Likely the name Benjamin Earl Nelson means nothing to you. But abbreviate the first name, reduce the middle name to an initial and swap the adopted stage name “King” for Nelson, and you’ll immediately recognize an iconic entertainer whom Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun aptly considered “one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll and rhythm and blues.” During his transitory tenure as lead singer for the Drifters, Ben E. King defined such seminal crossover hits as “I Count the Tears,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Dance With Me,” “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” As a solo artist, he’ll forever by remembered for “Spanish Harlem” and “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” both fine enough to be appropriated by Aretha Franklin, and the indelible “Stand By Me,” included by the Record Industry Association of America among the Songs of the Century.
The hits stopped coming for King around the time the British Invasion landed on American shores. He enjoyed brief career resurgence in the mid-’70s with the million-seller “Supernatural Thing, Part One” and again in the mid-’80s when the massive popularity of the coming-of-age film Stand By Me resulted in a return to the top 10 for the title tune. King continued to record fairly regularly throughout the 1990s and into the new century. He even tried his hand at a couple of jazz albums, recruiting such esteemed artists as Milt Jackson and David “Fathead” Newman to participate in the polished, big band release Shades of Blue in 1999, and recording a live set at the Blue Note (released in 2003 as Person to Person). But the public was no longer buying what King had to offer.