The other day, we lost Kingsmen singer Jack Ely, the definitive interpreter of “Louie Louie.” Now we’ve lost Benjamin Nelson, otherwise known as Ben E. King, and that’s at least as great a loss:
Ben E. King, the smooth, soulful baritone who led the Drifters on “There Goes My Baby,” “Save the Last Dance for Me” and other hits in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and as a solo artist recorded the classic singles “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me,” died on Thursday in Hackensack, N.J. He was 76.
His lawyer, Judy Tint, said Mr. King, who lived in Teaneck, N.J., died at Hackensack University Medical Center after a brief illness, offering no further details.
King’s ascension to lead of the Drifters, an established R&B vocal group, was remarkable mostly for its suddenness: after original lead Clyde McPhatter departed, the group was indeed adrift, and manager George Treadwell, who owned the name, disposed of them and hired Harlem’s Five Crowns to be the new Drifters. “There Goes My Baby,” produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was like nothing the old group had ever recorded: awash in enough strings for a Tchaikovsky festival, the song is mournful, lugubrious, every syllable dipped in agony. And then it’s over in a mere 2:17.
Ben hung around the Drifters for a while, then went solo. “Stand By Me,” written by King with the putative assistance of “Elmo Glick” (Leiber/Stoller in disguise), is indisputably one of the great songs of the era, maybe of the century; the hook, I think, is set when he sings “I won’t cry, I won’t cry,” and you wonder how it is that he isn’t crying at that point. Restraint is definitely called for under such circumstances; see, for instance, Tracy Chapman on The Late Show with David Letterman a couple of weeks ago, a rendition I’m almost certain King would have loved.
And now B. B. King, 89, no relation, is in hospice care at his home. When he goes well, this is a trifecta I’d hoped never to see.