Ben E. KingBenjamin Earl King (born Benjamin Earl Nelson, September 28, 1938 – April 30, 2015) was an American soul and R&B singer and record producer. He is best known as the singer and co-composer of "Stand by Me"—a U.S. Top 10 hit, both in 1961 and later in 1986 (when it was used as the theme to the film of the same name), a number one hit in the United Kingdom in 1987, and no. 25 on the RIAA's list of Songs of the Century—and as one of the principal lead singers of the R&B vocal group The Drifters, notably singing the lead vocals of one of their biggest global hit singles (and only U.S. #1 hit) "Save the Last Dance for Me".
Early lifeKing was born Benjamin Earl Nelson on September 28, 1938, in Henderson, North Carolina, and moved to Harlem, New York, at the age of nine in 1947. King began singing in church choirs, and in high school formed the Four B’s, a doo-wop group that occasionally performed at the Apollo.
The DriftersIn 1958, King (still using his birth name) joined a doo-wop group called the Five Crowns. Later that year, the Drifters' manager George Treadwell fired the members of the original Drifters, and replaced them with the members of the Five Crowns.
King had a string of R&B hits with the group on Atlantic Records. He co-wrote and sang lead on the first Atlantic hit by the new version of the Drifters, "There Goes My Baby" (1959). He sang lead on a succession of hits by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, including "Save the Last Dance for Me", "This Magic Moment", and "I Count the Tears". King recorded only thirteen songs with the Drifters—two backing other lead singers and eleven lead vocal performances—including a non-single called "Temptation" (later redone by Drifters vocalist Johnny Moore). The last of the King-led Drifters singles to be released was "Sometimes I Wonder", which was recorded May 19, 1960, but not issued until June 1962.
Due to contract disputes with Treadwell in which King and his manager, Lover Patterson, demanded greater compensation, King rarely performed with the Drifters on tour or on television. On television, fellow Drifters member Charlie Thomas usually lip-synched the songs that King had recorded with the Drifters.
Solo careerIn May 1960, King left the Drifters, assuming the stage name Ben E. King in preparation for a solo career. Remaining with Atlantic Records on its Atco imprint, King scored his first solo hit with the ballad "Spanish Harlem" (1961).
His next single, "Stand by Me", written with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, ultimately would be voted as one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America. King cited singers Brook Benton, Roy Hamilton and Sam Cooke as influences for his vocals of the song. "Stand by Me", "There Goes My Baby", "Spanish Harlem", and "Save the Last Dance for Me" were all named in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll; and each of those records has earned a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. King's other well-known songs include "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)", which reached the Top 10 on New York's radio station, WMCA.
King's records continued to place well on the Billboard Hot 100 chart until 1965. British pop bands began to dominate the pop music scene, but King still continued to make R&B hits, including "What is Soul?" (1966), "Tears, Tears, Tears" (1967), and the Top 5 Pop smash (#1 R&B) "Supernatural Thing" (1975).
King returned to the Drifters in late 1982 in England, and sang with them until the group's break-up and reorganization in 1986. From 1983 until the band's break-up, the other members of this incarnation of the Drifters were Johnny Moore, Joe Blunt, and Clyde Brown.
A 1986 re-issue of "Stand by Me" followed the song's use as the theme song to the movie Stand By Me and re-entered the Billboard Top Ten after a 25-year absence. This reissue also reached Number 1 in the United Kingdom and Ireland for three weeks in February 1987. The reissue also made King the first act to reach the Hot 100's top 10 in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, either as a member of an act that reached that high (in this case, The Drifters) or as a solo act that did.
In 1990, King and Bo Diddley, along with Doug Lazy, recorded a revamped hip hop version of the Monotones' 1958 hit song "Book of Love" for the soundtrack of the movie Book of Love. He also recorded a children's album, I Have Songs In My Pocket, written and produced by children's music artist Bobby Susser in 1998, which won the Early Childhood News Directors' Choice Award and Dr. Toy's/the Institute for Childhood Resources Award. King performed "Stand by Me" on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2007. Ahmet Ertegun said, "King is one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll and rhythm and blues."
As a Drifter and as a solo artist, King had achieved five number one hits: "There Goes My Baby", "Save the Last Dance for Me", "Stand By Me", "Supernatural Thing", and the 1986 re-issue of "Stand By Me". He also earned 12 Top 10 hits and 26 Top 40 hits from 1959 to 1986. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Drifter; he was also nominated as a solo artist.
King's "I (Who Have Nothing)" was selected for the Sopranos Peppers and Eggs Soundtrack CD (2001).
King was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
On March 27, 2012, the Songwriters Hall of Fame announced that "Stand By Me" would receive its 2012 Towering Song Award and that King would be honored with the 2012 Towering Performance Award for his recording of the song.
Later lifeKing was active in his charitable foundation, the Stand By Me Foundation, which helps to provide education to deserving youths. He was a resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, from the late 1960s.
King performed "Stand By Me" during a televised tribute to late comedian George Carlin, as he was one of Carlin's favorite artists.
On November 11, 2010, he performed "Stand By Me" on the Latin Grammys with Prince Royce.
King toured the United Kingdom in 2013 and played concerts in the United States as late as 2014, despite reported health problems.
DeathKing died at the Hackensack University Medical Center on April 30, 2015 at the age of 76. His agent said he had suffered from "coronary problems" at the time of his death. King was survived by his wife of 51 years, Betty, three children and six grandchildren.
LegacyKing has been covered by acts from several genres. "So Much Love" was recorded by Dusty Springfield and many others. "I (Who Have Nothing)" was performed by Shirley Bassey in 1963 and also by Tom Jones in 1970, as well as a 1979 recording by Sylvester. "Till I Can't Take It Anymore" was revisited by peer Ray Charles in 1970 and "Spanish Harlem" was sung by Aretha Franklin in 1971. "Stand by Me" was covered by The Righteous Brothers, Otis Redding, John Lennon, Mickey Gilley, Florence + The Machine, and Tracy Chapman. King also inspired a number of rock bands: Siouxsie and the Banshees recorded "Supernatural Thing" in 1981 and Led Zeppelin did a cover version of "Groovin'", more known under the title of "We're Gonna Groove".
On May 19, 2018 King's "Stand By Me" was performed at the Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle by Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir.