100 Essential CDs – Number 81 –Ben E King – Stand By Me- The Ben E King Collection



Stand By Me: The Ben E King Collection (Warner Platinum 2005)

The story goes that in 1958 twenty year old Benjamin Nelson was lead singer of a group called The Five Crowns.  They had a good local following and appeared at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem alongside a much bigger group The Drifters.  The Drifters had come off a run of big hits but since their lead singer Clyde McPhatter had left the group had become directionless.  Something their manager George Treadwell was aware of.  He sacked the whole group and took the Five Crowns on as The Drifters, who now had a new lead singer in Nelson, who had a likeable baritone voice.  Originally not a popular move with concert-goers the new group went into the studio and began a run of all-time classic hits.  In time Nelson became Ben E King and as the lead voice of The Drifters recorded such songs as “Save The Last Dance For Me”, “This Magic Moment” “Dance With Me” and “I Count The Tears” four tremendous tracks which appear on this 20 track CD and have also been discussed in what is very much a companion Essential CD – Dance With Me- The Drifters Collection also released by Warner on its Platinum subsidiary label in 2005.


King’s tenure as lead vocalist for the Drifters was surprisingly short-lived.  After approaching the prickly Treadwell for a rise which was turned down King went solo.  Like McPhatter before him he was retained by Atlantic Records.  In 1960 he began working with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – two of the greatest songwriters and producers of this era.  Working with them at the time was a young wannabe megalomaniac Phil Spector, who had come off a number 1 hit of his own as part of The Teddy Bears- whose “To Know Him Is To Love Him” is macabrely surely the only hit that is based upon the epitaph on a writer’s (Spector again) father’s gravestone.  Spector hung around studios absorbing everything and wrote alongside Leiber and Stoller (although only Leiber was credited at the time) “Spanish Harlem”.

             Leiber and Stoller working with Elvis             Phil Spector with Darlene Love

This is a lovely song which is just perfect for King’s crystal clear delivery and excellent diction.  The latin flavour gives it very much a feel of what he had been doing with The Drifters.  This became his first solo hit reaching number 10 in the US charts. In the UK a cover version by Jimmy Justice went to number 20 in 1962, the same year he also scored a top 10 hit with a version of the Drifters’ “When My Little Girl Is Smiling.”  Eleven years later Aretha Franklin did better with her version (US#2, UK#14) and whereas there is no faulting the Aretha vocal it does feel very much like a cover version.


Aretha also had success with another song on this album “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” written by Ahmet Ertegun and Betty Nelson (Ben E. King’s wife).  King’s original is taken at quite a leisurely pace and became his 4th US Pop Top 40 hit reaching #11 in 1962.  Aretha took it at a more urgent pace with a gospel call and response feel and in 1970 also got to #11 in the US and #13 in the UK.  I like the original version but I think in this case Aretha’s cover is the stronger track – making it one all between them.


Between these two Aretha covered single releases came the song which is an all time soul classic. I get goosebumps from the first moments of the introduction of “Stand By Me” that scraping guiro sound and guitar riff.  It is a superbly written song and one of the most significant pop songs of the 1960’s.  Written by King alongside Leiber and Stoller it was originally intended for his old group, The Drifters, who passed on it and King ended up putting his marvelous vocal to the track.  Released in 1961 after “Spanish Harlem” it reached number 4 in the US charts becoming his biggest hit.  In the UK it stalled at an inexplicable #27, matching the chart position of his previous UK hit “First Taste Of Love” (a track not on this CD).  It was a song that would not fade and artists such as John Lennon and Kenny Lynch had hits with it.  It has been a hit in many different languages and over 300 artists have recorded a version.  The music world had not finished with Ben E. King’s version, however.  In 1986 the song was central to the excellent film of the same name directed by Rob Reiner and starring River Phoenix.  It fitted the mood of the film perfectly.  It was re-released in the US where it got to number 27 and in the UK was concurrently used in a Levi 501 Jeans advert.  This, together with the exposure in the film, certainly did the business and in February 1987 it topped the UK charts for three weeks.  In 1999 it was certified as the 4th most played song of the century.  In 2015 it was entered into the US National Recording Registry because of its immense significance.  A 2012 BBC4 TV show “The World’s Richest Song” placed it as the 6th highest earning song of all time- a massive achievement when you consider “Happy Birthday” and the once a year most famous Christmas songs were on the list.  “Stand By Me” is certainly worth the price of this CD alone.


But there is more to Ben E King than “Stand By Me” although after this release in the early 60’s he was suffering from diminishing returns.  The delightfully cheesy old Bing Crosby hit “Amor” in which King is really playing around with his vocal was a follow-up single (US#18, UK#38).  For a man who penned one of the greatest hits of the century it is surprising that King became somewhat fond of the cover version and we do have quite a few on this CD.  There’s an odd version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” the “My Fair Lady” song which just doesn’t work, there’s a good “Moon River” and a passable “Dream Lover”, which doesn’t challenge the Bobby Darin original.

