Ben E. King

  • Soul and R&B singer and songwriter born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson North Carolina in 1938. Died in 2015 with coronary problems.
  • He moved with his family to Harlem New York when he was 9 years old, and he sang in church choirs. In high school, he joined a doo wop group named The Four B’s, which performed at the Apollo Theater, winning second place at a talent show. He was a singing waiter at his father’s restaurant, which led to an invitation to join another doo wop group, called the Five Crowns, in 1958. Later that year, the owner of the R&B vocal group The Drifters fired the entire group, and the Five Crowns were hired to replace them. Now known as The Drifters, and with Nelson handling lead vocals, they released several songs that became hits.
  • In 1959 and 1960, The Drifters had 7 singles that were in the top 10 of the R&B chart, with There Goes My Baby peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 chart, and Save the Last Dance For Me topping the chart. There were many members of The Drifters over the years (there have been 43 members between 1953 and today) – in 1988, Ben E. King and 6 others were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as The Drifters, even though King only recorded 13 songs with the group. At that time, he rarely performed with the group in public, due to ongoing contract disputes with the owner of the group. He still used his original name of Benny Nelson during his time with The Drifters, but when he left, he changed it to Ben E. King, in anticipation of a solo career.
  • King began his solo career in May 1960. His debut studio album, Spanish Harlem, was released in 1961, and the title track was released as a single in November 1960, reaching #10 on the Hot 100 and #15 on the R&B chart. His next single became his signature hit – Stand By Me was released in April 1961. It was #4 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart. The song was co-written by King, and he received 50% of the royalties – in 2012, it was estimated that King’s portion of the royalties had netted him over $11 million. It has been covered by other artists over 400 times, and in 2015, King’s version was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Rolling Stone puts it at #122 on their list of the Greatest Songs of All Time.
  • After Stand By Me, King released 36 more singles in the 60s, but only managed a couple of hits that charted highly – Amor peaked at #10 on the R&B chart and Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) made it to #2 on the R&B chart and #11 on the Hot 100. In 1975, he had a surprise disco hit with Supernatural Thing Part 1, reaching #1 on the R&B chart and #5 on the Hot 100.
  • In 1982, King returned to The Drifters, performing with them until 1986. In 1986, the film Stand By Me was released, and King’s song was featured prominently in the film. The song was re-released as a single that year – it topped the UK singles chart, and peaked at #9 on the Hot 100 chart.
  • Four songs with King’s vocals are inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame – Stand By Me, There Goes My Baby, Spanish Harlem and Save the Last Dance For Me. He was an early smooth soul singer, one of the first to bring a level of sophistication to the genre that appealed to pop audiences, laying the groundwork for the Motown sound. Watch King perform Stand By Me on Late Night With David Letterman in 2007.

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