Ben E. King (1987)
“I’ve come to accept that ‘Stand By Me’ is my secret key to survival…”
In early 1987 Ben E. King – who died April 30 at 76 – was enjoying an entirely unexpected return to the upper reaches of the pop charts. The original recording of his 1961 song “Stand By Me” had become a hit all over again thanks to its rebirth as the title song of one of the top movies of 1986.
I chanced to experience King’s renewed popularity first-hand in unlikely circumstances.
Actor Bruce Willis, a rising star thanks to his role opposite Cybill Shepherd in the hit TV show “Moonlighting,” was about to release his debut album, “The Return of Bruno.” His label, Motown, put on a private concert cum party at the Ritz on East 11th Street in Manhattan and Willis’s attempt to do his own Blues Brothers-shtick seemed like it would make an amusing story for Boston Herald readers. Willis was better than expected, but the best part of the night by far was the actor’s guests. June Pointer sang “Respect Yourself” and near or at the end of the show Billy Joel popped onstage to play organ.
But the highpoint was “Stand By Me.” Dave Sanborn kicked it off playing sax and then the man himself, Ben E. King, emerged from the wings to take over. He quickly put to rest any question of whether or not this was an event worth attending. In the afterglow of his performance, it occurred to me that an interview with Ben E. King would make a timely story: “Stand By Me” was still on the pop charts in the U.S. and it was breaking big in Europe, including a three week stay at No. 1 in the UK thanks to an additional assist from its appearance in a Levi’s jeans commercial.
When we spoke, King–48 at the time–expressed surprise at seeing his version of the song climb the charts again, but he was well-aware of its enduring appeal. It had been covered by hundreds of other performers and eventually would be ranked the fourth most recorded song of the 20th century. But according to the modest and matter-of-fact Ben E., his career as the singer and writer of some of early rock and roll’s most indelible songs was just a happy accident.
By phone from his home in New Jersey where he lives with his wife, Betty, and three children
So tell me, how was it working with Bruce Willis? It was kind of an unusual event.
It was nice. It was one of those last minute things for me as well. He called me at the last minute. I said, “Why not? Nothing to do today.”
Do you sing on his album [“The Return of Bruno”]? Does he do “Stand By Me?”
I don’t think so.
Not to diminish all of the great songs you’ve sung in your career, but “Stand By Me” is the song you are best known for. What did you think when it was used in the movie “Stand By Me” [in 1986] and it became a Top Ten hit again?
Well, it’s one of those hard to describe type feelings. It’s something you never expect. I can expect it to be re-released, but to have such an impact, well….I knew the movie would help the song, but I never thought the kids would snatch it out of the movie and make it a hit. Each time I watched it go up the charts I was even more floored. I could not actually believe that I had a chart record.
I guess it goes to prove the power of those oldies but goodies.
I think it set the trend for some good things for ‘87 as well. It seems to be pouring over into this year and hopefully we’ll bring out some good music in the sense when we were listening to music, let’s say understandable music. Music got kind of confusing for a while. You don’t know what they’re saying or why they’re saying it.
Any idea how they came to decide to make “Stand By Me” the title of the movie?
From what I’ve been told, the title of the movie was “The Body.” It was taken from a Stephen King story. For some reason King himself or [director Rob] Reiner decided the actual title was too strong for a kids movie. Reiner was going through a stack of records one night and put his hand on “Stand By Me” and said, “This is the title for the movie.”
You must have been happy they were using your song [which was written by King with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller using the pseudonym Elmo Glick. In an interview with Marc Myers, Stoller explained: “Jerry thought that three names would be too long on the label, so we created a joint pseudonym: Elmo Glick. Elmo was for blues slide-guitarist Elmore James and Glick was for Sammy Glick from Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” I helped Jerry make up the name. We thought it was funny.”]
I didn’t know. I was so busy moving around I didn’t know this was happening. I didn’t know until the movie was ready to be released that the title was “Stand By Me.”
I hope you’re going to be getting royalties.
I would get whatever money’s going through Atlantic [Records] as performer and writer.
Did you run out and see the movie right away?
