Ben E. King

R&B crooner Ben E. King spent time in the Drifters before going solo with

a number of early '60s smash hits, including his signature song "Stand

by Me" (RealAudio

excerpt).

King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson 61 years ago today in Henderson, N.C.

He sang in church choirs as a youth. King moved with his family to the

Harlem district in New York City, where he formed his first group, the

Four B's.

In the mid-'50s King tried out for the Moonglows. When he was turned down,

he joined the Five Crowns, whose lead singer, Bobby Hendricks, soon left

to join the Drifters. In 1959 the Drifters' manager canned the group and

replaced them with the Five Crowns, including King.

The new Drifters lineup had a #2 pop smash and #1 R&B song with "There

Goes My Baby," which was sung and co-written by King. The cut featured

strings, unprecedented for an R&B hit. King also handled lead vocals on

other big Drifters hits, such as the #1 "Save the Last Dance For Me" and

the top-20 "This Magic Moment" (RealAudio

excerpt) — both produced by the famed team of Jerry Leiber

and Mike Stoller.

King went solo and in 1961 had a top-10 hit with "Spanish Harlem," written

by Leiber and Phil Spector. That same year, King hit #4 with his composition

"Stand by Me." Most subsequent King records were bigger R&B than pop hits,

including 1963's "I (Who Have Nothing)."

After 1963 King had several lean years professionally, though he continued

to tour in Europe. In 1975 he re-signed with Atlantic Records and enjoyed

a #5 smash with "Supernatural Thing, Part 1." Two years later, King cut

Benny and Us with the Average White Band.

Between 1978 and 1986, King experienced another career slump. But in '86

"Stand by Me" (which John Lennon covered in 1975) was featured in the

hit movie of the same name, based on a Stephen King story. Amazingly,

the song charted and made #9 in the United States. King was suddenly in

demand again. The next year the song was used in a Levi's commercial and

went to #1 in the UK.

King signed with EMI Manhattan Records in 1987 and issued the all-new

Save the Last Dance For Me the following year. In 1990 "Stand by

Me" was named one of BMI's Most Performed Songs of 1940-1990 when it

reached its 3 millionth performance. In 1994 King dueted with Manhattan

Transfer on their cover of "Save the Last Dance For Me."

Other birthdays: Ray Charles, 69; Steve Boone (Lovin' Spoonful), 56;

Julio Iglesias, 56; Ronald Bushy (Iron Butterfly), 54; Bruce Springsteen,

50; Lita Ford, 40; Ani DiFranco, 29; Mike Felumlee (Smoking Popes), 25;

Roy Buchanan, 1939-1988; and John Coltrane, 1926-1967.