’ and it topped the charts all over the western world. This was due to the extensive exposure the record had received from a Levis advertising campaign and the Rob Reiner movie that took the song as its title and featured it on the soundtrack. Already a classic, 'Stand By Me' found a new lease of life with a whole new generation when it went to #9 on the Hot 100 in November '86 and to #1 on the UK pop charts in February '87. Atlantic issued a 16 track compilation Stand By Me - The Ultimate Collection. The album and singles covers made use of stills from the Levis 501 campaign but carried a photo of Ben on the back. The CD issue featured an extra 4 bonus tracks and UK sales reached their peak in March '87 when it reached #14 on UK pop albums.
On the back of all this media attention, Ben signed to Manhattan Records in ’87 and he began to record tracks at a number of locations including London, Devon, LA and Sausalito for a new album. His debut single a stylish remake of ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ went to #1 on the UK soul singles charts and made #69 pop in July ‘’87 and deserved to be a much bigger pop hit than it was. But the album was issued too late to benefit from this initial interest. Manhattan only issued a few more releases in ’89 and then it seemed to disappear. Ben was back with another new deal in late ’91 when Ichiban issued ‘What’s Important To Me (So Important To Me)’ a good self penned mid tempo ballad, well performed by Ben, unfortunately it suffered from an unimaginative and totally inappropriate production. A situation that persisted with the album that crept in at #82 US R&B albums.
At this point in his career Ben took stock. Tours followed but he kept the appearances down to a more manageable level. He opened a New York office to handle his bookings and publicity and began to look around for new opportunities. In the late ‘90s Ben teamed up with the Tim Ouimette Big Band and has in recent years concentrated on fewer large venue concerts. His album Shades Of Blue issued in ’99 was a personal tribute to the Jazz/R&B singers of the 40s and early 50s, who were influential when he was growing up. The music press ignored this small label release and it was not issued in the UK. Ben set up a golf charity for underprivileged children and played in a series of celebrity golf tournaments. When he suffered a stroke in mid 2001 Ben was forced to take another break. He slowly returned to performing but kept to a much-reduced schedule with regular breaks and more golf. By late ’03 he was getting good press for his performances on the US “Four Kings” tour with Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler and Lloyd Price and was back to his best.

The latest release from Ben came in 2001 when The Jazz Channel Presents Ben E King was issued a DVD of a live ‘Jazz Central’. The concert includes the biggest hits from his long career plus a few other favourites in an enjoyable 18 song set. The special features include a to camera interview with Ben reminiscing about how he got started, writing songs, backstage kinship, the music business today, and much more.
Ben has spoken about the ‘forever people’ like ‘Eckstine’, ‘Sinatra’ and Sarah Vaughn, who have been stars all their lives. He is much too modest to compare himself to them, but with the many hits and quality standards that he has created during his eventful 48 year career, Ben E King definitely qualifies as one of the forever people and long may he continue to do so.

Peter Burns August ‘04

Other SoulMusicHQ references
Drifters
Clyde McPhatter

More research available by email
from SoulMusicHQ.com
Ben E Kings full biography by Peter Burns
Discography
Sessionography
Photo and graphic scans

Recommended reading
‘Stand By Me’ by Peter Burns - Ready for Publication
‘Keep On Driftin’’ by Peter Burns - Ready for Publication

Recommended listening
Definitive Ben E King Anthology – UK 7 CD set Sequel /96
Ben E King Anthology – US Rhino R2 71215 /93
The Beginning Of It All – UK Sequel CMRCD 549 /02

 


 
   
   
             
               
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