When Ben E. King (born Benjamin Nelson) was a shy kid in Harlem, recently transplanted from North Carolina, he got to know his intensely vibrant new neighborhood by wandering the streets, listening to the doo-wop singers that hung out there. Mr. King says this is how he learned to communicate with his town—by getting to know not only the boys and men singing on those streets—but also the rhythm of their life, times, and song.
How he went from 11-year-old Benjamin Nelson, poking around Harlem, to lead singer of the iconic group the Drifters, and eventually to one of Soul's all time greatest solo hit makers, is a whirlwind story. ...Complete with authentic bursts of fait and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of boldness that few people embody.
Back in 50's Harlem, Ben E. soon took up singing a little doo-wop himself. He quickly found his small group on stage at the Apollo Theater's amateur night, decked out in sharp pink jackets fitted over crisp black shirts. (You know, basically the coolest look imaginable.) One day, a man named Lover Patterson showed up in his father's restaurant (from his home literally just across the street), asking that Ben E. join a group he managed called the Five Crowns. In no time, natural baritone Ben E. was singing bass with the Crowns, and opening up for acts like Ray Charles back at the Apollo. Another local group, the Drifters helped to round out that bill.
Lead singer Clyde McPhatter had recently left the Drifters, and the group's manager, George Treadwell, was eagerly seeking a completely new lineup to shake up his act. Enter fait. That night at the Apollo, Treadwell got to see the Crowns in action and obviously liked what he saw, deciding then and there that this group would become the new Drifters. And that they did, with Ben E. King taking on lead.
With no instruction, and little assistance outside of new uniforms and a trusty station wagon, King and his former Crown mates (newly dubbed Drifters), were sent on tour. Audiences also received little explanation as to what had happened and quickly took to booing off stage these young impostors, who'd been billed as the group they knew and loved. While the new group was met with aggressive hostility on the road, before ever having released their own album, they were also stuck. They were required to not only take on the previous Drifters' role, but also fulfill their recording contracts at Atlantic.
As Mr. King tells it "We were just four or five kids, coming out of Harlem, from a very, very amateurish background... So we didn't know about all the particulars that professionals would go through."
He described the fans experience as if you were going to see a legendary group like the Four Tops, but instead the curtain goes up and you find a bunch of inexperienced young kids on stage. Yeah—not great.
But the talent of Ben E. and his bandmates could not be suppressed. A single he sang lead on found itself at no. 1 on the R&B charts and the pop charts in quick succession. This was monumental to say the least, because at that time, black records were sparsely played on mainstream airwaves, much less able to become cross-over hits. That groundbreaking song, of course, was "Save the Last Dance for Me."
So the new Drifters began to experience success on the charts. But that didn't mean they felt that success financially. With a mere $100 weekly stipend per member, they struggled to cover the expenses of life on the road and still have enough to send something back home. As frontman, Ben E. naturally took the lead when the group approached George Treadwell to discuss more money. In his office, Treadwell told King he should speak for himself. So he did, and was immediately fired for it. He later joked that Treadwell had quite a knack for firing folks. Ben E. walked out of that office assuming his fellow Drifters, Charlie Thomas, Doc Green and Elsbeary Hobbs, would follow. They didn't. The Drifters would continue, just not with Ben E. King.
After recording a mere 13 songs with the Drifters over a course of a single year (songs that included remarkable hits like "This Magic Moment" and "There Goes My Baby", which King cowrote), Ben E. was now a one-man act with no real plans, prospects or partners, save the ever-reliable Lover Patterson.
"The only guy that followed me was the same one that came across the street to my father's restaurant and convinced me to join the Five Crowns...Lover Patterson," King explains.
"And it was his determination and his, I guess, feeling that I had something in my voice that should keep on. He insisted that I stayed in the business. And he's...very responsible for me still being here now...He's the reason why I more or less stayed and started a solo career."
The legendary writer/producer duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who'd become friends of Ben E. through their work with the Drifters, also recognized his enduring talent and remained in his corner. They approached Atlantic and convinced them to let King release "Spanish Harlem" as his own on Atlantic's Atco imprint. And with this 1961 hit, his solo career took flight.
Ben E. King would fully solidify his own legacy with his next single, which he cowrote with Leiber and Stoller, the timeless tune "Stand By Me". While Charlie Thomas was lip-synching the hits King had recorded with the Drifters when the group now performed on stage, Ben E. had written and recorded a track that would eventually become the 4th most played song of the 20th century, according to BMI data.
And that is how young Benjamin Earl Nelson became the unforgettable Ben E. King. The contract disputes with Atlantic continued, but so did his hits. Songs like "Supernatural Thing" and "I (Who Have Nothing)" would continue to strengthen his stronghold on the Soul charts throughout the course of his long career. Mr. King passed away in 2015 but would have been 79 years old this very day. We don't know what he would do or say if he were here to celebrate, but we suspect he'd still have a song in his heart and a grin on his face (and maybe even a sharp pink jacket to boot).
*This story is retold from Mr. King's own personal account of his life and career. To hear it told by the man himself, you can (and should) check out his stunning 1988 interview with Terry Gross, here.