Ben E King - the king of Scotland returns
Ben E King can’t wait to get back to Scotland this weekend. Not because it’s the home of golf and the soul-singing star’s charity foundation runs an annual celebrity tournament but because for a while in the 1970s, the man who sang lead with the Drifters on Save the Last Dance for Me and went on to write Stand By Me was an honorary Scot, touring and recording with Scotland’s own funksters the Average White Band.
“Oh yes, they’re my buddies,” says King down the line from New York. “I haven’t seen them in a while but we still pass our hellos on through clubs where I’m playing and they’re due in soon, or vice versa. I remember those days well. They were great times and they were a great band, a great band. I won’t hear a word spoken against them.”
King and AWB’s paths crossed through their record company, Atlantic. Having lost momentum towards the beginning of the 1970s and left the label, King returned to Atlantic and scored a massive hit in the U.S. with Supernatural Thing Part 1. AWB were having their own massive hits in the U.S. at the time and were working on their Warmer Communications album when they were asked to record a stand-alone single with the rejuvenated King.
The former Drifter had worked with Scottish musicians before. In the late 1960s he toured Europe with the Senate, a band that included Glaswegian singer-guitarist Alex Ligertwood, later of Santana, and Dundee-born drummer Robbie McIntosh. McIntosh was only fifteen at the time and was so determined to perfect the drum part that his hero, Bernard Purdie had put to King’s major hit What is Soul that he stayed up all night practising.
King hadn’t made the connection between this youngster and AWB (McIntosh, a founder-member and major presence in the band tragically died following a party to celebrate AWB’s first U.S. success) but he remembered McIntosh’s dedication and drumming skill and this, allied to the quality of the tracks he heard by AWB before they got together, convinced him that the partnership would work. The stand-alone single became an album, Benny & Us, a career highlight for both parties.
“I’d been listening to them on the radio and I loved the feel they had for the music,” he says. “They were real musicians and we went on to have a ball making that album and then going out on the road together. The concerts in the UK were particularly good and I remember one in Scotland where the reception was really special because they were back on home territory, I guess.”
By the time he hooked up with AWB King was already a legend. The Drifters records he’d sung on were reaching a second and third generation through re-issues, TV advertised ‘Best of …’ albums and placement of the songs in popular films. And not so long beforehand, his much-covered Stand By Me had been given what King himself feels is the definitive reading by John Lennon on his Rock ‘n’ Roll album.
Singing as a career choice hadn’t occurred to the possessor of one of the iconic voices in popular music, however.
“It was just something I did, whether it was when I went to church with my mum or after school with my pals,” he says. “We had a harmony group called the Four B’s and we sang at a talent contest in the Apollo in Harlem, and we were delighted when we came second. But I never thought there could be a salary involved.”
When a salary was forthcoming, it wasn’t going to buy him a limousine. Touring with the Five Crowns did have its perks, though. King found himself on the same circuit as Sam Cooke and got to know him well. Any time a young singer on the bill had a question, whether it was about what songs to sing, what clothes to wear or how to stand on stage, Cooke had the answer and would share it. One night the Five Crowns supported the already established Drifters, who unbeknownst to King & Co were causing their manager much dissatisfaction.
“He came up to us after the show and asked us if we fancied changing our name to The Drifters, in effect taking over from the existing band, and we just laughed,” says King. “We honestly thought he was joking. But he wasn’t and when we realised he was serious, we went along with the plan.”
Things went well to begin with. There were hit records and as many concerts as could be squeezed into an itinerary. Then one of the group happened to see a contract for a show and the group’s share was significantly less than the manager’s. A meeting was called and King was chosen as spokesman for the group.
“I told him we knew what was going on and that we felt we should be getting more money, and he said, If you’re not happy, you can leave,” says King. “So I left the room, expecting the rest of the guys to follow me. I waited and waited but they never came out and I became an accidental solo artist.”
Having co-written, with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the first song the new Drifters had recorded in 1959, There Goes My Baby, King clearly wasn’t going to struggle in his new-found solo career. He plays down his abilities as a hit picker by saying he just knew when a song felt good and with Leiber & Stoller (“fantastic guys to work with”) getting behind him, he didn’t have long to wait for solo success, scoring a No 1 hit with his first record.
“The first time I heard Spanish Harlem, I thought it sounded really good,” he says. “But I honestly didn’t know if I was singing about a flower or a girl. Then with Stand By Me, there was some session time for another record left over and Jerry and Mike asked if I had anything I wanted to try. Sam Cooke had sung this song, Stand By Me Father, when we were touring with him and I’d scored out “father” and worked on that idea. So I sang what I had to Jerry and Mike, they worked up a quick arrangement and within a matter of minutes, we had my next single. I never thought for a minute that it would last this long or that I would still be singing it fifty years later.”
These days, if King didn’t sing Stand By Me on a gig, there would likely be consternation. Recent recordings have seen him celebrating his love of jazz standards and blues as well as continuing to enjoy a good groove.
“A good feel and a strong melody are important,” he says. “But ultimately the words have to ring true for me to be able to sing a song convincingly. My family have been asking me for what seems like years now how long I’m going to keep on doing this and I’ve told my children and now my grandchildren, When the microphone feels too heavy, I’ll stop. So, as long as they keep making lighter and lighter microphones, I’ll be good for a while yet.”
From The Herald, April 10, 2012.