Friday, July 23, 2010

Ben E. King

From the groundbreaking orchestrated productions of the Drifters to his own solo hits, Ben E. King was the definition of R&B elegance. King's plaintive baritone had all the passion of gospel, but the settings in which it was displayed were tailored more for his honey smooth phrasing and crisp enunciation, proving for perhaps the first time that R&B could be sophisticated and accessible to straight pop audiences. King's approach influenced countless smooth soul singers in his wake and his records were key forerunners of the Motown sound.

King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, NC, in 1938, and sang with his church choir before the family moved to Harlem in 1947. In junior high, he began performing with a street corner doo wop group called the Four B's, which won second place in an Apollo Theater talent contest. While still in high school, he was offered a chance to join the Moonglows, but was simply too young and inexperienced to stick. He subsequently worked at his father's restaurant as a singing waiter, which led to an invitation to become the baritone singer in a doo wop outfit called the Five Crowns in 1958. The Five Crowns performed several gigs at the Apollo Theater along with the Drifters, whose career had begun to flounder in the years since original lead singer Clyde McPhatter departed. Drifters manager George Treadwell, dissatisfied with the group members' unreliability and lack of success, fired them all in the summer of 1958 and hired the Five Crowns to assume the name of the Drifters (which he owned). Read on +/-

The new Drifters toured for about a year, playing to often hostile audiences who knew they were a completely different group. In early 1959, they went into the studio with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to cut their first records. A song Nelson (still performing under his given name) co-wrote called "There Goes My Baby" became his first lead vocal and the lush backing arrangement made highly unorthodox (in fact, virtually unheard-of) use of a string section. "There Goes My Baby" became a massive hit, laying the groundwork for virtually every smooth/uptown soul production that followed. Over the next two years, Nelson sang lead on several other Drifters classics, including "Dance With Me," "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me," and "I Count the Tears."

In 1960, Nelson approached Treadwell about a salary increase and a fairer share of the group's royalties. Treadwell rebuffed him and Nelson quit the group, at this point assuming the more memorable stage name Ben E. King in preparation for a solo career. Remaining on Atlantic, King scored his first solo hit with the stylish, Latin-tinged ballad "Spanish Harlem," a Jerry Leiber/Phil Spector composition that hit the Top Ten in early 1961. The follow-up, "Stand By Me," a heartfelt ode to friendship and devotion co-written by King, became his signature song and an enduring R&B classic; it was also his biggest hit, topping the R&B charts and reaching the pop Top Five. King scored a few more chart singles through 1963, including velvety smooth pop-soul productions like "Amor," "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)," and the Italian tune "I (Who Have Nothing)." In the post-British Invasion years, King had a rough go of it on the pop charts but continued to score R&B hits. 1967's Southern-fried "What Is Soul?" was one of his last singles for Atco; seeking to revive his commercial fortunes, King departed in 1969.

1961 LP Spanish Harlem (US ATCO SD 33-133)

A close look at this album reveals just how ambitious Atlantic Records could be in the early 1960s, in generating LPs. Technically speaking, Ben E. King's debut long-player is a concept album — or, at least, a thematic album. Put together in the wake of his first solo hit, "Spanish Harlem," a Latin flavor and beat run all the way through this 12-song platter, which, at times, is really more of a pop record than a soul record. The dense, busy string section that characterized most of King's work of this era is present, and a lot of his singing may recall more the work of Sammy Davis, Jr. than that of any R&B artist one might think of from this period. And apart from the Jerry Leiber/Phil Spector co-authored title hit, most of what is here dates from a decade or more (sometimes several) earlier — "Frenesi," "Besame Mucho," and "Perfidia" were standards during the big-band era, and most of the rest is of similar or even older vintage. All of which doesn't mean that it is bad — King's version of "Besame Mucho" is a very successful reinterpretation in a Latin soul vein, and "Perfidia" never sounded better than it does in his hands, even if it and a lot of the rest is a long way from what most of us define as "soul." And for better or worse, the production is first-rate within the context of King's established sound, with a phenomenal string section and a percussion section to die for.

A1. Ben E. King - Amor
A2. Ben E. King - Sway
A3. Ben E. King - Come Closer To Me
A4. Ben E. King - Perfidia
A5. Ben E. King - Grenada
A6. Ben E. King - Sweet And Gentle

B1. Ben E. King - Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)
B2. Ben E. King - Frenesi
B3. Ben E. King - Souvenir Of Mexico
B4. Ben E. King - Besame Mucho
B5. Ben E. King - Love Me, Love Me
B6. Ben E. King - Spanish Harlem

1962 LP Ben E. King Sings For Soulful Lovers (US ATCO SD 33-137)

After parting ways with the Drifters in 1960, Ben E. King wasted no time establishing himself as a solo star with chart-toppers like "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand by Me," in which he made the most of his strong and expressive vocal style. Having scored on the R&B and pop charts, King's third album for Atco, Ben E. King Sings for Soulful Lovers, plays like a bid to cross over to more mature listeners after scoring big with the teens, much in the manner of Sam Cooke; the album is dominated by songs already made famous by other artists, featuring a blend of soulful chestnuts and classic standards, and the production and arrangements are polished and classy while still retaining the influence of the "rhythm & blues with strings" style that had become his hallmark. While "He Will Break Your Heart," "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and "It's All in the Game" seem tailor-made for King, some of the other cuts are a bit of a creative stretch, especially "Moon River" and "On the Street Where You Live," both of which sound rather clumsy in this context despite the struggle to make them swing. But King never gives less than his level best on these sessions, no matter what the material happens to be, and he effortlessly walks a line between supper-club polish and passionate sweet soul. If Ben E. King didn't become a regular in Las Vegas or at the Copacabana like Sam Cooke or Lou Rawls, it's certainly not because he lacked the style or the chops, and if the song selection sometimes lets him down on Sings for Soulful Lovers, his voice and his phrasing are spot-on on all 12 tracks.

