It’s been almost five years since I last wrote about Ben E. King. At that time I featured an early classic of his solo career, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied).” It was one of the first records I ever bought back in 1962. By that time King had already had big solo hits with the beautiful “Spanish Harlem,” and the immortal “Stand By Me.” Before those solo hits there was his work with the second version of the Drifters. With King as lead vocalist the group recorded classics like “There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Sometimes when a singer walks away from a successful group to go out on his own he’s never heard from again. That was far from the case for Ben E. King. King released several singles after “Don’t Play That Song,” including “Too Bad,” “I’m Standing By,” “Tell Daddy,” and “How Can I Forget.” Only “Too Bad” managed to scrape into the upper reaches of the Top 100 on the pop chart, while “Tell Daddy” and “How Can I Forget” saw Top 30 success on the R&B chart. Then in June, 1963, along came the powerful ballad “I (Who Have Nothing),” which was based on the Italian song “Uno Dei Tanti,” written by Carlo Donida and Giulio Repetti. Joe Sentieri released the original Italian song in 1961. Then Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller got involved, writing English lyrics for the song, and producing the record for King, using the backing track from Sentieri’s record.
“I (Who Have Nothing)” was released on Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco, and although it wasn’t a massive success like King’s earlier smashes, it did make it to #29 on the pop chart and #16 on the R&B chart. More importantly, it got King back into the game after the lack of chart action for his last few singles. The success was short-lived however. While King kept on releasing single after single, and having R&B hits, he didn’t have another big crossover hit until 1975 when he scored again with “Supernatural Thing, Part 1.” That record was #1 on the R&B chart and #5 on the pop chart, giving lie to the assertion that King’s career ended in the early ’60s.
In 1986, seemingly out of nowhere, “Stand By Me” was back in the Top 10 thanks to its inclusion as the theme song in the film of the same name. It had been 25 long years since the record had last appeared on the charts. Ben E. returned to the public eye in a big way, and stayed there for many years. All told, King had five #1 hits, along with 12 Top Ten records, and 26 Top 40 hits. In 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Drifters. He has been nominated for inclusion as a solo artist, but not yet elected. Hopefully that will change in the very near future.
Ben E. King died last week in Hackensack, NJ and one of the most exemplary careers in the history of popular music came to an end. I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating: artists like Ben E. King are not replaceable, and we’re losing them at an alarming rate. Although we will continue to miss them terribly, we will always have their music to carry us through when the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we see.