King also recorded the first English version of a standard pop song “I (Who Have Nothing) an Italian song with English lyrics by Leiber and Stoller and got to number 29 in the US in 1963.  This is a song which became better known by artists such as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Sylvester and which for some reason does not appear on this CD.  What does appear is King’s version of another song associated with Bassey- “What Now My Love”, an English language version of a big French chart-topper by Gilbert Becaud. Bassey had reached the UK Top 5 in 1962.  King’s version, recorded two years later, shows him having a good go, without getting the chart success of later American versions by Sonny and Cher, Herb Alpert and Mitch Ryder.

The lesser known songs of this period are amongst the highlights of this CD.  “Walking In The Footsteps Of A Fool” from 1962, “Here Comes The Night” from 1961 and “It’s All Over” from 1964 are all great examples of songs which straddle the lines between pop and the developing soul sound.  By 1964 the British Invasion was dominating the UK and US charts and the huge popularity of Motown was introducing a younger R&B sound and many artists including Ben E King found their hit careers stalling.  There’s evidence in some of the later tracks of King trying a more gutsy vocal- in fact, his vocal on the 1966 track “What Is Soul?” is pushing him into the Otis Redding/Wilson Pickett bracket.  It is somewhat overdone.  It actually sounds less like Ben E King and more like the vocals of the Gibson Brothers of “Que Sera Me Vida” fame but it’s a determined effort to fit into the more Southern soul sound of the mid 60’s.



And suddenly Ben E King in the mid 70’s was relevant again.  This was a result of the closing track on this CD the space age disco-funk of “Supernatural Thing” which gave him a US #5 Pop hit in 1975- some 14 years after his first hit.  Saved from the oldies circuit he recorded an album with Scottish funksters The Average White Band, which was critically well received, especially “A Star In The Ghetto”.  Twelve years after this his fortunes would change again with the re-release of “Stand By Me”.


Ben E King died in 2015 at the age of 76.  He was survived by his wife Betty, who had penned “Don’t Play That Song”, after a marriage of over 50 years.  It is inevitable that he will most be remembered by one song but there was a lot more to his career than this and a handful of vocals for The Drifters and this CD is an excellent example of this.


Stand By Me : The Ben E King Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £13.22, and used from £11.03 and as a download for £3.49.  In the US it is currently $6.70 new and used from $0.63. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 40 – Dance With Me – The Drifters Collection – The Drifters


Dance With Me: The Drifters Collection – The Drifters (Warner Platinum 2005)


Back in the mid 70’s the Drifters would appear regularly on “Top of The Pops”. They had a string of Roger Greenaway hits which were pure pop singalong. To me, although I very much appreciated “There Goes My First Love” and “You’re More Than A Number In My Little Red Book” they seemed, well…… old. I didn’t really realise that this incarnation led by lead vocalist Johnny Moore who had their most successful run in the British charts at this time with nine Top 20 hits between 1973-1976 were a group with a complex and long history and who with different personnel had a different golden period in their homeland with ten Top 20 hits between 1959-64. Fifty-six years later they are still touring, with another completely different personnel and will be appearing on BBC TV’s “Songs Of Praise” this very weekend singing “Stand By Me” as a tribute to their most famous member, Ben E King. They appear yearly at my local theatre (and probably at a venue near you). There have been at least 65 members of this group and at times there have been multiple groups using the name “The Drifters” (and that’s not including Cliff Richard’s backing group who had to change their name from “The Drifters” to “The Shadows”).

The compilation I have chosen as an Essential CD by this group is from their early period of success in the years leading up to the British Invasion in the US Charts from the mid 60’s. Its twenty tracks include twelve US hit singles and 7 UK singles. It’s not definitive by any means (no “Under The Boardwalk” or “On Broadway” and none of their 70’s British hits) but it is an excellent example of this group at their peak and contains some of the great songs written for them by such songwriting teams as Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Leiber and Stoller, Weill and Mann, Pomus and Shuman, stalwarts of the Brill Building group of writers which transformed American popular music into something very special in the early 60’s and whose songs have remained standards.


