Remembering Ben E. King, the Singer Who Created “Stand by Me” and so Much More




It may seem foolhardy to compare Ben E. King, who died last week at age 76, with The Beatles. Their music and their backgrounds seem so totally different.

But King, himself, did that when this writer interviewed him for a 2005 Paste story about the late 1950s/early 1960s pop music associated with New York’s Brill Building. And he expressed hurt and complaint when he discussed what The Beatles did to the world he knew.

As the urbane baritone singer with both eloquently clear diction and an underlying streak of poignantly soulful gruffness, first with The Drifters and then solo, King worked with a record company (Atlantic), producers (Leiber and Stoller) and songwriters (Pomus and Shuman, Goffin and King, Phil Spector and Bert Berns) associated with the Brill Building’s heyday. He also was an excellent composer himself, co-writing “There Goes My Baby” and the gospel-influenced “Stand By Me.”

In that interview, King conveyed pride in his accomplishments. He felt he was part of something bigger than just chasing Top 40 hits. He and his collaborators were in the vanguard of changing times by challenging segregation and the racial division of American arts and culture into black and white.

So he was disappointed when, in 1964, the British Invasion swept the Brill Building sound aside, often with new groups who covered songs that American artists, especially African-American artists, had failed with.

Or, they scored with inferior original material—King asked how The Beatles’ 1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” could in any way be considered a musical advancement over his 1961 “Spanish Harlem,” a blending of Latin, soul and rock with a poetic lyric worthy of West Side Story. (He acknowledged The Beatles did later become superb writers.)

”It was not the blend of music we had going at the time, which was a mixture of music of all races,” King said then. “I had Latin music, rhythm and blues, two wonderful Jewish guys producing me [Leiber and Stoller], so I had wonderful human relationships in the music. But when it came from England, it was European groups playing what they assumed pop music and R&B should sound like.”

In a comment that was published in that story, King said, “the only reason these kids came to be popular is they imitated what we sent over. They had a great look, a great promotional gimmick and you have to allow for all the songs recorded by blacks that didn’t get played in some parts of the country. So when The Beatles came over, no problem. Every state loved them, every major TV show they were on. They cut through with no problem.”

It’s a compelling viewpoint—the British Invasion as racism—that deserves consideration as rock history continues to be revised. But it also needs to be said that King’s (and The Drifters’) records—while marketed to and bought by teenagers, black and white—were special even for the often-special standards of the Brill Building.

He and his collaborators were working at the top of their game with an ear for where soul, rock and vocal-group pop could transcend genre definitions. And they didn’t want his records to be merely cute or catchy. King was royalty—deserving of the most sophisticated material.

The high regard for King—born Benjamin Earl Nelson in North Carolina but raised in Harlem—started with Doc Pomus, whose short-lived R&B Records released a 1958 single by a doo-wop group King had joined, The Crowns. It didn’t do much, but indirectly led to The Crowns becoming a new version of The Drifters after the latter’s manager fired the existing group.

Pomus and Mort Shuman provided The Drifters, with King as lead singer, two of his most autobiographical and substantial songs, “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” For Pomus, who because of childhood polio needed leg braces and crutches, King’s voice lifted him up.

From the start, King seemed a mature and self-assured singer, not an easily pliable imitator. He was melodic in an intimate and conversational way that could be romantic, melancholy and discreet, yet urgent and full of longing in the way a late-night confession to a friend or lover can be.

On his ballads and mid-tempo numbers, which are what he is best known for, King seemed to carefully, thoughtfully measure just how much emotion he’d let his voice reveal. As a result, his singing is neither superficial nor melodramatic. His feelings are deep and expressed naturalistically. Not just the biggest hits, all acknowledged masterpieces, but also other Drifters tracks like “Dance With Me” and “I Count the Tears” and much of the early 1960s solo material like “On the Horizon,” “Gypsy” and “I (Who Have Nothing).”

He made his collaborators strive for excellence. Beginning with 1959’s “There Goes My Baby,” the orchestral arrangements by Stan Applebaum created three-minute symphonies out of his songs. And his solo “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” which King’s wife Betty wrote with Atlantic’s owner Ahmet Ertegun, is a very complex song, an early example of “meta” in the way it urges us to listen to a record whose singer is imploring the object of his attention to not play it. It’s an intellectual head trip of an idea, but King’s singing transcends that conceit. He means it.

