Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ben E. King - It's All Over (ATCO 6315)

It's All Over

You know, after I did that post over on the other side about the Soul Clan single, I realized that the only member of the Clan that I hadn't written about was Ben E. King. I guess I just never got around to it... but there's more to it than that, I think. When people talk about the great Atlantic Soul singers, King's name is hardly ever mentioned. As a matter of fact, people have written (myself included), that Ben E. was a last minute addition to the Soul Clan project, recruited to replace Wilson Pickett. Well, as I pointed out a while back, I don't think that was the case. Don Covay, the principal architect of the whole idea, was apparently a big fan, and had hoped to include him all along...

Born in North Carolina, but raised in Harlem, Benjamin Earl Nelson came up singing doo-wop on the street corners, like most kids his age. His group The Four Bs took second place at one of the Apollo Theater's fabled amateur night competitions, and led to his being asked to join the more established Five Crowns. After the Crowns apparently showed up the listless Drifters (who had been reeling ever since Clyde McPhatter left the group three years earlier) on stage at the Apollo in 1958, heavy-handed manager George Treadwell fired what was left of the original members, and from that moment on, The Crowns became The Drifters.

Atlantic assigned the group to their west coast w√ľnderkinds Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, who had just delivered three consecutive #1 R&B hits on The Coasters. They were on a roll. Ben brought them a song he had been working on in their live performances, and had written with their lead vocalist Charlie Thomas in mind. At the sessions in March of 1959, Charlie had trouble with the tune, and so Ben E. (who was usually the baritone) took the lead, and just blew everyone away.

Even more astonishing was Leiber & Stoller's decision to add strings to what essentially was a straight ahead doo-wop record, something that had never been tried before. When they played it for Jerry Wexler, he "pronounced it dogmeat... it sounded like a radio caught between two stations, neither one totally tuned." Ahmet Ertegun persuaded them to remix the record with Tom Dowd, but the company was still reluctant to release it. When they finally did put it out that summer, it took the country by storm, going straight to #1 R&B (#2 Pop) and staying on the charts for almost 5 months as it paved the way for just about everything that was to follow.

Wexler had been proven spectacularly wrong - something which, I'm sure, he was loath to admit.

Leiber & Stoller, on the other hand, had proven themselves to be bona-fide hit makers and began to demand things like label credits and producer's royalties, something which had been previously unheard of.

They brought in fellow 'Jewish Mambo-Nicks' like Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (who had worked with the group when they were still The Crowns) and created a string of unforgettable Drifters' hits including Dance With Me, This Magic Moment and Save The Last Dance For Me, all of which featured our man Benjamin Nelson on lead vocals. These songs will live forever, and are woven into the very fabric of American Popular Music.

But Leiber & Stoller weren't through.

When Nelson tried to renegotiate the terms of his contract with George Treadwell, it became apparent (just as it had to Clyde McPhatter before him) that he was little more than a hired hand. He left the group at the height of its popularity, and set out on his own as Ben E. King. In October of 1960, with Save The Last Dance For Me at #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts, King entered the studio with Leiber & Stoller and cut two more absolute Soul standards, Young Boy Blues and Spanish Harlem, both of which had been co-written with a new arrival from the left coast, Phil Spector. Released on ATCO, Spanish Harlem would break into the Pop top ten in early 1961 (only to be surpassed ten years later, of course, when Aretha took it and made it forever her own).

Perhaps the most timeless of all the songs that King would record with Leiber & Stoller, however, was cut at those same 1960 sessions. Just as had happened with There Goes My Baby, it was Ben who brought the idea into the studio. Taken loosely from Charles Tindley's Gospel standard (and the Soul Stirrers 1959 adaptation), Stand By Me is just an amazing piece of work. Featuring, once again, that 'Jewish-Latin' beat, and resonating in the heart and soul of everyone who's ever heard it, it spent a month at #1 R&B (#4 Pop) in 1961.

Despite all of this, Atlantic was in trouble. Both Ray Charles and Bobby Darin had walked out on them by then, and things were not looking good. Leiber & Stoller's accountant advised them to perform a 'routine audit' of the royalties the company owed them, and found that they had been underpaid by $18,000. Wexler who (as we've seen) was not their biggest fan to begin with, must have viewed this as the last straw. "I'm deeply offended," he told Leiber. Ahmet Ertegun told them "Fine, I'll pay the eighteen thousand, but I don't ever want to do business with you again..." They backed down, and let Atlantic keep the money they owed them, but the damage was done. By the end of 1961, they were gone.

