Ben E King, originally Benjamin Earl Nelson, was born in North Carolina on 28 September 1938. He spent his teens in Harlem, New York City, and got his break in 1958 when The Drifters’ management sacked the entire group and replaced them with King’s outfit, The Five Crowns. The Drifters were already a hit act, but Ben E King’s lead vocals made them even bigger, putting them at the forefront of the new force in black music – soul – and paving the way for the best Ben E King songs to further define the genre.
King signed as a solo artist to Atlantic Records’ ATCO subsidiary in 1960, and unleashed two hits that became eternal emblems of R&B and rock: Stand By Me and Spanish Harlem. His emotive voice was allied to a tasteful restraint that rarely saw him overcook a song, and his greatest records seemed to say, “Things may not be going right for you, but I can express it on your behalf.” A major US star, King was overtaken somewhat by the rougher-edged vocalists of mid-60s soul, but he remained a force, and when the scene shifted to funky grooves, this slinkier sound suited his style – he was still charting in the mid-70s.
Not just a pioneer of soul and an inspiration to John Lennon and Aretha Franklin, Ben E was also a major influence on reggae: his records were frequently covered in Jamaica. The singer died on 30 April 2015, but his music lives on; somewhere in the world, every minute of every day, a Ben E King song is lifting someone’s spirits.
Here, then, are ten of his best.
Listen to the best of Ben E King here, and check out our best Ben E King songs, below.
10: Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) (1962)
Aretha Franklin’s version is more famous, but Ben E King’s came first. Written by Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun with the singer’s wife, Betty, this cut made No.11 in the US in 1962 – the same position Aretha attained eight years later. An uncomplicated number, Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) demands a singer capable of summoning regretful emotion to imbue it with the heartache it requires. Ben E delivered that feeling convincingly.