King’s greatest recording, 1961’s “Stand By Me” (which he wrote with Leiber and Stoller) is somewhat atypical of the others in its raw immediacy and directness. Opening with a seductive, vibrating bass line as incessant and insistent as a heartbeat, its straightforward lyrics have the universality of the cosmos, itself: “When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see…”

As the string section builds toward a maelstrom of minor-key ominousness, King repeats the title to steady himself—and us. Toward the end, as he repeats the title, he says, “Whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you stand by me.” It’s like a prayer, a plea, a cry against pain, itself. And it’s forever contemporary for being so, which is why it’s been so covered.

Earlier this year, the Library of Congress named it to its National Recording Registry of “cultural, artistic and/or historical significant” recordings.

King eventually made a comeback with a 1975 funky dance hit, “Supernatural Thing – Part 1,” and then again in 1986 when “Stand By Me” was the theme song for a movie of the same name. Great codas. But for his work from 1959-1964, until the British Invasion ended the Brill Building’s golden era, he should be remembered as one of our greatest pop singers ever. King himself was a national cultural treasure.


The Legacy of the Brill Building Sound


(Brill Building lobby, New York)

When Rock ‘n’ Roll First Grew Up

When Don McLean’s “American Pie” was released in late 1971, everyone tried to analyze what he meant by “the day the music died.” McLean was likely referring to Feb. 3, 1959, when sweet-voiced rock ’n’ roll innocent Buddy Holly died in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.

To me, the day the music died was Feb. 9, 1964, when The Beatles took the stage of CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show.

For many decades, I believed that date was when rock was revived and reborn after the post-Holly years. Then Dylan came along to wed rock with lyrical relevance.

But rock and the British Invasion (and even Dylan) may have killed something far more daring — the Brill Building Sound. And that musically and socially progressive youth-oriented genre of the early 1960s looms with each passing year as the best popular music since the classic Great American Songbook composers.

While “the Brill Building Sound” is a rather broad term, it most narrowly refers to songwriters — especially the youthful teams of Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — who wrote for the Aldon Music publishing company. It was actually located nearby rather than inside Manhattan’s Brill Building, itself a long-established home to publishers.

Yes, this music was better than The Beatles — at the time when the Fab Four and their British brethren first mounted the invasion, undermining the Brill Building’s heyday and ushering in a new self-contained-rock-band era that never went away. Just put “She Loves You” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” up against the sensual “Spanish Harlem,” a 1961 Brill Building Sound classic written for singer Ben E. King by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, and produced by Leiber and partner Mike Stoller with Spector’s input:

“There is a rose in Spanish Harlem / A red rose up in Spanish Harlem / It is a special one / It’s never seen the sun / It only comes out / when the moon is on the run / And all the stars are gleaming”

“She loves you, yeah yeah yeah”

Case closed.

It’s as Allison Anders — director of the film Grace of My Heart, about the Brill Building Sound — told me recently, “They produced the only real standards as far as I’m concerned for the rock ’n’ roll generation.”

So I’m not alone in this appreciation for what was lost. And in Greil Marcus’ latest book on Bob Dylan’s revolutionary impact on rock, Like a Rolling Stone, he includes this amazing footnote about Brill Building writing: “[It] stands as one of the truest achievements of postwar pop music. Dylan more than anyone ended their careers as songwriters.”

When I think of the enduring quality of this music, I think especially of the ballads that were so wispy, melancholy and ruminative. There were plenty of Brill Building rockers that were fun in their own right, if not classics for the ages, especially those recorded by the “girl groups” of the era. But the ballads were for and by teenagers and young adults, and they were thought-provoking, literate and well-crafted.

At their best — especially in the work of the slightly older Burt Bacharach and Hal David— the songs’ dramatic narratives expressed the rare, mature quality of regret as well as affection. When romantic, they revealed secrets rather than hurled clichés —“Don’t Make Me Over” for Dionne Warwick, “Mexican Divorce” for The Drifters, “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” for Gene Pitney, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” for Tommy Hunt.

