In April the soul world lost an important figure: Ben E. King, the smooth yet powerful vocalist best known for the 1961 hit "Stand by Me." Yet his voice graced many more classic cuts, both as a member of the Drifters and as a solo artist. Never over-singing, King's crisp delivery allowed listeners to linger over every syllable, and his raw emotion suggested that he had lived through each word he crooned. While "Stand by Me" is a standard, his performance on the Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber-written "Spanish Harlem" reveals his considerable interpretive skills.
Born in North Carolina in 1938, King grew up singing in the church choir. After moving with his family to Harlem in 1947, he sang with local doo wop groups until he achieved his big break in 1958: joining a group named the Five Crowns. They frequently appeared at the Apollo Theater alongside The Drifters, an act that was seeing an artistic and commercial decline after original lead singer Clyde McPhatter departed the group. Frustrated with their lack of success, manager George Treadwell fired all the original Drifters members and hired the Five Crowns, who quickly assumed the Drifters name.
When the new Drifters entered the recording studio in 1959, they laid down a series of what would eventually become classic soul cuts. King cowrote "There Goes My Baby" with composers Leiber and Mike Stoller, and their recording featured a lush string section, then a barely used element in R&B. "Dance with Me," "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me," and "I Count the Tears" quickly followed, with King's lead baritone propelling the tracks into the top ten.
After a salary dispute with Treadwell, King left the Drifters in 1960 to embark on a solo career. He scored right out of the gate with "Spanish Harlem," a Latin-flavored tune cowritten by Leiber and then largely unknown composer/producer Spector. According to Leiber and Stoller's autobiography Hound Dog, Leiber had been listening to Debussy's Iberia and Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole, and wanted to write something with a Latin flair. Spector enthusiastically agreed, arriving at Leiber's house with a guitar (Stoller was supposed to be part of the composing session, but had to decline due to family commitments). Leiber recalled that the words came fairly easily to him, as he wanted to tell a story set in Harlem rather than Spain. Spector contributed the melody, and "Spanish Harlem" was virtually complete. Leiber and Stoller soon entered the studio with King, and Leiber reported that arranger Stan Applebaum was responsible for the marimba, soprano sax, and strings that permeated the track.
Released in 1961, King's debut solo album Spanish Harlem peaked at number 57 on the Billboard 200, but the title track fared better, reaching number 15 on the R&B singles charts and number ten on the Billboard Hot 100.
In addition to the memorable marimba section, lush strings, and sax solo, King's seemingly effortless vocal performance enhances the poetic lyrics. He particularly soars when having to increase the tempo, his singing gliding over the unusual cadence. Hear how his delivery changes during the lines "It is a special one, it's never seen the sun / It only comes out when the moon is on the run / And all the stars are gleaming"; after this section, he smoothly returns to the original rhythm. The rhythm and percussion do not change throughout the song--only the melody and King's voice deviate from the tempo in any way. That is the mark of an accomplished singer.
The song transports the listener into another country, despite the story taking place in Harlem. Leiber and Spector's image of a rose emerging through the concrete--that juxtaposition of beauty and urban grittiness--suggests skilled songwriting. It is essential that those words be enunciated so listeners can fully appreciate their lovely imagery, and King's clear, gentle voice accomplishes just that.
King would go on to record "Stand by Me" as well as several other singles throughout the 1960s; after experiencing commercial decline, he scored a comeback with his 1975 disco anthem "Supernatural Thing, Pt. 1." He continued recording and touring, earning a well-deserved induction along with the Drifters into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. King may be gone, but his music and timeless voice will live on in countless classic recordings.