Rock 'n' roll reigns in world of former Drifter


July 25, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

BEN E. KING probably would not have sung "Stand By Me" if the rest of the Drifters had stood by him 31 years ago.

King, then the lead singer for the popular rock group, demanded a pay raise for the Drifters in 1960 but was turned down. The quartet wanted an extra $25 a week, a fair request, they thought, after a year in which they produced three gold records and a No. 1 pop hit, "Save the Last Dance for Me."

Their manager refused, so King walked out the door. He waited in the hallway for the three other Drifters to join him. They never did. So King went solo and turned out two chartbusters, "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand By Me."

He'll perform both classics in concert at 8 p.m. today at the grand opening of the new $5 million Pier Six Concert Pavilion.

King, 52, will sing those hits in the same key as he did during his early gigs in town at the old Royal Theater and at Carr's Beach in Annapolis at the dawn of rock 'n' roll. King's voice hasn't changed, but his audience has.

Youngsters smitten with his rendition of "Stand By Me" say, "I really like your version of John Lennon's song."

King smiles graciously. "There's not enough time to educate them," he says.

No time to dig up old ghosts like the Four B's, a Harlem doo-wop group King formed in the mid-1950s. The Four B's (Ben, Bobby, Billy and Billy) survived their a capella battles with other street corner groups in an era when New York teens protected their turf with lungs, not guns.

King then joined the Five Crowns, an obscure Harlem rock group that became the new Drifters when the old Drifters disbanded in 1958. The change occurred literally overnight.

"We were fitted for red tuxedos, given a station wagon and a list of places to go," King says.

Trouble was, nobody told the Drifters' fans about the switch, and they freaked, throwing bottles and chairs and booing the group off the stage everywhere they went.

"That was the most frightening time of my life," King says. "Then we recorded 'There Goes My Baby,' and it softened the boos a bit."

That song, which reached No. 2 nationally, was co-written by Benjamin Earl Nelson who, at the request of his agent, changed it to Ben E. King.

A string of bouncy Latinesque hits followed, including "This Magic Moment," "I Count The Tears" and "Dance With Me," all with King singing lead, and the Drifters were forgiven. They toured in traveling pop caravans with such stars as Jackie Wilson, the Shirelles and Jerry Butler, passing time between cities with raucous jam sessions in the back of the bus.

"That's how the Isley Brothers wrote 'Shout,' and everyone on the bus joined in," King says.

Times were good, but money wasn't. King received about $100 a week, and when Drifters' management balked at a pay raise, he split. He wanted to enter his father's restaurant business and had to be coaxed into recording again.

The song? "Spanish Harlem," co-written by 19-year-old Phil Spector.

King's last smash was "Stand By Me" in 1961, a soulful, self-penned song that, when reissued a quarter of a century later, resurrected his mainstream career. For that, he can thank another King (Stephen), the horror writer on whose novella the film "Stand By Me" is based.

The movie soundtrack clinched King's berth on the oldies circuit. Though still active in the music industry -- he is producing a rap album with his son, Ben Jr. -- King never tires of singing his hits.

"I'm having a ball," he says. "On stage, I'm not competing with what's happening now. The early stuff is my favorite world of music. It came straight from the heart."

King's appeal cuts a swath across five decades. Part of his audience plays him on compact discs, the others on scratchy old 45s.

His personal record collection is long gone. "My kids used them as Frisbees to play with," he says. "I don't think I have one."

King now lives in Englewood, N.J., but returns to Harlem to visit his roots. Some of the buildings survive in which he sculpted his voice as a kid, singing hits by the Spaniels and Harptones. Of course, the street corners are still there. But King has no desire to sing doo-wop on 119th Street these days.

"If I did that, people would say, 'What kind of drugs is he on?' " King says.

"Nah, that neighborhood is a lot tougher, man. You stand on the corner too long today, and somebody is likely to steal you."

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