It may seem foolhardy to compare Ben E. King, who died last week at age 76, with The Beatles. Their music and their backgrounds seem so totally different.
But King, himself, did that when this writer interviewed him for a 2005 Paste story about the late 1950s/early 1960s pop music associated with New York’s Brill Building. And he expressed hurt and complaint when he discussed what the Beatles did to the world he knew.
As the urbane baritone singer with both eloquently clear diction and an underlying streak of poignantly soulful gruffness, first with The Drifters and then solo, King worked with a record company (Atlantic), producers (Leiber and Stoller) and songwriters (Pomus and Shuman, Goffin and King, Phil Spector and Bert Berns) associated with the Brill Building’s heyday. He also was an excellent composer himself, co-writing “There Goes My Baby” and the gospel-influenced “Stand By Me.”
In that interview, King conveyed pride in his accomplishments. He felt he was part of something bigger than just chasing Top 40 hits. He and his collaborators were in the vanguard of changing times by challenging segregation and the racial division of American arts and culture into black and white.
So he was disappointed when, in 1964, the British Invasion swept the Brill Building sound aside, often with new groups who covered songs that American artists, especially African-American artists, had failed with.
Or, they scored with inferior original material—King asked how The Beatles’ 1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” could in any way be considered a musical advancement over his 1961 “Spanish Harlem,” a blending of Latin, soul and rock with a poetic lyric worthy of West Side Story. (He acknowledged the Beatles did later become superb writers.)
”It was not the blend of music we had going at the time, which was a mixture of music of all races,” King said then. “I had Latin music, rhythm and blues, two wonderful Jewish guys producing me [Leiber and Stoller], so I had wonderful human relationships in the music. But when it came from England, it was European groups playing what they assumed pop music and R&B should sound like.”
In a comment that was published in that story, King said, “the only reason these kids came to be popular is they imitated what we sent over. They had a great look, a great promotional gimmick and you have to allow for all the songs recorded by blacks that didn’t get played in some parts of the country. So when the Beatles came over, no problem. Every state loved them, every major TV show they were on. They cut through with no problem.”
It’s a compelling viewpoint—the British Invasion as racism—that deserves consideration as rock history continues to be revised. But it also needs to be said that King’s (and The Drifters’) records—while marketed to and bought by teenagers, black and white—were special even for the often-special standards of the Brill Building.
He and his collaborators were working at the top of their game with an ear for where soul, rock and vocal-group pop could transcend genre definitions. And they didn’t want his records to be merely cute or catchy. King was royalty—deserving of the most sophisticated material.
The high regard for King—born Benjamin Earl Nelson in North Carolina but raised in Harlem—started with Doc Pomus, whose short-lived R&B Records released a 1958 single by a doo-wop group King had joined, The Crowns. It didn’t do much, but indirectly led to The Crowns becoming a new version of The Drifters after the latter’s manager fired the existing group.
Pomus and Mort Shuman provided The Drifters, with King as lead singer, two of his most autobiographical and substantial songs, “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” For Pomus, who because of childhood polio needed leg braces and crutches, King’s voice lifted him up.
From the start, King seemed a mature and self-assured singer, not an easily pliable imitator. He was melodic in an intimate and conversational way that could be romantic, melancholy and discreet, yet urgent and full of longing in the way a late-night confession to a friend or lover can be.
On his ballads and mid-tempo numbers, which are what he is best known for, King seemed to carefully, thoughtfully measure just how much emotion he’d let his voice reveal. As a result, his singing is neither superficial nor melodramatic. His feelings are deep and expressed naturalistically. Not just the biggest hits, all acknowledged masterpieces, but also other Drifters tracks like “Dance With Me” and “I Count the Tears” and much of the early 1960s solo material like “On the Horizon,” “Gypsy” and “I (Who Have Nothing).”
He made his collaborators strive for excellence. Beginning with 1959’s “There Goes My Baby,” the orchestral arrangements by Stan Applebaum created three-minute symphonies out of his songs. And his solo “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” which King’s wife Betty wrote with Atlantic’s owner Ahmet Ertegun, is a very complex song, an early example of “meta” in the way it urges us to listen to a record whose singer is imploring the object of his attention to not play it. It’s an intellectual head trip of an idea, but King’s singing transcends that conceit. He means it.
King’s greatest recording, 1961’s “Stand By Me” (which he wrote with Leiber and Stoller) is somewhat atypical of the others in its raw immediacy and directness. Opening with a seductive, vibrating bass line as incessant and insistent as a heartbeat, its straightforward lyrics have the universality of the cosmos, itself: “When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see…”
As the string section builds toward a maelstrom of minor-key ominousness, King repeats the title to steady himself—and us. Toward the end, as he repeats the title, he says, “Whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you stand by me.” It’s like a prayer, a plea, a cry against pain, itself. And it’s forever contemporary for being so, which is why it’s been so covered.
Earlier this year, the Library of Congress named it to its National Recording Registry of “cultural, artistic and/or historical significant” recordings.
King eventually made a comeback with a 1975 funky dance hit, “Supernatural Thing – Part 1,” and then again in 1986 when “Stand By Me” was the theme song for a movie of the same name. Great codas. But for his work from 1959-1964, until the British Invasion ended the Brill Building’s golden era, he should be remembered as one of our greatest pop singers ever. King himself was a national cultural treasure.