Ben E King

There’s an interesting interview with Ben E King posted at WGBH Open Vault. Digitalized from the original Beta-max format, he talks about his music roots in the South starting in the church and supplemented by country western (he called it hillbilly) sounds. Then at the age of 10, his family moved to New York City and into a new world of music. His family became heavy duty into Jazz, and he got the music bug from them.

Spanish Harlem album cover by Ben E King
Spanish Harlem album cover by Ben E King

As a young teen, Ben E King made a couple of friends that would sing on the street corners. It was called street corner harmonizing, do wop in street slang. The music was fun, but as he explained, it didn’t start out as being completely for the music. As he explains it, if you sound good, you attract girls. So they challenged other street corner groups up and down the avenue, and at each corner, the gathered a few more girl followers.

One day, while working in his dad’s restaurant, he was approached by a neighbor that managed a local group called The Five Crowns. Ben E King turned them down and recommended some of the other members of his street corner group. A week later, he came back and tried again. This time, Ben E. King accepted and joined the group, squeezing in practice time around working in the restaurant.

He joked that he liked singing Baritone.

Soon, The Five Crowns found themselves performing at the Apollo Theater as an opening act (it happened to be for Ray Charles). There the group was approached by the manager for The Drifters, by then an established group that was breaking up. Members of the Five Crowns replaced the departing Drifter cast, took up their name, and took off musically.

Ben E King Recordings

Their first recording was “There Goes My Baby”, a song that Ben E King wrote. It was his words, but the musical arrangement was done by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a duo that was soon to become Rock music powerhouses themselves. Lieber and Stroller added strings, kettle drums, and all sorts of instrumentals that were very foreign to a street corner do-wop oper. Charlie Thomas was supposed to be the lead singer but couldn’t handle the lyrics and Ben E King was given a stage promotion to lead singer.

He said that he liked being the baritone singer, because as a baritone, he just “did the steps and watched the girls while the other guys had the responsibility of making the song happen.” He did pretty good as the lead singer, and the rest is history.

Ben E King had had five No. 1 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.” as a Drifter and solo artist. Add to that another dozen Top 10 hits and 25 Top 40 hits during his long career. The Drifters are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he has also been nominated as a solo artist.