I got a call from [producer] Norman Lear’s office. He was the one to tell me everything about the movie. He called me one day and he said, “Look, Ben, my name is Norman Lear and I’m calling to congratulate you on your song being the title of the movie” – and I’m still not sure what song he’s talking about. But now I’m really interested. He said, “The title of the movie is ‘Stand By Me’.” I said, “Oh,” and called my wife to the phone and she got on the other phone. I said, “Listen to this.” I told him I hadn’t a clue it was called “Stand By Me.” I thought it might be “Save the Last Dance for Me” or something. But for some strange reason I’d never put “Stand By Me” in the running. Then of course he sent us two passes to go to a screening. My wife and I really enjoyed it. We went there basically to see how the song was placed in the movie and how they treated it and I found myself involved in the movie and not worrying about the song.
Did you know at that point that they were going to re-release it as a single?
No, I didn’t know it at all. “Stand By Me” has been in so many movies over the years. I figured it would do what it did in the other movies. It would play a part in some little scene and that would be it. But to answer your question, I was on tour in Europe when I got calls from the States saying, “Your record is doing very good on the charts.” I was just happy that it was on the charts, No. 9 with a bullet. That knocked me out. Each week the agent was calling, telling me, “Do you know where you are on the charts this week?” They were more into it than I was. But I was in the wrong place to enjoy it. I was in Europe where neither the song or the movie was out. I missed the whole impact of it.
How much has the song meant to you over the years?
Strangely enough, I find it strange that out of all the things I’ve done, this song is the one that’s hung in for me. As an artist you hope you have a little edge on whatever your profession is, something to fall back on. The secret key, I call it. I’ve come to accept that “Stand By Me” is my secret key to survival, to satisfaction, to some kind of accomplishment. As a songwriter you rarely get to enjoy the impact of what you’ve done as a songwriter and a singer. I can now enjoy how guys like Paul McCartney and Kris Kristofferson and other writer-singers feel.
Is it only now with the movie that you feel that “Stand By Me” is your secret key?
Going back many years it always seemed to be the one someone would pull out of the pile and record or put in a movie or do something so I would have a couple of extra dollars coming in as royalties. Also I’m involved with “Don’t Play That Song” and “I Who Have Nothing” as a publisher, and “There Goes My Baby” and couple of other Drifters’ songs. But of all the little bits and pieces, they don’t pull in the extra pennies that that one does.
How did you come to write it?
I’m an avid Sam Cooke fan. When he was with the Soul Stirrers, there was a gospel song, “Lord Stand By Me” or something . I heard that and said, “Great line,” and started it, basically to give it to the Drifters. I had no intention of singing it. I was not with the group at that time, but I’d gained their respect as a songwriter. So I started rolling from there, sitting on the side of the bed. Loneliness, more or less. When I finished it I took it to the Drifters and I rehearsed it with the guys. Unfortunately they didn’t need any more material at the time so I walked out of the office with the song. And when I got to the studio one day, Leiber and Stoller asked me, “We have a few minutes left over of studio time, do you have anything you want to do?” I played it on the piano and they liked it. They started rolling right away. We did what’s called a head arrangement and it was born. It was not a planned thing at all. We did it on the spur of the moment.
It’s been covered by so many, many artists. Is there one version that stands out to you as your favorite?
Not really. I like all of them that’s done it. Mickey Gilley. John Lennon. Maurice White. Each did what they thought would make it theirs. John Lennon stayed close to home base. Of course he had that sincerity in his voice. He had even more of a connection than the rest of them. He had a great delivery when he comes to making himself part of the song. So his version sounds closer to the heart than the rest. I was sad what I was doing it and John Lennon seemed to have that interpretation as well. And then his son, Julian, did it too.
Atlantic put out a greatest hits collection to tie in with the movie. But do you have any plans to record new music?
I’ve just finished some things when I was on tour, strangely enough, with all that’s happened with “Stand By Me.” I had already signed a contract with Manhattan Records and I was already scheduled to go into the studio with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, which I had already done when I was done. Everything seemed to be well planned without me planning it. We’ve just finished a few tracks. They’re already mastered and hopefully they’ll be ready in a month of so. [Two Lovers, co-written by Jones, released in 1988 on an album called – here it comes again – “Stand By Me.” Mark Knopfler also played on two tracks, including a remake of “Save the Last Dance For Me.”]
[Above: “Two Lovers,” produced by John Paul Jones]
[Above: “Save the Last Dance for Me” with Mark Knopfler]
Are you getting more gigs now that “Stand By Me” is a hit again?
