Curiously, I was in a restaurant in Hammondsport with a friend last Thursday evening when the old doo-wop classic "Stand By Me" drifted through the restaurant, and we started talking about Ben E. King.
By coincidence, that was the very day Mr. King died.
"Stand By Me" charted nine separate times on the U.S. Billboard 100—twice by Ben E. and seven times as covers by other people, most famously John Lennon. The BBC reports that according to Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) it was the fourth most-played song of the 20th Century on U.S. television and radio.
The songwriting contribution was estimated to be 50% King and 25% each to the famed songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller—according to Mike Stoller, in an interview. The three worked together on the song.
The song reflects what friends report of Ben E.'s personality. "One of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing," said R&B singer Gary U.S. Bonds.
He was an intuitive singer who didn't theorize about—or, according to him, even think about—vocalizing, but he had superb instincts and feel. "He had a way of retaining a gospel grit in his voice but at the same had an easy, debonair style that was appealing and ingratiating," wrote author and critic Ken Emerson. Got that right.
"In my vocal I think you can hear something of my earlier times when I'd sing in subway halls for the echo, and perform doo-wop on street corners," Ben E. said of his famous song (as quoted in The Guardian in 2013). "But I had a lot of influences, too—singers like Sam Cooke, Brook Benton and Roy Hamilton."
As timeless as "Stand By Me" is, early crossover R&B with its schmaltzy string arrangements withered in the British Invasion and the rock 'n' roll revolution, and many of Ben E.'s Brill Building style recordings don't age well unless you can enjoy hearing them as period pieces. If you can get into the swing of that, an alternative to listening to a list of hits might be to spin one of the caught-in-amber Atlantic titles such as the 1962 album Don't Play That Song! Or, if you prefer a later period (though just as dated now), try The Average White Band and Ben E. King's Benny and Us from 1977, which includes the lovely "Star in the Ghetto" and features Ben E. returning John Lennon's favor with a cover of "Imagine."
A fine career and one classic contribution to culture. Goodbye, Ben E., and thank you for that.
Every day is music day at TOP—one of the major advantages of working at home—but occasionally it breaks into the published site in "Music Notes."
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k4kafka: "It might be interesting to also note that it was Rob Reiner's decision to change the name of his 1986 movie (based on the Stephen King novella The Body) to Stand By Me, which resulted in a revitalized career for Ben E. King."
Mike replies: I remember that as a very good movie, but I haven't seen it since it came out.