And they could be political, too. While a little late in the curve, Mann and Weil wrote some sparkling Dylan-influenced social-protest songs, like The Vogues’ “Magic Town,” Jody Miller’s “Home of the Brave” and The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” And one of their earlier songs, The Drifters’ “On Broadway,” is as much a masterpiece of urban longing as any Edward Hopper painting.

“I really liked folk singers like Pete Seeger and  Woody Guthrie as a kid because their songs had something to say about society,” Weil says. “I was also very into musical theater and I liked the idea of pop songs expressing ideas and being more than ‘Moon’ and ‘June’ love songs, so that awareness found its way into my lyrics.”

Not all the great songs of the era were by Brill Building or Aldon visionaries per se. Not even all were New York productions — Los Angeles played an important part and for a while there was crossover with “The Sound of Young America” emanating from Berry Gordy’s Motown operation, especially on such sanguine, reflective Four Tops ballads as “Baby I Need Your Loving’” and “Ask the Lonely.”

But they all shared an aesthetic — an ambitious creative approach. Their sound was adventurous and full of surprisingly subtle coloration: string arrangements, horns, rumbling bass, Latin-like percussion and female backup singers with their gentle, dreamy “sha la las.” There wasn’t a fear that delicacy could be interpreted as a loss of edge. Delicacy was part of the edge.

Everyone involved thought they were topping themselves with each new hit — and they were — singers like Ben E. King, Warwick, Pitney and The Shirelles; producer/arranger/writers like Leiber and Stoller, Spector and Luther Dixon; songwriters like the aforementioned plus Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry; independent labels like Atlantic, Musicor and Scepter/Wand.

And to an extent appropriate for the optimistic times that coincided with the 1963 March on Washington and the Kennedy presidency, the music was color-blind and integrationist. Most of the writers were white; many of the singers black and influenced by R&B, doo-wop and gospel. And clever productions like Shadow Morton’s work on the Shangri-Las’ urgently forceful “Out in the Streets” and “Give Us Your Blessings,” both written by Greenwich and Barry, owed as much to West Side Story as Elvis.

The British Invasion and the rock revolution that followed produced some great work but also undermined the importance of the Brill Building Sound’s inspired professionalism. Instead, the replacements were hero worship and superstar egocentricity of monstrous proportions.

“I’m not in total agreement it changed music for [the] better,” says Ben E. King about the British Invasion. He was the Drifters’ lead singer on “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” before recording as a solo artist.

“I thought they had some great writers, but so did we,” King explains. “It was certainly for the better for European groups, and to this day they’re household names — Mick Jagger on down. [But] it wasn’t the blend of music we had going at the time, which was a mixture of music of all races — I had Latin music, R&B, two wonderful Jewish guys producing. We had wonderful human relationships in our music. But when it came from England, it was European groups playing what they assumed pop music and R&B should sound like.”

Actually, those early British groups were admirers of the Brill Building Sound—especially, oddly, the girl-group recordings. Some even had sizeable hits covering them—The Searchers with The Orlons’ ethereal “Don’t Throw Your Love Away” and Herman’s Hermits with Earl-Jean’s “I’m Into Something Good.” But in making those songs their own, they effectively erased the past.

Billy Vera, a musician and music historian who had a huge hit in 1987 with “At This Moment,” started his career as a writer for an Aldon rival, April-Blackwood Music. (His boss was Chip Taylor, who back in the day penned “Wild Thing” and now records folk music with Carrie Rodriguez.) He believes the Brill Building Sound — primarily the silky urban soul tunes recorded by Ben E. King and others — was as good as it ever got.

“I don’t know that I’d call it rock,” he says. “It was pop music, orchestral in nature. There was a maturing taking place. By the early 1960s, all these guys were bored with the simplicity of rock ’n’ roll and wanted to do something more sophisticated. Leiber and Stoller started it with (1959’s) ‘There Goes My Baby’ (for The Drifters). Then Bacharach and David—and before, Bob Hilliard — started making music that was more Gershwinesque but still had elements of rock ’n’ roll and soul.”

Vera also points out that this blending of influences was happening at a time when Top 40 radio was a giant blender for all kinds of pop music. Everybody was listening to everything.

