Ben E. King, Percy Sledge songs stood test of time
Two of the most lugubrious occurrences on the 2015 international music calendar were the passing of soul legends, Benjamin Nelson, better know as Ben E. King, and Percy Sledge. Both gentlemen held a very special place in the hearts of soul music lovers across the globe, including Jamaica, where their recordings rode high on the music charts during the 1960s. Their loss severely shook the popular music fraternity because their songs, two in particular, although done years ago, remained popular draws, even to this very day, at any dance or party, whenever the oldies segment comes around. Perhaps, as the gods may have ordained, both men passed within two weeks of each other in the same month, with Sledge the first to make the transition on April 14, and King on April 30.
The recordings that placed these two gentlemen firmly in the public's view, and were indeed their most popular recordings and the ones alluded to, were: When a Man Loves a Woman and Stand By Me, by Sledge and King, respectively. If ever there were two recordings which could truly be said to have withstood the test of time, as far as the soul and pop genres were concerned, it must be these two songs. The staggering love lyrics of When a Man Loves a Woman, perhaps the most sentimental tear-jerker in the history of R&B Soul music, propelled it to a level where the song was voted by many scholars as the most popular soul recording of the 1960s. With the introduction of a distinctive and innovative Farfisa Organ, played by Spooner Oldem, along with Sledge's incorporation of gospel and country elements to the song, the recording brought a new dimension to soul music, as Sledge sang:
"When a man loves a woman,
can't keep his mind on nothing else.
He'd trade the world for the good thing he's found.
If she's bad he can't see it, she can do no wrong.
And turn his back on his best friend if he puts her down.
When a man loves a woman, spends his very last dime
in trying to hold on to what he needs.
He's give up all his comforts and sleep out in the rain
if she says that's the way it ought to be.
When a man loves a woman, deep down in his soul
she can bring him such misery.
If she's playing him for a fool, he's the last one to know,
loving eyes can never see.
Yes, when a man loves a woman, I know exactly how he feels."
The recording created history by becoming a huge No. 1 hit on both the American R&B and pop charts in the summer of 1966, then returned some 21 years later to occupy the No. 2 position on the British charts, after it was was used in a television advertisement. Michael Bolton's cover version also hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart in 1991.
Sledge's other hits, all done in a pleading, passionate style, included Take Time to Know Her, It Tears Me Up and Warm and Tender Love. The other accolades accorded Sledge's signature recording were a million-selling certified gold disc, the first gold record released by Atlantic Records, and being listed at No. 53 in Rolling Stones 500 greatest songs of all times.
The origins of the song is, however, shrouded in mystery. Sledge claimed that the song's inspiration came to him one day as he worked in the cotton fields and he began humming the melody that would become the song of his life, while on the other hand, Andrew Wright, a member of The Esquires - a Sheffield Alabama band that Sledge had earlier sang with - said that the riff came to him while practising for a Friday night gig. Whatever the origin, the result was a recording that has not lost any of its originality, appeal and sentimental allurement, and one that has helped to push soul music further to the front of the acceptable popular music genres. Sledge, who was born in Leighton, Alabama, on November 25, 1940, died approximately seven months short of his 75th birthday.
Ben E. King's Stand By Me enjoyed a similar success to Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman, when it hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom in 1987, after being used as the theme of a film of the same name. Amazingly, in one of the most extraordinary coincidences in popular music, the recording that sat behind it was Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman, as was mentioned earlier. Stand by Me, King's second solo recording, was originally a Jamaican and United States top 10 hit in 1961. For sure, it was on the lips of almost every Jamaican, and was a popular selection from jukeboxes across the country. The recording, which was voted one of the songs of the century by The Recording Industry Association of America, continued King's trend of romantic love songs from the days of the Drifters group, but some used the lyrics for spiritual purposes when they sing:
"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, oh, I won't be afraid
just as long as you stand by me.
Whenever you're in trouble, won't you stand by me."
In addition to the UK charts, Stand By Me reached the top 10 charts in Ireland, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Norway and Jamaica, where Ben E King became a household name. This was facilitated by his many visits to the island, his dominance of the charts and the many stage shows he performed here.
Stand By Me, which King co-wrote with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was inducted by the Library of Congress for inclusion into the National Recording Registry. It became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was a winner of the R&B Foundation Pioneer award. King, who was born in Henderson, North Carolina, on September 28, 1938, died approximately five months short of his 77th birthday.