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Jamaica's R&B monarch - Ben E. King, a household name and face on the island of reggae

Published:Sunday | September 22, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Ben E. King performs at the City Concert at the State Theatre in 1962. - Contributed


One of the most popular 'oldies' in Jamaican music history is Stand By Me. Even to this day, it remains a popular draw at any Jamaican party.

A Jamaican and a United States top-10 hit in both 1961, and later in 1986 (when it was used as the theme of a film of the same name), and a number-one hit in the United Kingdom in 1987, the recording was on the lips of almost every Jamaican at the time, and could be found in almost every jukebox across the country.

The singer, Ben E. King, born Benjamin Earl Nelson in North Carolina on September 28, 1938, was just as popular, becoming a household name on the island.

This, no doubt, was facilitated by his many visits to Jamaica, during which he endeared himself to thousands of music lovers with numerous hits, and the many stage shows he appeared on. As recent as Sunday, May 12, King, at age 74, amazingly charmed an audience with some quintessential ballads at the Courtleigh Auditorium in New Kingston on a bill titled, 'An Evening of Musical Memories and Excellence'.

His other exploits on Jamaican shores include an appearance on the Ska-Lyp-Soul shows, alongside The Mighty Sparrow, and songstress Betty Everett, at the State Theatre in Kingston, the Coral Theatre in Montego Bay, and the Doric Theatre in Savanna-la-Mar, between September 10 and 15, 1965. Fast-forwarding to September 2005, 40 years later, King was again serenading an audience alongside local stars, Marcia Griffiths, Ken Boothe, Ernie Smith and the Fab Five band, at the Morgan's Harbour Hotel in Port Royal on a bill titled, 'An Evening On The Harbour'.

King's intense love for Jamaica and its women in particular, led him to compose and record in the early 1960s, the patriotic song, Jamaica.

Oh Jamaica, little island shining in the sea

there the dark-eyed girl who is waiting just for me.

Oh Jamaica where the gentle trade winds blow.

Once I hold her in my arms again, I'll never ever let her go.

King came to prominence under the most bizarre and fortuitous circumstances when the group he started singing with, The Crowns, were drafted out of sheer desperation, to replace another, known as The Drifters, which had an unresolved salary dispute with their manager, George Treadwell.

The Drifters were fired 'en masse' in June 1958, and Treadwell found himself without a group, and in a precarious position. He had upcoming engagements to fulfil at the Apollo Theatre in New York. Failure to fulfil these engagements could lead to court action.

Ben E. King and his group, The Crowns, were in the right place at the right time. Treadwell spotted them at the Apollo and negotiated a contract with their manager, Lover Patterson, in June 1958.

Treadwell had rid himself of his problem, while maintaining the continuity of The Drifters name, and the all-important bookings it brought.

The new Drifters

For the first 10 months under Treadwell, King and the other Crown members - Charlie Thomas, Doc Green and Elsbeary Hobbs, worked in the shadow of the old group, fulfilling their obligated contracts on the road, albeit characterised by the awkwardness of performing songs they were unaccustomed to.

The group managed to survive and were ready to do its first recording as the new Drifters in March 1959.

King's elevation to the position of lead vocalist of the group was also a fortuitous happening. He co-wrote the group's first recording, There Goes My Baby, but was not slated to lead, until Charlie Thomas developed mic fright in studio and King deputised. The result was a landmark masterpiece.

Never before had anyone dared to overlay Latin percussion and violins on a rhythm and blues recording. The novelty of the sound, at first, made it appear a complete mess in the eyes of some observers, but the music with its rich alluring appeal, made it an instant hit, and the group's and King's first million seller.

Released in the United Kingdom, it brought the 20-year-old to the attention of overseas audiences. His follow-ups, Dance With Me, This Magic Moment, I Count The Tears, and Save The Last Dance For Me, his second million seller with the group, maintained the momentum.

King left the group over salary issues at the end of 1960. Embarking on a solo career, and remaining with Atlantic Records, he scored his first solo hit the following year with the ballad, Spanish Harlem, which tells the story of a lady, likened unto a Spanish rose:

It is a special one

It's never seen the sun

It only comes up when the moon is on the run

And all the stars are gleaming.

It starts a fire there, and then I lose control and have to beg your pardon.

I'm going to pick that rose and watch her as she grows in my garden.

Like many of his recordings, which are based on the theme of romance, King's next solo single, Stand By Me, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, continued the trend, and was voted one of the songs of the century by the Recording Industry Association of America. The song, which seems to have more than one interpretation, ran in part:

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,

whenever you're in trouble won't you stand by me.

Numerous hits

King's other well-known songs include, Don't Play That Song, Amor, Seven Letters, River Of Tears, How Can I Forget, Gypsy, Ecstasy, I, Who Have Nothing, Imagination and That's When It Hurts.

As a Drifter and as a solo artiste, King had achieved five number one hits: There Goes My Baby, Save The Last Dance For Me, Stand By Me, Supernatural Thing, and the 1986 re-issue of Stand By Me. He also had 12 top-10 hits and 25 top-40 ones.