Of course. It’s brought a lot of people asking me to do dates I would not normally have done, as well as TV show. It always comes if you lock into something. It’s been a strange record to have a hit with. It’s not your normal “I made a record and had a hit” situation. There aren’t many records from 1961 that come back are Top 10 hits again. With all that newborn interest in the record and the fact that I’m still alive [laughs]…a lot of extra dates are coming in. A lot of offers.
Did you have lean years where it was hard for you to make a living?
Never to the point of getting out of music. I’ve taken myself out of the studio two or three times in my career. The way I knew it wasn’t happening as far as making records, the way it happens when your kind of music isn’t happening, I don’t think I’ve been frustrated enough to say I’m gonna quit entirely. I like show business quite a bit, really. I think it’s one of the most rewarding professions in the world.
Before this whole thing with “Stand By Me,” your last big hit was “Supernatural Thing” [which reached No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart in 1975].
It was similar, really. It gave me a new lease on life, really, as far as recording. Because after a while everybody counts you out, so you have to be careful not to punish yourself as well. You pass on the streets and you get the whispers, “Yeah, that was Ben E. King. He used to be somebody.” You have to be very careful that you yourself don’t start believing you’re finished. It’s the low times in this business that let me develop into an artist anyway, because it let me go out there and perform just on raw talent, not on the strength of a hit record. You have to sing for people who many not even know who you are.
When I heard you sing with Bruce Willis the other night, man, your voice sounded just great. Do you feel you sound as good as ever?
As you grow older your attitude about things changes. I know the voice is stronger. I didn’t do a lot of the crazy stuff in my life. A matter of fact, I pass on that. It’s much easier now, my appreciation for music from back to Bach to James Brown is much better. When I started I was so young and thrown into the business in such a fast way I didn’t know what I was getting into. I got started with a group called the Five Crowns. A guy, Lover Patterson, came looking for a singer to the restaurant my father owned [in Harlem] on 8th Avenue and 118th Street. He said, “I see a lot of kids coming in here. Do you know anyone who wants to join a group?” I said, “I can sing a little bit. I did a little singing in church and all that. I can sing backgrounds and stuff.” He brought the group over and we oohed and aahed. So I joined. It was something to do on weekends, a fun thing. The guys were nice and it was a way to pick up five or six bucks. Later on we got a job at the Apollo Theater opening for the Drifters and Ray Charles. And during that week the original Drifters were breaking up. So we were approached by their manager, George Treadwell [who owned The Drifters name], and he asked us if we wanted to become the new Drifters. So we sent him over to Lover, our manager. I said, “What is this stuff? I’m in this for a giggle.” Automatically, we went on salary, so we never earned royalties. I left the group not by choice, but to make some money as an artist. We were on the road and I was just married, married in 1958, and the salary he had us on wasn’t enough to take care of things on the road and to take care of my wife. When I approached George Treadwell, he more or less told me that I was expendable. The rest of the guys were sitting down and I was left standing there by myself. I figured it was take-a-hike time.
After you went solo you had a big hit with “Spanish Harlem,” which was co-written by Phil Spector [with Jerry Leiber]. Was Spector there working in the studio with you?
He was very involved with a lot of the stuff. At that time we just called him shy – but you become eccentric after you get over a million. The more millions you get, the more eccentric you get. I send him letters every so often. But he was very instrumental in all of the things we’ve done.
It’s said that when the Drifters did “There Goes My Baby” they made history by being the first rock and roll group to use a string orchestra. What did you think when you went in to do the recording?
See, once we became the new Drifters, I had never been in a professional studio. I’d just been in the penny arcade kind of places. So when I went into the Atlantic Studios, when we stood in that room with all those instruments, we weren’t aware that they weren’t there for everyone else. It was only because of those instruments that I became the lead singer of the group. Because Charlie Thomas could not adjust to the sound of those instruments when he was trying to sing “There Goes My Baby.” Jerry Wexler, who was involved with the date, came into the control room and said, “Look, you seem to know the song.” That’s because I wrote the song. He said, “You know, you do it.” So that’s how I became lead singer. After that, they just left me on lead. It was totally unplanned. I never wanted to be lead singer, ‘cause the lead singer never had any fun. I shirk responsibility at all costs [laughs].