Ben E. King - Biography

With his clear singing and elegant production, Ben E. King is the definition of uptown soul. Many of his best-known songs feature the production and/or songwriting talents of Leiber & Stoller, who co-wrote with King his biggest hit, “Stand By Me.”


Benjamin Earl Nelson was born on September 23rd, 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina where he first sang with a church choir until his family relocated to Harlem in 1947. There, in junior high, he joined a doo-wop group, The Four Bs, who won second place at an Apollo Theater talent contest. In high school, Nelson was offered a spot with The Moonglows but he instead worked as a singing waiter for his father’s restaurant until joining another doo-wop group, The Five Crowns in 1958. The Five Crowns occasionally played with The Drifters, who were struggling to maintain momentum after losing Clyde McPhatter. The group’s manager, George Treadwell, fired the remaining members and hired The Five Crowns, and foisting The Drifters’ name on them.


Being a completely different line-up than audiences expected, The Drifters-in-name-only faced predictable hostility until they recorded one of Nelson’s collaborations with Lover Patterson and George Treadwell, the lush “There Goes My Baby,” which was a massive hit, defining smooth, “Uptown Soul.” In 1960, Nelson approached Treadwell about a raise and larger share of the group’s royalties. Treadwell refused and Nelson quit, assumed the pseudonym Ben E. King, and embarked on a solo career. Atlantic's Atco, imprint released “Brace Yourself,” “Show Me the Way” and two duets with Lavern Baker, “A Help Each  and “How Often,” all in 1960.


King scored his first hit with 1961’s “Spanish Harlem,” a Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector composition. King’s full-length, Spanish Harlem (1961 Atco), was a thematic album, made up of Latin-tinged pop music with lush string arrangements. It reached #57 in the US and 30 in the UK. King embarked on a tour that took him to Jamaica, which helped ignite that nation’s ska boom. Atlantic signed ska and rocksteady musician Byron Lee, who also was hired head distribution for King’s home label in Jamaica.


Don't Play that Song (1962 Atco) included King’s best known song, “Stand by Me” co-written by King, Lieber and Mike Stoller. Its follow-up, Sings for Soulful Lovers (1962 Atco), somewhat anticlimactically relied mostly on songs made famous by other artists instead of King, Leiber and Stoller’s compositions. Young Boy Blues (1964 Clarion) was released through a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. Seven Letters (1965 Atco) was a varied collection but "I'm Standing By," intended to be the follow-up to “Stand by me” failed to even come close in matching that song’s impact. By the late ‘60s, Stax and Motown defined soul and people began to classify King as oldies, rather than soul. He responded with the excellent, gritty What Is Soul? (1967 Atco), recorded over two years. In 1968, King joined Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Arthur Conley and Joe Tex in The Soul Clan, who recorded "That's How It Feels" in 1968, with "Soul Meeting" after losing Wilson Pickett (who'd quit) and Otis Redding (who'd died). Then, in 1969, King and Atlantic ended their relationship.


King resurfaced at Larry Maxwell’s Maxwell Records and released Rough Edges (1970 Maxwell) which sank without a trace. Beginning of it All (1972 Mandala) was another poor-seller. King, accepting his plight, turned to the oldies circuit. Whilst performing at a lounge in Miami, Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun caught his act. He invited him to return to Atlantic and with the release of disco "Supernatural Thing, Part I," King was once again a hit maker. His next two albums, I Had a Love (1976 Atlantic), Rhapsody (1976 Atlantic) were followed by a collaboration with Average White Band, Benny And Us (1977 Atlantic), which reached 33 in the charts. King’s next album, Let Me Live in Your Life (1978 Atlantic) confusingly contained most of the tracks that first appeared on Rhapsody.


After 1980s’ Bert de Coteaux and Mass Production-produced Music Trance (1980 Atlantic) and the following year’s Street Tough (1981 Atlantic), King retired from recording. The following year, he toured in a revived version of The Drifters. Then, in 1986, Rob Reiner’s film Stand By Me, prompted the film’s title track to be re-released as a single. After its success, King returned to recording with Save the Last Dance for Me (1987 EMI).


In 1990, King joined Bo Diddley and Doug Lazy to record a rap version of The Monotones’ 1958 hit “Book of Love” for the film of the same title. Atlanta-based Ichiban Records is something of a refuge for soul veterans, having released later albums by Curtis Mayfield, Clarence Carter and William Bell. In 1992 King released What's Important to Me (Ichiban). 1998’s I Have Songs in My Pocket (New Hope Records) was made up of children’s songs written by Bobby Susser. With Shades of Blue (1999 Half Note), he recorded an album of Kansas City Jazz styled music with Milt Jackson, David "Fathead" Newman and Tim Ouimette. In the 2000s, King released Person to Person - Live at the Blue Note (2003 Half Note), Soul Masters (2005 Digital Music Group) [re-released in 2007 with a different track order as Love Is Gonna Get You] and Been Around (2006 True Life).



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