Born on September 28, 1938, in Henderson, North Carolina, Ben E. King would later join the R&B vocal group the Drifters, scoring a trailblazing hit as lead vocalist with “There Goes My Baby.” King soon embarked on a solo career and reached the pop Top 10 once again with “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me.” The latter track went on to become one of the most covered songs in pop music history, and King’s original version reentered the charts in the mid-‘80s with the release of a film by the same name. King had 21 songs ultimately chart on the Billboard Top 100, including “Don't Play That Song (You Lied)” and R&B chart-topper “Supernatural Thing, Part 1.” He died on April 30, 2015, in Hackensack, New Jersey.
The singer-songwriter who would become known to the world as Ben E. King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson on September 28, 1938, in Henderson, North Carolina. He and his family eventually moved to Harlem, New York, when King was a child, and he later performed as a teen and young adult with groups the Four B’s, the Moonglows and the Five Crowns.
Hits With the Drifters
In 1958, the Crowns were hired to become a new incarnation of another vocal act, the Drifters. The group eventually found major success with the song “There Goes My Baby,” featuring King on lead vocals and as co-writer. With orchestral strings prominently featured, a trailblazing move for a soul/pop song at the time, the track was a No. 2 pop and No. 1 R&B smash. Other hits with King as lead vocalist followed, including “Dance With Me,” “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me,” the only Drifters song to reach No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts.
Solo Career: 'Spanish Harlem' and 'Stand By Me'
After a contract and royalties dispute with the Drifters’ manager, the singer struck off on his own to become a solo artist, and by this time was using the performance name Ben E. King. He scored a Top 10 pop hit in 1961 with the enchanting “Spanish Harlem,” co-written by Phil Spector, and then released a song later in the year that would become an enduring classic—“Stand By Me.” The No. 1 R&B track, again co-written by King, relied on a pointed bass line and ethereal, tender vocals, reaching the Top 5 on the pop charts as well.
Over the decades, “Stand By Me” has gone on to be covered countless times by everyone from Otis Redding, John Lennon and Seal to Tracey Ullman for her TV sketch series and bachata singer Prince Royce, who rendered a bilingual version. (Licensing group BMI listed the track as the fourth most recorded song of the 20th century.) King saw his original version reach the pop Top 10 again during the 1980s on the soundtrack of the 1986 Rob Reiner coming-of-age film.
King continued to have hits throughout the early ‘60s, including “Amor” and the heartbreaking “I (Who Have Nothing),” before the British Invasion changed the U.S. musical landscape. Nonetheless, King continued to record, releasing the album Rough Edges in 1970 and touring. He’d left his original label, Atlantic Records, only to be signed to it again under Ahmet Ertegun mid-decade. With the release of the 1975 album Supernatural, King scored a big hit once more with the get-down track “Supernatural Thing, Part 1,” which topped the R&B charts and reached No. 5 on the pop charts.
King would ultimately record 21 songs that entered the Top 100 of Billboard’s pop charts. His later albums included What’s Important to Me (1991), Shades of Blue (1993) and I’ve Been Around (2006). King was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Drifters.
Succumbing to an unidentified illness, Ben E. King died at the age of 76 on April 30, 2015, in Hackensack, New Jersey. He is survived by his wife, Betty, three children and several grandchildren.
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