More than forty years after making his first musical mark with The Drifters, Ben E. King’s voice remains one of the most expressive instruments in musical history. Time and experience has brought added nuances and shading to his gift, and when he sings, there’s nothing like it in the world.
Born in Henderson, North Carolina, Ben E. King had his first formal musical experience in hometown church choirs. Later, his family moved to New York City’s Harlem, and it was there that Ben founded his first group while attending James Fenimore Cooper Junior High. Called the Four B’s (For Ben E., Billy, Billy & Bobby), they were neighborhood buddies and marked Ben’s first singing experience outside of gospel music. “The best that I could get out of that group though,” Ben recalls, “was marrying Betty, the sister of brothers Billy and Bobby.” A series of groups and performances followed. That area of the city, from 110th to 125th streets, was a hotbed of street music. “I even had a chance to be one of the Moonglows,” he notes, “Very few people know about that. I fit in, but I just wasn’t experienced enough to go through with it.” Then, one day in 1959, Ben was singing in his father’s restaurant and the manager of a group called the Five Crowns stopped in. That was really when it all began to happen for Ben E. King.
While rock ‘n’ roll devotees may fondly recall the early years of The Drifters, between 1953 and 1958, it is still the two year period of 1959-1960, when Ben E. King sang lead with the group, that endures as their “golden age.” In 1959 the original Drifters had disbanded, leaving their manager with a recording contract to fulfill as well as a long-term performance contract for annual appearances at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. A promising young group known as the Five Crowns, with the new addition of Ben E. King (not yet 21) was chosen to take the Drifters name and step into their shoes.
“There Goes My Baby,” the first record by the “new” Drifters, became the first record by the group to reach the Top 5 on both the R&B and Pop charts. In addition to singing lead, Ben co-wrote the tune. Many critics and music observers insist that it was Ben’s gospel-rooted, high-pitched vocal delivery – both with The Drifters and then on his own 0 that has influenced every high tenor R&B vocalist to come along since.
After a slew of hits with The Drifters including, “Dance With Me.” “This Magic Moment” and “save the Last Dance For Me,” fate intervened with a mid-winter snowstorm that would change Ben’s career forever. The weather prevented the other three Drifters from attending a session. The musicians, engineers and recording personnel decided not to waste the time and allowed Ben to record two songs. “Spanish Harlem” became one of the biggest hits of 1961 and Ben was honored as the outstanding vocalist. “Stand By Me” was his next hit, going straight to number one on the charts and was re-released in 1986 when the movie of the same name was in theatres. An entire new generation of fans were privy to the voice that was responsible for such classics as, “Amor.” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Supernatural Thing” and “Do It In The Name Of Love” to mention but a few.
Now on the Ichiban label, Ben E. is ready to explode on the music scene once again, and his new album What’s Important To Me, will be released in March of this year. Although Ben E. has not released a record in several years, he has by no means been idle. Recent appearances on Good Morning America, Late night With David Letterman, and re-recorded of songs used on television commercials (“Stand By Me” and “This Magic Moment”) have occupied much of Ben E’s time. Many of his activities have taken him overseas: a recording project in Japan, as well as numerous European tours. Last fall, Ben E. premiered his new material on a 30 day tour last fall, to rave reviews by European audiences.
What’s Important to Me is an album of perfectly crafted songs, and is destined to be added to the lists of Ben E.’s recording successes. The first single “You’ve Got All Of Me,” showcases the songwriting talent and unmistakable voice that can only belong to Ben E. King. In addition to the outstanding tracks, “So Important” and “You Still Move Me,” Ben E. pays tribute to another music legend, Curtis Mayfield, with his rendition of Curtis’ “it’s All Right.”