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'Fresh Air' Remembers Soul Singer Ben E. King


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.


BIANCULLI: Ben E. King sang lead with The Drifters before embarking on a solo career. He died April 30 at age 76. His voice was heard on many classic recordings from the '50s and '60s. His biggest hit was a song he wrote.


BEN E. KING: (Singing) When the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we'll see. No, I won't be afraid. Oh, I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand - stand by me. So, darling, darling, stand by me, oh, stand by me. Oh, stand - stand by me; stand by me. If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall.

BIANCULLI: "Stand By Me" made it to number four in the charts in 1961. Twenty-five years later, "Stand By Me" was used as the theme for the film of the same name. The record was re-released and landed back in the top 10. Other Ben E. King solo hits included "Spanish Harlem," "Don't Play That Song" and "I (Who Have Nothing)." With The Drifters, he recorded "There Goes My Baby," "This Magic Moment" and "I Count The Tears." Terry Gross spoke with Ben E. King in 1988. Before Ben E. King ever sang on stage or in the recording studio, he sang with his friends on the streets of Harlem.


KING: I was born in Henderson, N.C., so I wasn't familiar with the street singing thing until I came to New York, which I was about 11 years old when my parents first moved to New York. And I heard about it and then gradually, by being in the streets of Harlem, I walked around and sure enough bumped into different little guys singing and doo-wopping on the stoops and stuff like that. So I were more or less introduced to it when I first got to New York.


Now, you also sang - before you started recording - you sang at amateur night at the Apollo Theater...

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In Harlem. Now, did you all have matching suits in your group?

KING: Yeah, we had - what did we have? We had pink jackets.

GROSS: Oh, great (laughter).

KING: I know, right? That's what I said. Pink jackets and black shirt and black trousers - I mean, it was a sight to behold, yeah.

GROSS: Did you save up for the suits?

KING: Yeah, we did. What happened was that our parents gave us some money for it 'cause we were all, like, in school, you know? So our parents gave us money to go out and buy these little uniform jackets and stuff. And we just found our own black trousers and stuff.

GROSS: Now, you sang with The Crowns.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: The Five Crowns, and you sang bass before you started singing lead. Can your voice still go that low?

KING: I think so.


KING: Yeah, it can. I'm naturally a bass-baritone, so I can sing bass still I think, yeah.

GROSS: Did it have a certain prestige to be the bass man in a vocal group?

KING: Well, girls always thought so. Girls like the bass singer, I guess, because they have that more mature depth to his voice. And at that time, you have to realize that most of the bass things were done in the doo-wop groups and stuff like that was the featured thing in the song. You know, so the bass singer was the one doing the (imitating doo-wop bass singer) all that stuff, see. So you couldn't go wrong with that. I had the chance to do all those things and the girls would just stand around and giggle and stuff. So I think that that was, you know, getting me introduced to the females there.

GROSS: You went from bass singer with The Crowns to lead singer with The Drifters.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: And before I ask you to tell us a story about how The Crowns became the new Drifters and how you got to sing lead, I want to play the first song that you recorded singing lead as the lead singer of The Drifters and this is...


GROSS: ...This is "There Goes My Baby."


THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) There she goes, there she goes - there goes my baby movin' on down the line, wondering where, wondering where, wondering where she is bound. I broke her heart and made her cry. Now I'm alone, so all alone. What can I do? What can I do? There goes my baby.

GROSS: That's Ben E. King singing lead with The Drifters on "There Goes My Baby." So tell us how - how The Crowns, who you sang with, became The Drifters.

KING: Well, that's one of those strange stories, really. I am - I joined The Crowns because the guy that was managing them by the name of Lover Patterson lived across the street from our father's restaurant. So he came in one day and asked me to join The Crowns. He brought them into the store and we rehearsed in the back of my father's restaurant, and I became a member. And The Crowns were - I would imagine a very good, like, vocal-type group, semi-pro. And we opened up at the Apollo with Ray Charles, and I think it was Faye Adams on the bill and of course, The Drifters were on the bill as well, and we were the opening act. During that week, we were approached by their manager, George Treadwell, and he had mentioned to us that he had been watching us and he thought we were a very good group and would we be interested in becoming a new set of Drifters?

GROSS: Now, he had just, what, fired Clyde McPhatter...

KING: He fired...

GROSS: ...Who'd been the lead singer.

KING: Yeah, well, what had happened - and that, I think - Clyde really wasn't in the group at that time. Clyde had more or less gone solo, but the other members were in the group. And he had I guess had problems with the group or the group had problems with him. And they decided to just split company, and they did so, yeah.

GROSS: Right, so Clyde McPhatter had left the group and then the producer fired the rest of the group.

KING: Fired the rest of the group...

GROSS: ...that's the way it worked.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: Right.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: And when the producer decided that your group would be the next Drifters, did they do anything different with you or tell you to do anything different for you to become Drifters?

