Ben E. King, the legendary soul singer best known for his classic “Stand by Me,” died Thursday of natural causes. He was 76. King’s publicist confirmed the singer’s death to the Telegraph, though no other details were provided.
In 1958, the North Carolina-born, Harlem-raised King was part of a doo-wop group called the Five Crowns, who were hired to become a fresh version of the Drifters when the group’s manager fired all the original members in an attempt to reinvigorate the act. In King’s yearlong tenure with the group, he sang lead on the Drifters’ biggest singles, including “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “There Goes My Baby.” King ultimately earned an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Drifters in 1988.
Reached today by phone, songwriter Mike Stoller tells Rolling Stone news of King’s death is “a real shocker.” He recalls he and his songwriting partner Jerry Leiber were 26 years old when they met the young King in 1959 for their first session. “His voice was so warm, rich and mature for a 20-year-old guy,” Stoller says.
By 1960, King had launched his own solo career with “Spanish Harlem,” a hit written by Leiber and Phil Spector, and “Stand by Me,” which he penned along with Leiber and Stoller. “I walked into our office, and Jerry and Benny were working on the lyrics,” Stoller recalls of the session that birthed “Stand by Me.” “Benny started to sing and I went to the piano and fleshed out the chords and came up with the bass pattern and Jerry said, ‘Ah, now we got a hit!’ And he was right.”
“Stand by Me” would soon become King’s most famous, enduring recording, a single that has been covered an innumerable amount of times – including classic renditions by John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and Spyder Turner – and received dozens of music achievements, from a spot on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time to an induction into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
“I think this is one of the greatest moments of my life,” King told CBS News of his Library of Congress induction. “To think that my children’s children’s children’s will look at that one day and say wow, Gramp did that, that’s a feeling.”
In 1999, the BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) announced that “Stand by Me” was the fourth most-played song of the 20th century, the BBC reports. King’s version of the song also landed on the Billboard charts on two separate occasions: 1961 and 1986. King would later score a Top Five hit in 1975 with “Supernatural Thing.”
“I am so sorry to hear of his passing,” Aretha Franklin tells Rolling Stone. “Ben was a Sixties trendsetter, classic vocalist, hitmaker and all around very nice man!” The E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt concurs that King was an innovator. “‘There Goes My Baby’ was really a groundbreaking record,” he tells us. “He had the Sam Cooke roots and carried on that kind of gospel soulfulness that Sam Cooke had. Some things are just forever and forever universal. And Ben E. King defined that.”
“With an extremely heavy heart, I must say goodbye to one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than 50 years – Mr. Ben E. King,” Gary U.S. Bonds wrote of King on Facebook. “I can tell you that Ben E. will be missed more than words can say. Our sincere condolences go out to Betty and the entire family. Thank you Ben E. for your friendship and the wonderful legacy you leave behind.”
In Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, Leiber and Stoller reflected on the impact of one of King’s earliest hits: “People have said that ‘There Goes My Baby’ was a very influential record because it helped set the stage for the Wall of Sound and Motown. Who are we to argue?” Today, Stoller adds, “I’m sure gonna miss him.”
Watch King perform “Stand By Me” with Eric Clapton and Phil Collins below: