Born Benjamin Earl Nelson in 1938 in North Carolina, King moved with his family to Harlem in 1947. There, he joined a young doo-wop group, which won second place in a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. After working as a singing waiter in his father’s restaurant and fielding invitations from other doo-wop groups, he joined the Five Crowns in 1958, performing regularly at the Apollo.
When another regular Apollo group, The Drifters, lost momentum, their manager fired the original members, then hired the Five Crowns to perform under that name. King (then still known as Nelson) co-penned “There Goes My Baby” in 1959 with famed songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who wrote “Jailhouse Rock” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” among other hits). The song, using King on lead vocals, also introduced the then-novel idea of orchestral strings in a pop song. It became a smash hit, influencing the sound of studio soul recordings for years to come.
The Drifters continued to churn out radio gems like “Dance With Me,” “I Count the Tears,” “Save the Last for Me” and “This Magic Moment,” though King began to lose patience with his financial situation within the group. After being refused a salary increase, he left for a solo career and adopted a far-snappier stage name, Ben E. King.
His first solo success came with “Spanish Harlem,” composed by Leiber and producer Phil Spector, which was a Top-10 hit in 1961. The gorgeously evocative “Stand By Me,” followed, reaching the Top 5 on the pop charts and becoming King’s signature song. (He originally offered it to the Drifters, he once said, but they turned it down; artists ranging from John Lennon to Warren Zevon would go on to cover it.)
The ensuing years failed to bring King the same kind of success, though he did score an unlikely disco hit in 1975 with “Supernatural Thing, Part I.” In 1986, “Stand By Me” was revived for a new generation in Rob Reiner’s film of the same name, catapulting the song back into the Top-10. King continued to release solo albums and collaborate with other jazz and soul artists throughout the ’90s and ’00s, recording his last album, Heart & Soul, in 2010. He leaves behind Betty King, his wife of more than half a century.
Below, a few of his most memorable musical moments: