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Ben E. King
*Ben E. King was born on this date in 1938. He was a Black Singer.
Born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, N.C., he moved with his family to New York when he was 9. He worked in his father’s Harlem luncheonette in his teens and began singing in church and junior high school. He formed his first singing group, the Four B’s, so named because everyone in the group had a name beginning with “B.”
He later joined a doo-wop group, The Five Crowns, which performed at a talent show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1958. At about the same time, their eventual manager, George Treadwell, dissolved the Drifters, a vocal ensemble formed in the early 1950s with the soulful Clyde McPhatter as lead singer. Treadwell and his wife Faye Treadwell hired the Five Crowns as the new version of the Drifters.
King recorded only 13 songs with the Drifters. Several became major hits, including “There Goes My Baby” (partly written by King), “This Magic Moment,” “Dance With Me,” “Count the Tears,” and especially “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which hit No. 1 in 1959 and has been a staple of senior proms ever since. Critic Ken Emerson, in his book about mid-century pop music, “Always Magic in the Air,” wrote “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” “were produced and performed with extraordinary elegance and dignity.” When King asked for a greater share of the Drifters’ royalties, he was turned down and quit the group. The Drifters, under different personnel, later had such hits as “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway,” and “Under the Boardwalk.”
Dropping his original name, Ben Nelson, he embarked on a solo career as Ben E. King and scored a hit in 1961 with the exotic ballad “Spanish Harlem,” which begins, “There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem.” When King first heard the Latin-flavored song, written by Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber, “I thought it sounded really good,” he told Scotland’s Glasgow Herald in 2012. “But I honestly didn’t know if I was singing about a flower or a girl.”
King never duplicated his early success, but he had a few minor R&B hits in the 1960s and 1970s, including a popular disco tune in 1975, “Supernatural Thing, Part I.” He also appeared on a 1977 “Benny & Us” album with the Average White Band. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as a member of the Drifters. Ben E. King died on April 30, 2015, at a hospital near his home in Teaneck, N.J. He was 76.