The Life and Times of Ben E. King

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Benjamin Earl Nelson, born September 28, 1938 in Henderson, NC; died April 30, 2015, Hackensack, NJ


R&B, Uptown Soul, Soul, Funk, Pop


Vocals, piano

Claims to fame:

  • One of the major figures in the transformation of R&B to soul music
  • His deathless 1961 single "Stand By Me" is one of the best-known and most covered songs in history
  • Replaced Clyde McPhatter as the lead in the Drifters
  • With the Drifters and solo, helped popularize a New York blend of Latin, pop, and R&B that birthed "Uptown Soul"
  • One of the founding cornerstones of the Atlantic label
  • Maintained a constant presence on the R&B charts for over 20 years

Early years:

Benjamin Nelson, as he was then known, was born in North Carolina and sang in his church choir there; he soon moved to New York with his family at the age of nine, where he fell in with both local gospel and doo-wop groups. Always musically inclined and influenced heavily by R&B, gospel, and country music, he made a reputation for himself so early that he was too young to join up with many of the groups that were interested in him. While in high school, he worked in his father's restaurant as a singing waiter; Lover Patterson, who headed up a local doo-wop quintet called the Five Crowns, heard King while dining there one day, and, in need of a new baritone, took him on.


As with one of King's earlier groups, The 4 B's, The Five Crowns were considered one of Harlem's greatest doo-wop outfits, playing the legendary Apollo Theatre and opening for the already-established Drifters. When Drifters lead Clyde McPhatter left for a solo career, the group had trouble finding success -- that is, until their manager, George Treadwell, decided to fire the entire group one night and rename the Five Crowns as the Drifters. (In those days, owning the group name meant everything.) A year later, they were booked for recording sessions with the famous Lieber-Stoller songwriting and production team. King offered up a song he co-wrote called "There Goes My Baby," and the new Drifters' string of hits had begun.

Later years:

Treadwell and Patterson never agreed on the financial benefits of being a Drifter, however, and soon Patterson found a way to get King out of his contract and into a solo career. Now known as Ben E. King, his third single, "Spanish Harlem," struck gold, and it was followed by a rewrite Ben had made of a gospel song called "Lord, Stand by Me." Secularized as "Stand by Me," it established Ben's legacy forevermore. A string of similar minor R&B hits followed, and King even had another crossover smash in 1975 with the funky "Supernatural Thing," but it's his Drifters and early solo songs for which he remains best known. He continued to record and perform almost until his death in 2015.

Ben E. King awards and honors:

  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1998) with the Drifters
  • GRAMMY Hall of Fame (1998, 2002)
  • North Carolina Music Hall of Fame (2009)
  • Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award (1994)

Ben E. King facts and trivia:

  • Was invited to join the Moonglows while still in high school
  • Took the stage name "King" in honor of his favorite uncle
  • "Spanish Harlem" was originally intended for the Drifters, who passed on it
  • "Stand by Me" is one of the very few songs to ever reach the US Top Ten twice in the same version; it was a hit in 1961 and again when it was re-released in 1986 as the title track of the movie of the same name
  • Because of the legal wrangling with Treadwell, King rarely appeared in public or on TV with the group; his parts were lip-synched by fellow member Charlie Thomas
  • Recorded an entire album in 1977 with the Average White Band entitled Benny and Us
  • Established a charity called the Stand by Me Foundation to assist inner-city youths
  • Performed "Stand by Me" at the memorial of comedian George Carlin, who was a major fan

Ben E. King hit songs and albums:

#1 hits

  • "Save the Last Dance for Me" with the Drifters (1960)


  • "There Goes My Baby" with the Drifters (1959)
  • "Save the Last Dance for Me" with the Drifters (1960)
  • "Stand By Me" (1961)
  • "Supernatural Thing, Part 1" (1975)

Top 10 hits

  • "There Goes My Baby" with the Drifters (1959)
  • "Spanish Harlem" (1961)
  • "Stand By Me" (1961)
  • "Supernatural Thing, Part 1" (1975)


  • "Dance With Me" with the Drifters (1959)
  • "This Magic Moment" with the Drifters (1960)
  • "Lonely Winds" (1960)
  • "Amor" (1961)
  • "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" (1962)
  • "Do It in the Name of Love" (1975)


  • "Music Trance" (1980)

Other notable Ben E. King recordings:

with the Drifters: "I Count the Tears," "Oh My Love," "Hey Senorita," "Nobody But Me," "Sometimes I Wonder" solo: "Young Boy Blues," "I (Who Have Nothing)," "Seven Letters," "How Can I Forget," "Brace Yourself," "Show Me the Way," "Help Each Other" with Lavern Baker, "How Often" with Lavern Baker, "First Taste of Love," "Here Comes the Night," "Ecstasy," "Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear," "Too Bad," "I'm Standing By," "Tell Daddy," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "What Now My Love," "That's When It Hurts," "What Can A Man Do," "It's All Over," "Around the Corner," "The Record (Baby I Love You)," "She's Gone Again," "Cry No More," "Goodnight My Love," "So Much Love," "Get In a Hurry," "I Swear By the Stars Above," "They Don't Give Medals to Yesterday's Heroes," "What Is Soul?," "A Man Without a Dream," "Tears, Tears, Tears," "Katherine," "Don't Take Your Sweet Love Away," "We Got a Thing Goin' On" with Dee Dee Sharp, "Don't Take Your Love from Me," "Where's the Girl," "It Ain't Fair," "Til' I Can't Take It Anymore," "Hey Little One," "I Can't Take It Like a Man," "Take Me to the Pilot," "Into the Mystic," "Spread Myself Around," "We Got Love," "I Had a Love," "I Betcha You Didn't Know," "Get It Up" with Average White Band, "A Star in the Ghetto" with Average White Band, "Fool for You Anyway" with Average White Band, "I See the Light," "Fly Away to My Wonderland," "Street Tough," "You Made the Difference in My Life"

Movie and TV appearances (movies in italics): "Thank Your Lucky Stars" (1964), "The Lloyd Thaxton Show" (1964), "Ready, Steady, Go!" (1964, 1965, 1966), "The Midnight Special" (1973), "Soul Train" (1975), "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" (1977), "Late Night with David Letterman" (1986), "Solid Gold" (1986), "Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary: It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" (1988), "Apollo Theatre Hall of Fame" (1993), "The Atlantic Records Story" (1994), "Chicago Hope" (1995), "The History of Rock & Roll" (1995), "Rhythm and Blues 40: A Soul Spectacular" (2001), "A Tribute to Leiber and Stoller" (2001), "Late Show with David Letterman" (2007), "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" (2011)

Covered by: John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding, U2, Seal, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, Donna Summer, Ronnie Milsap, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, The Ventures, Ike and Tina Turner, The Mamas and the Papas, Prince Royce, Jay and the Americans, The Walker Brothers, Luther Vandross, Spyder Turner, Billy Joe Royal, Gene Clark, Leon Russell, Willy DeVille, Lemmy, Ry Cooder, The Searchers, Freddie Scott, Laura Nyro, Mickey Gilley, Meat Loaf, The Honeydrippers, Jimmy Ruffin, Darrell Mansfield, Shirley Bassey, Maurice White, Earl Grant, Little Milton, Pennywise, NOFX, Stephen King and Warren Zevon, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Muhammad Ali