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Ben E. King, Soul Singer Best Known For 'Stand By Me,' Dies

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Ben E. King, Soul Singer Best Known For 'Stand By Me,' Dies

Remembrances

Ben E. King, Soul Singer Best Known For 'Stand By Me,' Dies

Ben E. King, Soul Singer Best Known For 'Stand By Me,' Dies

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Ben E. King, best known for the classic soul song "Stand By Me," has died at 76.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

One of the most distinctive voices of 1950s and '60s R&B has died. Ben E. King, best known for the song "Stand By Me," died yesterday in New Jersey of natural causes. He was 76. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: It takes about a second to recognize it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

BLAIR: When Ben E. King starts singing, his conviction and storytelling turn it into a classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

BEN E. KING: (Singing) When the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we'll see.

BLAIR: Ben E. King originally wrote "Stand By Me" for his old group, The Drifters. The other singers loved it. But then, they rehearsed it for their manager, as King told NPR in 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: And they did the song. And he looked up at us all, and he says, not a bad song, Ben, but at the moment we don't need any more material. So I said, OK, and I tucked my little song under my arm, and I disappeared.

BLAIR: Disappeared into the world of songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In 1961, during one of his first solo recording sessions, they asked him if he had any songs he'd like to try. He pulled out "Stand By Me." Leiber and Stoller made some changes, including adding that killer baseline, and the song was a smash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

KING: (Singing) And darling, darling, stand by me. Oh, stand by me. Whoa, stand now, stand by me. Stand by me.

SHARON FELDER: It was just such a simple and deep message.

BLAIR: Sharon Felder is a filmmaker. Her father was songwriter Doc Pomus, who wrote a number of hits for The Drifters and Ben E. King. She says there were lots of musicians around the house when she was growing up. King, she says, was always a gentleman.

FELDER: He was just sort of generous of spirit. He would never think to get reimbursed for something. He parked his car. He got stuck in traffic. There was never a driver picking him up anywhere. He was just a regular guy.

BLAIR: Ben E. King was born Benjamin Earl Solomon in Henderson, N.C. When he was a child, his family moved to Harlem, where he worked in his father's luncheonette. He sang in church choirs, in the subways and performed doo-wop on street corners. He joined The Crowns, which eventually became The Drifters. King sang lead on most of their biggest hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME")

KING: (Singing) Don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be. So darling, save the last dance for me.

BLAIR: By the mid-1980s, many people had forgotten about Ben E. King. Then, in 1986, Rob Reiner made his movie "Stand By Me" with King's song as the theme. And "Stand By Me" went to the top of the charts again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: In all the years that I've been in the business, this is the most exciting time of my life.

BLAIR: Other artists have covered "Stand By Me," making Ben E. King's song a classic anthem about friendship for generations. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

KING: (Singing) Oh, stand, stand by me. Stand by me. If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, and the mountain...

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