R&B and soul singer Ben E King, best known for the classic song Stand By Me, has died at the age of 76. The singer died on Thursday, April 30 his publicist Phil Brown told BBC News.
King started his career in the late 1950s with The Drifters, singing hits including There Goes My Baby and Save The Last Dance For Me. After going solo, he hit the US top five with Stand By Me in 1961. It returned to the charts in the 1980s, including a three-week spell at number one in the UK following its use in the film of the same name and a TV advert. King’s other hits included Spanish Harlem, Amor, Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) and Supernatural Thing – Part I.
Fellow musician Gary US Bonds wrote on Facebook that King was “one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than 50 years”. He wrote: “I can tell you that Ben E will be missed more than words can say. Our sincere condolences go out to Betty and the entire family. “Thank you Ben E for your friendship and the wonderful legacy you leave behind.” BBC Radio 2 DJ Bob Harris said on Twitter: “So sad to hear that Ben E King has passed away. More than almost anyone, he fired and inspired my love of music. #StandByMe #ThereGoesMyBaby.” Actor Jerry O’Connell, who played Vern in the film Stand By Me alongside River Phoenix and Corey Feldman, tweeted: “You know you are good when John Lennon covers your song. Ben E. King was a wonderful and immensely talented man.”
Born Benjamin Earl Nelson, he initially joined a doo-wop group called The Five Crowns, who became The Drifters after that group’s manager fired the band’s previous members.
He co-wrote and sang on the band’s single There Goes My Baby, which reached number two in the US in 1959. But the group members were paid just $100 per week by their manager and, after a request for a pay rise was turned down, the singer decided to go it alone. In the process, he adopted the surname King. His first solo hit, in 1961, was Spanish Harlem, which was followed by Stand By Me. He originally intended Stand By Me for The Drifters, but said they turned it down. So he worked on the song when Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun paired him with writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
According to King, “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,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “But I had a lot of influences, too – singers like Sam Cooke, Brook Benton and Roy Hamilton. The song’s success lay in the way Leiber and Stoller took chances, though, borrowing from symphonic scores, and we had a brilliant string arranger.” The song went on to chart nine times on the US Billboard 100 – King’s version twice and seven times with covers by artists like John Lennon and Spyder Turner. It was also the fourth most-played track of the 20th Century on US radio and TV. Earlier this year, the US Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry, declaring that “it was King’s incandescent vocal that made it a classic”.
Stand By Me, Spanish Harlem and There Goes My Baby were all named on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and were all given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
As the 1960s went on and rock ‘n’ roll took off, King’s commercial success waned. He continued to tour and, in the mid-1970s, Ertegun was so impressed by one of his shows in Miami that he decided to re-sign him to Atlantic. That led to a return to the charts with Supernatural Thing – Part I, which reached the US top five in 1975. King returned to the spotlight again in the late 1980s when Stand By Me was the theme song for Rob Reiner’s film about boyhood friendship and was used in a British TV commercial for Levi’s jeans.
The star also established the Ben E King Stand By Me Foundation, a charity that says it helps “deserving youths working to further their education and to assist various civic organisations and associations in their efforts to improve the quality of life of their constituents”.