KING: Not really. I think that was the strange thing about the whole situation is that when we became the new set of Drifters, there weren't any instructions at all given to us. You know, we used to go on the road as the new set of Drifters before the record was released. And we were booed off the stage, and we had bottles thrown at us and chairs and the whole nine yards. So we weren't given any warning to what to do or how to act. We got uniforms, and I think we got a new station wagon or something like that. But that's the only thing that we received as far as becoming a new set of Drifters, as well as the fact that we had to fulfill The Drifters's recording contracts and we didn't - we weren't aware of that. You know, we were just four - four or five kids coming out of Harlem from a very, very amateurish background. Even during the time with The Five Crowns, we were just more or less, as I said before, semi-pro, so we didn't know about all the particulars that professionals would go through to more or less make a living in the business.

GROSS: You got booed because the fans were expecting the other Drifters...

KING: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: ...And here you were with no explanation.

KING: That's right, exactly. Well, it's like - it's like going to see - I always say it's like going to see The Four Tops and all of a sudden, the curtain opened, there's four guys about 17 years old. I mean, that's the kind of thing that you would face, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, when you were telling us about The Crowns, you had sung bass with The Crowns. But you ended up singing lead when The Crowns became The Drifters. How did you get to sing lead?

KING: I wrote the song "There Goes My Baby" while we were on the road. And when I got back to New York, I showed it to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who produce today. And while we were in the studio, I was trying to show the lyrics to Charlie Thomas, who was the lead and did all the tenor - tenor songs. And for some strange reason, he couldn't get the feel of the song and Jerry Wexler, who was involved with the (unintelligible) as well, came into the control room and said look, Charlie's having trouble with the song. You sing it. You know, and I just went to the mic - I had an advantage over him 'cause I'd written the song anyway. So I went to the microphone, started singing and I was stuck with lead since then.

GROSS: Stuck, huh.

KING: Yes, stuck, right?

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, I want to play another song that you recorded with The Drifters, and this is "Save The Last Dance For Me." Of course, you're singing lead on it. This is a song that made it to number one both on the R&B charts and on the pop charts, which was a pretty - pretty big deal (laughter).

KING: Right. No, that was a great deal during that time because in that time, you have to allow for the fact that they weren't actually playing a black - a lot of black records. And not only weren't they playing a lot of them, they weren't even thinking about crossing them over.


THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) You can dance, every dance with the guy who gives you the eye. Let him hold you tight. You can smile, every smile for the man who held your hand beneath the pale moonlight. But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be. So, darling, save the last dance for me. Oh, I know that the music's fine like sparkling wine; go and have your fun. Laugh and sing, but while we're apart, don't give your heart to anyone. But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be. So, darling, save the last dance for me. Baby, don't you know I love you so? Can't you feel it when we touch?

GROSS: Well, that still sounds very terrific.

KING: Thank you.

GROSS: I never got to see The Drifters perform in the early '60s. And I was wondering - we were talking a little bit earlier about choreography, did you have a lot of choreography in your act?

KING: Not - not a lot. We did - there are steps that I call short steps, and short steps are done, like, by groups like Platters and Drifters. And then the fast, wide steps are done, like, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Temptations do wide and fast. And there was The Olympics - a group called The Olympics - they do fast movements and fast steps. We do little short, cute things, you know, things that don't require a lot of sweating and falling down. I never learned how to do the split, stuff like that, you know, I left all that stuff out. I don't know that. I don't know nothing about doing the split. I could never get into that, you know?

GROSS: You never took off your jacket and threw it into the audience?

KING: I did that.

GROSS: Did you?

KING: Yeah, I did that. Yeah, that was - those days were great. That was easy, you know? And throwing your handkerchief away and stuff. I did those brave things, you know?

GROSS: I used to love that at the rock 'n' roll shows...

KING: Oh, it was...

GROSS: ...When performers did that.

KING: ...A lot of fun.

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Ben E. King speaking to Terry Gross in 1988; more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1988 interview with Ben E. King, who sang lead with The Drifters before embarking on a solo career. He died April 30 at age 76. His hit recordings include "Stand By Me," "Spanish Harlem," "Save The Last Dance For Me" and "This Magic Moment."


GROSS: You know what I'd like to do? I want to ask you about how you started to perform solo, so why don't I play some of the record that launched your solo career.


GROSS: And this is "Spanish Harlem."


KING: (Singing) There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem. It is a special. It's never seen the sun. It only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming. It's growing in the street right up through the concrete but soft and sweet and dreaming.

GROSS: Ben E. King, would you explain how you left the Drifters and started singing solo?

KING: Well, once we got involved with all the recordings and we had all the records that we had once we started with the Drifters situation, we were on salary as the new set of Drifters. And we were making, like, maybe a hundred dollars a week or somewhere in that neighborhood. And we were all more or less trying to make ends meet because that hundred dollars would have to keep us alive on the road - and of course, tried to send some money home.

So we - in other words, to make a long story short, we had managerial problems. And I belonged with Charlie Thomas, Dock Green and Elsbeary Hobbs. We had discussed trying to go to George Treadwell and ask for a raise. And this is a group with a number-one record. And once we got to the office - we had set up a meeting. We got to the office to discuss this problem that we were having as far as salary. He told me instead of me standing up to speak for the group, to speak for yourself. And I did so, and he fired me.