By the time the Drifters had scored their first US Top 40 pop hit “There Goes My Baby” (number 2 in 1959) they had been around for six years. They had a string of R&B hits which did not break the pop charts with Clyde McPhatter in the lead. Clyde was only a member for a year but his name is still synonymous with the group. Head of Atlantic Records signed the Drifters as a backing group for McPhatter but a more lucrative solo career beckoned and he left but the group continued. At one time the whole group was sacked by their manager and a different group, the Five Crowns, were renamed The Drifters to honour existing bookings. This group had as the lead vocalist one Ben E King whose helm at the front of the group was during their commercial peak. King recorded with the group for only around a year and left to have a successful solo career (and sadly passed away in April this year). The longest running member of the group was the aforementioned Johnny Moore who came and went a bit but had a connection with the group from 1955 until his death in 1998). It is all very convoluted and their history is also one of court cases and disputed ownership of the name. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has admitted two sets of Drifters – the original group and the Ben E King led group.


     Clyde Mcphatter                         Ben E King


There’s probably thousands more words on the history of this group but let’s get into the music…………………

In the UK the Drifters suffered more than most from the blight of the early 60’s for many African-American performers – the cover version. Their original versions of songs were beaten by acts, in the days when transatlantic travel was not as easy, who were more readily available for promotion. Thus in the UK their thunder was stolen by Kenny Lynch (“Up On The Roof #10 in 1963), Johnny Ray (“Such A Night #1 in 1954), The Searchers (“Sweets For My Sweet #1 in 1963), Jimmy Justice (“When My Little Girl Is Smiling # 9 in 1962) and Craig Douglas (the same song also reached number 9 for him in 1962). Some of these may have been good tracks but were not a patch on the originals they eclipsed.

There is one Clyde McPhatter led track on the CD – “Such A Night” which heralds from 1953. His voice is lighter than subsequent lead vocalists but it suits the urgency of this rock and roll song well. “Ruby Baby” and “Fools Fall In Love” both herald from the 50’s and these tracks have a more pronounced R&B/Rock n Roll feel than we would associate from “The Drifters”. There’s honking sax and guitar solos and Johnny More certainly the lead vocalist on the first sounding a million miles away from his more sugary 1976 lead on “Hello Happiness”.

Two of the outstanding tracks have Rudy Lewis on lead vocals. “Up On The Roof” is about as good a pop song as you can get. Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King this is such an evocative song about escape where the rooftop provides refuge from “the hustlin’ crowd and all that rat race noise down in the street” where “all the stars put on a show for free”. This song is superbly written and performed. It was a Top 5 hit in 1963 in the US. “Please Stay” features a trademark of their 1960’s hits, a full string section, here they almost sound classical, Elizabethan. It reminds me of the theme tunes to the Miss Marple movies starring Margaret Rutherford at much the same time (composed by Ron Goodwin), so despite the pleading lyrics it always cheers me up. Written by Burt Bacharach, this is one of his early hits (#14 in 1961 in US), so there is much class in evidence.

My favourite of the Ben E King led tracks is “Dance With Me” (US#15 in 1959 & their first UK hit #17 in 1960) with its gentle Latin touches, doowop backing, soaring strings, a great vocal and a very attractive song. Their biggest hit also came courtesy of a Ben E King vocal. “Save The Last Dance For Me (US#1, UK#2 1960) has one of those stories behind the song which may or may not be entirely true but it’s a poignant tale. It was said writer Doc Pomus wrote it on his wedding day. Pomus, was wheelchair bound and spent the reception watching his wife dancing with the guests and “don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be, so darling save the last dance for me” was his message to his new wife. I don’t know whether the marriage lasted!   There are three more Ben E King tracks on this CD, their first pop hit “There Goes My Baby” (US#2 in 1959) is a much loosely structured song with a strong doowop R&B feel. “This Magic Moment” (US#16 1960) has an introduction which reminds me of “Ernie” by Benny Hill and the strings are out in force. This might be “sweetening” for a pop audience but I think it works so well with King’s voice. “I Count The Tears” (US#17, UK#28 1960) completes the Ben E King hits.

“Sweets For My Sweet” (US#16 1961), unusually, does not have the strings but it does have Charlie Thomas on lead vocal and a backing choir which featured Cissy Houston, Dionne and Dee Warwick, Doris Troy and Jimmy Radcliffe to maintain the party atmosphere of this track.

Also on the CD you get a pleasant enough version of Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made Of This” and the track “At The Club” which did well as a re-issue in the UK when paired with the later “Saturday Night At The Movies”giving the group a number 3 hit in 1972 which gave a kick-start to their hit career revival which lasted until 1976.

If I didn’t already have this and the Camden CD “The Very Best Of The Drifters”(1996) which focuses on their British output I would probably opt for the 58 track double CD “Definitive Drifters”(2003) but I remain doubtful that this would maintain such a high consistent standard throughout and would be skipped through by all but the most devoted fans. This single CD set is the one I would consider as essential, despite the couple of glaring omissions and it is a testament to one of the finest, and I think still very much under-rated vocal groups of all time.

At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £5.45 new and used from £0.01. American listeners can buy new from $12.69 and used from $0.49