The late Ben E. King lives in the popular imagination for a handful of circa-1960 songs – the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” and “Save the Last Dance for Me,” his solo records “Stand By Me” and “Spanish Harlem” — and not a lot else. But he was a hugely successful hitmaker for two decades, with over two dozen singles that made the pop and R&B charts. Here are some of his forgotten jewels.
When King became the Drifters' lead singer in 1958 – the entire group had been replaced by their manager – he took over from the wildly successful Clyde McPhatter. In just a couple of years, though, King made the new Drifters as successful as the old ones. The final single he recorded with them was "I Count the Tears," a Top 10 R&B record with a chorus that may sound familiar: Its melody was borrowed for the Rokes' 1966 Italian hit "Piangi Con Me," which the Grass Roots famously recorded as "Let's Live for Today."
A collaboration between songwriting powerhouses Doc Pomus and Phil Spector, "Young Boy Blues" was buried on the B side of King's "Here Comes the Night" single. It still managed to outlast "Here Comes the Night" on the charts, and it stuck in a few memories – Robert Plant's ad-hoc studio group the Honeydrippers covered it on their hit 1984 EP Volume One. Neat trick: every verse of Pomus' lyric is effectively one long sentence.
Artie Resnick and Kenny Young had written "Under the Boardwalk" for King's old group, the Drifters. Their follow-up for King himself has the same dilapidated-amusement-park setting – the penny-arcade machine the singer mentions in the first verse could make a two-minute-long vinyl record for 25 cents. (It was called a Voice-O-Graph; here are some pictures of it.) Of course, most lonely lovers in an arcade booth wouldn't have had a full orchestra backing them up, but King sounds tormented enough that you still believe him.
Solomon Burke tried to put together an ambitious soul supergroup in 1966, initially including Don Covay, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and Otis Redding, as well as himself. By the time they finally reached the studio, they'd undergone a few lineup changes – King replaced Pickett – and the "Soul Meeting" single (backed up by the R&B-aficionado favorite "That's How It Feels") turned out to be the only recording they made as a group. An early-Eighties attempt to reunite the Soul Clan as a live act fell apart quickly.
As the tone of soul ballads changed, King did his best to adapt. This lush 1969 single is the kind of plaintive, deeply conflicted love song that was coming into fashion at the time, and details of its production (like the little drum break in the middle) were very much of their era. It made the R&B Top 40, and the next year, James Brown co-wrote and produced the sound-alike single "It's I Who Loves You (Not Him Anymore)" for Bobby Byrd.
By 1975, King had mostly dropped out of music – in the previous five years, he'd only made one album, for the tiny label Mandala – but Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun convinced him to come back and make a disco-tinged funk record. The hard-swinging "Supernatural Thing" was originally planned to be a cover of Peggy Lee's "Fever," but the track evolved into an entirely different song, co-written by Gwen Guthrie (later an R&B star in her own right). It became King's second and final Number One R&B hit.
The Scottish funk group AWB (a.k.a. Average White Band) was on top of the world in 1977 after a string of hits like "Pick Up the Pieces" and "Cut the Cake." Despite "Supernatural Thing" and its follow-up "Do It in the Name of Love," King was still struggling on the charts; AWB's Benny and Us album, an entire set of tracks fronted by him, gave the singer a chance to venture out of his comfort zone. The group made the 38-year-old sound more effortlessly contemporary than he had in a while, and his graceful, relaxed singing gave their collaboration a pair of minor R&B hits: this and "A Star in the Ghetto."