KING: He was great at firing people. You know, and I walked out of the office assuming that the other guys would follow, and they didn't. The only guy that followed me was the same one that came across the street to my father's restaurant and convinced me to join the Five Crowns, who was Lover Patterson. And it was his determination and his I guess feeling that I had something in my voice that he insisted that I stay in the business. And he was the one still I find very responsible for me still being here now. And I hold him very near and dear. He's long passed away for many years now, but to answer your story, he's the reason why I more or less stayed and started a solo career.

The first - the record that you just played recently was "Spanish Harlem" - was originally supposed to have been a Drifter record. And although I was out of the group, Atlantic, which a lot of companies at that time was doing that, they would call the lead singer back in the group to - and pay him scale just to keep the sound in the group. So they were doing that to me as well. That's why the - if you look at my recording world, the things that go on with me as far as a recording artist, you'll find that I left the group in 1960, but yet and still, I recorded a record with the group in 1962. And yet and still, I had my own solo career started in 1961. It's very crazy, all that. That's because Atlantic would ask me to come back and to do some Drifter recordings and just pay me scale.

GROSS: But did you think of "Spanish Harlem" as a solo record or a Drifters record?

KING: No, no, no. Now, to get back to that problem, that - what happened that - it was - it should have been a Drifter record. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who - at that time, we had developed a very strong friendship as writers and producers and friends, and they're the ones that went to Atlantic and spoke to Ahmet Ertegun and asked him would he consider "Spanish Harlem" being a Ben E. King record opposed to a Drifter record. And that's how I started a solo career - with that record there, really.

GROSS: I want to play one of your solo records that I think is one of the most dramatic sounding pop songs I know. And this is "I Who Have Nothing," and this is really high drama.

KING: Thank you.

GROSS: I love this record (laughter). As everyone will hear, there are great pauses in this record. And when you come on, there's, like, tympani behind you. Were the pauses written in? Did you decide how long to pause? Did you know the tympani was going to come in with you?

KING: Some of the things, I would rehearse with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but that was just three guys around a piano. So most of the performing things that was done on the records was just the way I felt at that time. I'm not one of those regimented-type recording persons where I know exactly what to do at each particular time in a song. I just close my eyes and go for it.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Ben E. King singing "I Who Have Nothing."


KING: (Singing) I who have nothing, I who have no one adore you and want you so. I'm just a no one with nothing to give you but love. I love you. He buys you diamonds, bright, sparkling diamonds. But believe me, Dear, when I say that he can give you the world, but he'll never love you the way I love you.

GROSS: It breaks me up every time I hear that.


GROSS: Were you as emotionally involved in that recording as you sound?

KING: Yes. I think - what happened in that is that my manager and I - to make a long story short, my manager and I at the time - his name's Al Weil (ph). We were traveling over to Europe to get myself established over in the European market. And we got up one night while we were in Rome, and he had found a songwriter. And we went by this office. And this guy, he was Italian, of course, and he was speaking in Italian. He was playing Italian songs, but he played this one particular song, and my manager and I picked it up right there and then and said, this is a hit record. The guy who was singing in Italian had the same kind of deliverance and the same kind of feeling about the song. I didn't know what the words were saying, but I know the feeling was great.

When I got home and we showed it to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and they wrote the English lyrics to it, we knew that the song was great. It's - I think that during that time when I was singing songs, I got very, very involved with the whole feel of the song. It's much - there's - it's amazing. When you grow older, your attitude change, and you tend to not be as involved and not as - you don't throw your whole self into songs. I listen to myself when I was singing years ago, and I prefer my performance much more than I do today. And I did that with a feeling. I - when I was doing "I Who Have Nothing," I tried to, at that time, complement a song as a songwriter would have meant it to be.

GROSS: Now, you also recorded "Stand By Me" as...

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: ...As a solo record. Now, you wrote that record.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: You wrote - and someone named Elmo Glick gets...

KING: Elmo Glick.

GROSS: ...Co-writing credit.

KING: I know.

GROSS: Did he co-write it with you, or was that someone who just...

KING: Elmo Glick was a silent partner for years. Elmo Glick in the pen name - I found this out maybe four or five years ago - of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).

KING: Those are my ghostwriters, and I didn't know it for many, many years.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KING: So it just goes to show you, you know? But as I said, earlier, you know, we were just kids out of Harlem with no knowledge at all about legalities and what should happen and what shouldn't happen in this business. And we were - I'm only one out of hundreds and thousands of the artist that got those things happened to, you know? So...

GROSS: Well, a lot of artists were deprived altogether of...

KING: Oh, sure.

GROSS: ...writing credits, so...

KING: Oh, God, yeah.

GROSS: So I guess in some respects, it was...

KING: I were lucky.

GROSS: You were lucky in a sense, yeah.

KING: I'm one of the lucky ones, yeah. I'm one of the lucky ones.

GROSS: Well, I love your singing, and I thank you so very much for talking with us.

KING: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Ben E. King speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The singer and composer died April 30 at age 76. Coming up, a salute to mystery novelist Ruth Rendell and film critic David Edelstein reviews a new zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


KING: (Singing) Stand by me. Oh, stand now. Stand by me. Stand by me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.