“Most of us got out of there (the Brill Building era) with no money at all. A lot of beautiful rooms and a lot of yachts and lots of limousines was bought and a lot of private jets was bought as well, but we got none of those. But we got everlasting music. So if I had a chance to go back and change anything I would change nothing. Because those that have the yachts and the houses and the private planes and stuff, they still got to listen to my music when they turn on the radio. I beat ’em anyhow.”
(Ben E. King, from Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music, 2001)
The vocal bridge from fifties’ doo-wop to sixties’ soul was built by a multitude. The single voice that sank the foundation so deep in the sand it couldn’t possibly float away with the tide belonged to Benjamin Earl Nelson, who took the stage name Ben E. King somewhere along the journey that turned his group, the Five Crowns, into a version of the by then long Clyde-McPhatter-less Drifters that could finally carry on something more than the name.
King’s best known vocals (“There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” and especially “Stand By Me”) are so monumental that they’ve tended to overshadow the incredible depth and breadth of his accomplishments, including co-authorship of some of those very records that defined him for the public imagination.
But it’s as a singer he’ll be most remembered. There was something deceptively modest in his ease of delivery, I think, which invited other great singers to cover the same turf or even the very same songs. In later years, John Lennon hit with a spectral version of “Stand By Me.” Tom Jones did yeoman work on “I Who Have Nothing.” Aretha Franklin her own self offered a luminous version of “Don’t Play That Song For Me,” and a thunderous re-imagining of “Spanish Harlem.”
But even Aretha’s searing, soaring vocals could do no more than match Ben E. King.
They weren’t better, you see, because, in this world or the next, nothing really can be.