Ben E King fell in love with Jamaica
The name Ben E. King became a household one in Jamaica during the 1960s. His love for the island, evidenced by the many trips he made here, and the love the people had for him and his songs, gained for him that status. In a 2005 interview, King was quoted as saying: "I love coming here. The people have fallen in love with my songs. They start singing the songs before I even open my mouth". He reciprocated that love in his recording, titled, Jamaica, the opening lines of which ran in part:
'Jamaica, oh Jamaica, little island shining in the sea.
There the dark-eyed girl is waiting, yes she's waiting just for me.
Oh Jamaica, where the gentle Trade Winds blow'.
King passed away last Thursday at age 76, just about two weeks after Percy Sledge, his near-contemporary, made the transition. Unlike Sledge, who performed throughout his career as a solo act, King first came to prominence as the lead vocalist of, perhaps, the most popular vocal group of the 1960s: The Drifters. He gained that early prominence under the most fortuitous circumstances. King and his group - The 5 Crowns - were in the right place at the right time (The Apollo Theatre in June 1958) when George Treadwell, manager of the Drifters and owner of the name 'Drifters', was searching for a group to replace the one he had just fired. Every member of that early set of 'Drifters' was reportedly on salary and had certain contracts on the road to honour for the next 10 months. Failure to do so could find Treadwell ending up in court.
In Colin Escott's liner notes for the album, The Drifters 1959-1965 All-time Greatest Hits and More, King explained, "They were breaking up, in reference to the Drifters, "and their manager, George Treadwell, approached our manager, Lover Patterson, and asked him if we'd like to become the new Drifters. We thought he was joking and put it down to a goodnight drink he may have had. Then, sure enough, at the end of the week, the Drifters actually did disband and we went downtown to discuss replacing them."
The 'Crowns' were thus neatly transformed into The Drifters and prepared themselves to fulfill the old group's contracts, while King, who was to assume the role of lead singer, was on the verge of becoming a star.
After honouring their contracts, the new Drifters ventured into the recording studios for their first recording in March 1959. Co-written by the 20-year-old King, it featured his lead vocal skills on the landmark recording There Goes My Baby, which became King and the group's first million-seller. His follow-ups, Dance With Me, Save the Last Dance for Me, This Magic Moment, and I Count the Tears helped to establish King as one of the top pop balladeers of the early 1960s.
But as it was with the earlier group, salary issues again surfaced and forced King into a solo career. The hits, however, continued to flow with Spanish Harlem, a ballad of sheer class, followed by Stand by Me, which was perhaps his best-known song.
Voted one of the songs of the century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Stand By Me was a top-10 hit in Jamaica and the United States in 1961 and reached number one in the United Kingdom in 1987 when reissued as the theme song of a movie. The lyrics - 'When the night has come and the land is dark/And the moon is the only light we see/No, I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand by me' - were on the lips of almost every music lover.
Other songs by King that won the hearts of Jamaicans, especially the ladies, were: Don't Play that Song, Amor, Seven Letters, River of Tears, Gypsy, Ecstasy, Imagination, and That's When it Hurts. As a Drifter and as a solo artiste, King had five number-one hits with There Goes my Baby, Save the Last Dance for Me, Stand by Me, Supernatural Thing, and the 1986 reissue of Stand by Me. Additionally, he had 12 top-10 hits and 25 top-40 ones.