A1. Ben E. King - My Heart Cries For You
A2. Ben E. King - He Will Break Your Heart
A3. Ben E. King - Dream Lover
A4. Ben E. King - Will You Love Me Tomorrow
A5. Ben E. King - My Foolish Heart
A6. Ben E. King - Fever

B1. Ben E. King - Moon River
B2. Ben E. King - What A Difference A Day Made
B3. Ben E. King - Because Of You
B4. Ben E. King - At Last
B5. Ben E. King - On The Street Where You Live
B6. Ben E. King - It's All In The Game

1962 LP Don't Play That Song (US ATCO SD 33-142)

Ben E. King's third album is a little short in running time but very high in quality, in terms of the dozen songs here. The title track was the selling point, but couldn't help but be seduced by the exquisite production of "Ecstasy" and "On the Horizon," the latter making about as fine use of harps and an ethereal chorus as one imagines possible — and when the strings come in, violins and cellos alternately, the sheer beauty of the track just overflows. "Show Me the Way to Your Heart" isn't too far behind, and then "Stand by Me" shores up the opening of the second side — not that anything here needed shoring up, but it's good that they got the single onto a long-player so it didn't go to waste. Even the lesser material, like "Here Comes the Night" and "First Taste of Love" (the latter a Jerry Leiber/Phil Spector song that bears an uncanny resemblance to Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On"), is interesting to hear for the lively production. This album, like its predecessors, dates from a period in which producers and engineers were figuring out what one could do with soul and R&B in terms of engineering, and the sound separation and textures are nothing if not vibrant and alluring in their own right, separate from the music.

A1. Ben E. King - Don't Play That Song
A2. Ben E. King - Ecstasy
A3. Ben E. King - On The Horizon
A4. Ben E. King - Show Me The Way
A5. Ben E. King - Here Comes The Night
A6. Ben E. King - First Taste Of Love

B1. Ben E. King - Stand By Me
B2. Ben E. King - Yes
B3. Ben E. King - Young Boy Blues
B4. Ben E. King - The Hermit Of Misty Mountain
B5. Ben E. King - I Promise Love
B6. Ben E. King - Brace Yourself

1965 LP Seven Letters (US ATCO SD 33-174)

The original notes to the Seven Letters album indicate that it is the most diverse album of material that Ben E. King had ever recorded, and they're right. The range of material here, cut over a period of more than two years, included some impassioned soul music -- "River of Tears," "I'm Standing By," "It's All Over," "In the Middle of the Night," and the title track -- as well as some very personal pop ("Jamaica") and novelty ("Si Senor") tunes, and towering performances throughout. The requisite string-laden orchestral backings are present, courtesy of producers Leiber & Stoller, Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, and the various arrangers, but there are also some nicely stripped down, more basic soul numbers. Interestingly, "Jamaica" was written by King in the wake of his 1961 tour of the island (soon to be island-nation), an event that helped spark a boom in local ska and reggae performers who were inspired by the presence of American soul stars like King on tour -- the song practically chronicles the spawning of the seed that led to the ska and reggae booms (which Atlantic would grab a piece of, not only by signing Byron Lee and securing a distribution agreement with him for the Cayman Islands, but also through Eric Clapton's efforts on Bob Marley's behalf less than a decade later). The album has not a single weak spot, and boasts some strong contributions by several outside songwriters including Carole King and Gerry Goffin, whose gorgeous "Down Home" provided the vehicle for King's best singing on the entire record. Not that it did much for him at the time of its release -- it had no weak spots, but also no major hits (even "I'm Standing By" was a failed follow-up to "Stand By Me," and this was the last of four Ben E. King albums issued by Atlantic in the United States. Like two of its predecessors, it disappeared without reaching any but King's hardcore audience, thus making it a choice collector's item. It lacked the hook of a massive hit single like a "Stand By Me" or a "Spanish Harlem" for a wider audience to grab onto.

A1. Ben E. King - Seven Letters
A2. Ben E. King - River Of Tears
A3. Ben E. King - I'm Standing By
A4. Ben E. King - Jamaica
A5. Ben E. King - Down Home
A6. Ben E. King - Si Senor

B1. Ben E. King - It's All Over
B2. Ben E. King - Let The Water Run Down
B3. Ben E. King - This Is My Dream
B4. Ben E. King - It's No Good For Me
B5. Ben E. King - In The Middle Of The Night
B6. Ben E. King - Don't Drive Me Away

1964 LP Greatest Hits (US ATCO SD 33-165)

1A. Ben E. King - Amor
2A. Ben E. King - Around The Corner
3A. Ben E. King - Auf Wiedersehen My Dear
4A. Ben E. King - Don't Play That Song (You Lied)
5A. Ben E. King - How Can I Forget
6A. Ben E. King - I (Who Have Nothing)

1B. Ben E. King - I Could Have Danced All Night
2B. Ben E. King - Spanish Harlem
3B. Ben E. King - Stand By Me
4B. Ben E. King - That's When It Hurts
5B. Ben E. King - What Now My Love
6B. Ben E. King - Young Boy Blues

1 berichten:

Catherine said...

I have just received a mail from rapidshare and I want to thank you a lot.I can leave a comment for the 4 albums of Ben E King as I know them very well.His versions of "fever" "besame mucho" are really great. I don't speak of all the hits everybody know but "River of tears" and "it's no good for me" are more than good. "moon river" can be compared to the version of Jerry Butler (who is also a great singer). Many thanks

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