“That period from 1959 to 1964 was when all these records were being made with great arrangements, recording techniques, and songwriting with lyrics and melodies that had more depth than rock ’n’ roll,” Vera says. “A lot of the people who had come out of early rock ’n’ roll were becoming grownups. And blacks and whites, as fans and musicians, were coming closer together. The British Invasion brought an end to that and that’s crucial to understanding the history of rock ’n’ roll.

There are several reasons why this is crucial. Ever since The Beatles, rock ’n’ roll — which until recently has dominated pop music commercially and culturally — has been about reinventing the wheel. Sooner or later, it always comes back to needing “roots” to justify itself. Rawness is praised over growth and polish. Such music is seen as eternally rebellious. But it’s an immature rebellion, pure arrested development — Peter Pan’s cry of “I don’t want to grow up.” The Brill Building Sound creators were interested in growing beyond that, musically, emotionally and intellectually. Sadly, this notion has become the most-outdated fundament of the Brill Building Sound.

The British bands, by reinterpreting the black-American blues and hard R&B that was originally seen as adult music in America, made it acceptable as youth music through the force of their flamboyant personalities and guitar-playing prowess. But they also made it white.

“The only reason these kids came to be popular is they imitated what we sent over,” Ben E. King says. “They had a great look, a great promotional gimmick and you have to allow for all the songs recorded by blacks that didn’t get played in some parts of the country. So when The Beatles came over, no problem. Every state loved them, every major TV show—they were on. They cut through with no problem.”

These groups also started writing their own songs, which often sounded suspiciously like the material that inspired them. That started a whole new trend that continues today—recording artists who get away with writing mediocre, derivative material because of who they are. As a result, there’s been a dumbing-down of songwriting.

Curiously, it was The Beatles who fought hardest against this. With an older producer, George Martin, at the helm, and interests in Broadway, pre-rock pop and Indian music as well as rock’s roots, they tried to be musically sophisticated in their arrangements, lyrics and recordings. But by the time they broke up in 1970, rock began fragmenting into different categories.

For a while, there was an incredible flowering, as different youth-music radio formats started to cover the expanding territory. Eventually, however, tastes compartmentalized and fossilized. Some Brill Building Sound writers initially found new life—Carole King as a singer/songwriter, Bacharach and David as MOR composers. But too many of the great interpretive singers found their way to the oldies circuit. Or obscurity.

When Richard Foos, who started Rhino Records and now owns the Shout! Factory label, opened a Los Angeles record store in 1973, much of the Brill Building Sound was out-of-print. Then-nascent rock criticism wasn’t kind to it, confusing it with stiff, dull teen idols like Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Also, some critics found Carole King’s singer/songwriter material wimpy compared to, say, Exile on Main Street.

“The popular theory—which can be really argued—was that there had been a slow ebb of rock ’n’ roll and R&B during the 1961-63 period,” Foos says. “And then The Beatles come and that starts the era of self-contained bands writing their own music.”

Rhino has helped preserve this era’s music with its reissues, such as 1998’s The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection. “I have to say, unfortunately, that this music has never sold like later-1960s music or even the 1970s, even though personally I love it more,” Foos says.

Others, too, have tried to pick up the Brill Building ball — loyal New Yorkers like Paul Simon, Lou Reed and the late Joey Ramone have championed it. Fittingly, Broadway has been receptive to revues based on songs by Leiber and Stoller (Smokey Joe’s Café) and Greenwich and Barry (Leader of the Pack).

Most interestingly, Anders’ 1996 film Grace of My Heart — modeled on the life of Carole King (played by Illeana Douglas)—initiated important new work by Bacharach. For its soundtrack, the film paired actual songwriters of the Brill Building Sound era with contemporary songsmiths. Bacharach and Elvis Costello wrote the memorable “God Give Me Strength” and went on to collaborate on a well-received album.

“We created a situation where these two men could come together and create a standard,” Anders says, proudly. “We gave something back.”

Truth is, we all should be giving something back to the Brill Building Sound.

I’m indebted to the following sources for this story: Alan Betrock’s Girl Groups book, and the music and liner notes on the following boxed sets: The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (Rhino); The Scepter Records Story (Capricorn); The Brill Building Sound (Era); The Sue Records Story (EMI); Phil Spector: Back to Mono (1958-1969) (Abkco); The Red Bird Story (Charly).