Ben E. King: The Sweet Soul Man
It’s hard to imagine a sweeter person in all of soul music than Ben E. King, who passed away on April 30 at the age of 76. Our family had the pleasure of seeing him in concert at a tiny cinema in Hunter, New York back in 2003, when a savvy local businessman also brought the great Chuck Jackson up to perform. I remember King genuinely engaging our then 8-year old son Campbell, who was quite perplexed to find himself in the very front row, face to face with what his dad understandably insisted was a true singing legend.
I then had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. King for not one, but two books. His input into the story of the Harlem R&B vocal group scene was paramount to the quality of “All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music From The Streets of New York 1927-77.” A solid 50+ years down the line, thanks to his enthusiasm and eloquence, I could almost picture the scene as he talked of taking his neighborhood group 20-30-40 blocks uptown to challenge other area vocal groups. There were motivating factors beyond out-singing each other: “You were also trying to get their girls,” he told me, at which he laughed.
I interviewed Mr. King a second time just last November, for my forthcoming biography of Wilson Pickett. We spoke by phone and once more, he was a genuine delight. He spoke with great insight about his complicated relationship with Wilson, with whom he shared a record label, many a concert stage and a typically complex friendship. I’m looking at the transcript now and there is pearl after pearl of wisdom there. Towards the end of the interview, he paid Pickett a supreme compliment:
“To this day, I would not hit the stage without doing a Wilson song. ‘Midnight Hour,’ ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ … I can turn the house lights on and go home after I do that.”
At which he laughed. Again.
Ben E. King laughed often. It had seemed to be his secret to a long and happy life. It was typical of him to give credit to someone else’s music as reason for his ongoing concert popularity, as opposed to pointing to his own incredible array of hits: “There Goes My Baby” and “Save The Last Dance For Me” with the Drifters, “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me” under his own name, to name but four. It was impossible to imagine, when we spoke, that in less than six months he would not only no longer be performing, but that he would no longer be of this earth. Following in the footsteps of the recently departed Don Covay, the last of the Soul Clan has now gone to that great revival in the sky. Just imagine the party they’re having.