Much has been made of Solomon Burke's arrival at Atlantic as signaling the beginning of the 'soul era', and perhaps that's true. Wexler himself called it "the infusion of fresh energy I needed," and went on to produce Burke's first single for the label, Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms), in September of '61. A sweet remake of a Country standard, it made the top ten R&B, and even broke into the Pop top forty. It was around this time that Wexler latched on to another Brill building regular, and began using him as a producer to try and replace the work Leiber & Stoller (and the recently departed Phil Spector) had been doing for the label.

Bert Russell Berns was yet another New Yorker with a feel for the Latin rhythms he had heard growing up in The Bronx. After a couple of 45s that didn't do much, Bert had decided to concentrate on his songwriting and production. Like Leiber & Stoller before him, he had been doing freelance work for New York area labels like Wand and Big Top when Wexler enlisted him to work with Solomon Burke. They would take a song Berns had written, Cry To Me, all the way to #5 R&B in early 1962, and set the stage for the dozens of records he would produce on Solomon over the next few years. Perhaps the song that gets the most attention nowadays as one of the archetypes of Soul music (even though it only made it to #58 R&B at the time) is 1964's Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, which Berns had co-written with Wexler and Burke.

Right... so, what does this have to do with Ben E. King? Well, Berns had begun producing him as well in 1963, and this incredible number we have here (written by Berns and Mike Leander) was actually recorded two weeks earlier than Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, with the same studio band - a band that featured Wild Jimmy Spruill on electric guitar. Check out King's soulful vocals here, man... I mean, whoa! It's hard to believe that this 45 only managed to crawl to #72 R&B when it was released (two months after the Burke signal) in September of 1964. The follow-up, Seven Letters, made it to #11, but is much more middle of the road... a place which Atlantic seemed to have reserved for King from then on.

Despite 1967's ambitious What Is Soul? (whose B side, They Don't Give Medals To Yesterday's Heroes, may have cut a little too close for comfort), and a trip to Muscle Shoals to record later that year - despite sessions held with Don Davis in Detroit and at American Sound in Memphis in 1968 (as well as his inclusion in the Soul Clan) somehow King was unable to claim his rightful place as one of Soul's true pioneers. 1969's prophetically titled Til I Can't Take It Anymore would be his last ATCO single to make the charts. "It was just a sign of the times, really..." King has been quoted as saying, "You have to accept that you are not going to stay on top forever."

As the story goes, Ahmet Ertegun heard him singing in some night club in Miami in the mid-seventies, and was so impressed that he re-signed him to Atlantic on the spot. His tremendous dance record, Supernatural Thing, would become his biggest hit since Stand By Me, going all the way to #1 R&B (#5 Pop) in early 1975. Incredibly, Ben E. King was back, scoring bigger hits in the 'disco era' than any of his fellow Soul Clan members had been able to. His follow-up, Do It In The Name of Love, cruised to #4, and led to his collaboration with the Average White Band, with whom he would chart twice in 1977. After one more chart appearance for the label in 1980, King moved on once more. "I think the saddest thing I've seen happen is the black music section of Atlantic disappear almost completely..." he said, "It shouldn't be like that, everybody should listen to the music, and if the music is good, put it out - whatever the hell it is."

The release of Rob Reiner's Stand By Me sent Ben E. King's original 1961 version of the song back into the top ten in 1986. It would actually hit #1 on the U.K. singles chart the following year, after it was used in an advert for Levi's. Not bad for a 25 year old recording! Stand By Me continues to live on, and was selected as number four out of the top 100 songs of the twentieth century by BMI. It's been covered by everyone from John Lennon to Maurice White (not to mention being sampled by Sean Kingston for the odious Beautiful Girls in 2007), and shows no signs of slowing down.

In 2005, a non-profit group named Playing For Change created this amazing global video based on Ben's song of songs:

How very cool is that?

Ben E. King, who will turn 72 in September, isn't slowing down either. He continues to perform, and is the head of his own Stand By Me Foundation, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for countless children who have been impacted by poverty, and further their education by providing much needed financial assistance. A veteran of over fifty years in the entertainment business, King's unique voice is truly one of the cornerstones of American Music.

No wonder Don Covay wanted him in the Soul Clan!


Blogger Red Kelly said...

Hey folks -

I just wanted to say here that I never could have written this one without these three 'must have' books:

Rhythm and the Blues by Jerry Wexler and David Ritz

Music Man by Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie and

Always Magic In The Air by Ken Emerson

Thank You!

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great song. hugely informative write-up. thanks.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Mikel J said...

I truly wonder what would have happened if Atlantic hadn't sold out to Warner. What a beautiful thing Ahmet & Neshui started and the legacy they left for us.
Great writing Red, as usual you don't hide your sources, nor take full credit, which you deserve.
Stay Well!

12:59 AM  

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