For those who knew Ben E. King, his character was revered almost more than his enormous talent.
“He was just a mensch,” says Sam and Dave’s Sam Moore, King’s 1960s hitmaking R&B contemporary. “He was so nice and carried himself like a gentleman wherever he played. It was a comfort and pleasure to be in his company.”
Entertainment lawyer Judy Tint, who represented King for over 20 years, likewise notes, “He was the ultimate class act on and off the stage, an incredible artist and even more incredible human being.”
King, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Drifters, died Thursday at 76. His landmark 1961 solo single “Stand By Me” was voted as one of the “Songs of the Century” by the Recording Industry Assoicaiton of America, and along with his co-wrtitten Drifters hit “There Goes My Baby” and his first solo hit “Spanish Harlem” is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” list; the three songs and The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” are also in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“Very, very few people are as equally warm and wonderful as they’re talented,” says Sharyn Felder, daughter of the late songwriting legend Doc Pomus, who had a hand in many of King’s hits including “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
“He was a gentleman’s gentleman–that’s who he was,” she adds. “The most soulful guy inside and out. It’s amazing how many songs of my dad’s he recorded, and my dad adored him.”
She cites King’s lesser known 1961 hit “Young Boy Blues,” co-written by Pomus and Phil Spector, as a personal favorite, and notes that King’s group the Five Crowns recorded “Kiss and Make Up,” the only single for Pomus’s shortlived label R&B Records, before they became The Drifters.
“He was all over the [2012 documentary A.K.A. Doc Pomus] that we made, and drove and parked his own car to the interviews and premiere and was happy to do it. It just didn’t get realer than him.”
Felder relates that when Michael Bublé had a hit in 2006 with “Save the Last Dance for Me,” King graciously called him to offer his congratulations.
“It was so sweet of him,” she says. “It was a song he was so recognized for, but he saw it as the passing of the baton.”
Robert Kenison, who as Troy Charmell was a member of the legendary 1970s Midwest rock ‘n’ roll show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners, performed several times with King when he and other members of the band played private parties together.
“He just made you feel comfortable-and was no prima donna,” recalls Kenison. “He didn’t put you down if you made a mistake.”
Vocally, of course, King was “just awesome,” continues Kenison. “Newt [Mike Riegel, a.k.a. Dr. Bop’s bandleader Dr. Newt Bop] used to call it ‘the field holler’-where he’d sing with that high, gritty, straining voice, like on the second ‘darling’ of ‘darling, darling, stand by me.’ Straining, yet controlled. He could do that, even though he was kind of a crooner.”
And a Midwesterner with little sense of Harlem, Kenison, through King’s vocal on “Spanish Harlem,” could “envision the image of a red rose growing out of the sidewalk,” he adds.
Dr. Bop’s lead vocalist Al Craven (“The White Raven”) eulogized King on the band’s Dr. Bop and the Headliners featuring The White Raven Facebook fan page.
“If in the end, only kindness matters, you were indeed the King,” wrote Craven. “So many of us were influenced by his groundbreaking music with The Drifters and then his solo career. Those close to him were taken by his gentle manner and humble spirit. We knew him only from our appearances together over the past several years, but he always treated all of us like we were long time friends, never hesitating for a moment to engage in conversation, or put his arm around us for a photo.”
Jimmy Webb tweeted yesterday, “Ben E King–1 of the most polished & erudite of all modern performers–high on my list of significant artists.”
“Ben E King wrote and sang one of John’s favorite songs…’Stand By Me,’” tweeted May Pang, referring to John Lennon’s 1975 hit cover.
“Stand By Me,” in fact, received the Towering Song Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012, with King singing it and receiving the Towering Performance honor. It was inducted this year into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
While Tint noted that King, like many other R&B artists of his era, didn’t always receive his proper due for his songwriting and performing, “he never dwelled on it.”
“He was really passionate about music and was still writing and performing,” she says. “I spoke with him a couple weeks ago and he was talking about working on another record.”
King, she notes, was also a devoted family man and very active as a philanthropist.
“He was gracious and warm and funny and humble and certifiably the nicest guy in show business,” she says.
He was born Benjamin Earl Nelson.
“I was so close to him I was able to call him Benjamin!” says Moore. “He’s gone to a place now where all he has to do is sit back and be happy and be loved by those he’s left behind.”
Moore concludes: “I love you, Benjamin.”
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