Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Soul Singer Ben E. King King began his career in the '50s with The Drifters, but it was the '61 hit "Stand by Me" that sealed his musical legacy. He spoke with Terry Gross in '88 about his career and his childhood in Harlem.
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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Soul Singer Ben E. King

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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Soul Singer Ben E. King

Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Soul Singer Ben E. King

Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Soul Singer Ben E. King

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King began his career in the '50s with The Drifters, but it was the '61 hit "Stand by Me" that sealed his musical legacy. He spoke with Terry Gross in '88 about his career and his childhood in Harlem.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to continue our 30th anniversary retrospective and go back to 1988 when I interviewed Ben E. King. From 1958 to 1960, he sang lead with The Drifters on songs like "Save The Last Dance For Me," "There Goes My Baby" and "This Magic Moment." As soon as he left The Drifters, he started a solo career. His biggest hit was a song he co-wrote.

(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, no, I won't be afraid. Oh, I won't be afraid just as long as you stand, stand by me. So darling, darling, stand by me. Oh, stand by me. Oh, stand, stand by me. Stand by me.

(Singing) If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall or the mountain should crumble to the sea, I won't cry. I won't cry. No, I won't shed a tear just as long as you stand, stand by me. And darling, darling, stand by me. Oh, stand by me.

GROSS: "Stand By Me" made it to No. 4 on the charts in 1961. Twenty five years later, "Stand By Me" was used as the theme for the film of the same name and landed back in the Top 10. Other Ben E. King solo hits include "Spanish Harlem," "Don't Play That Song" and "I (Who Have Nothing)." Before Ben E. King ever sang onstage or in the recording studio, he sang with his friends on the streets of Harlem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: I was born in Henderson, N.C., so I wasn't familiar with the street-singing thing until I came to New York, which - I was about 11 years old when my parents first moved to New York. And I heard about it, and then gradually, by being in the streets of Harlem, I walked around, and surely enough, bumped into different little guys singing and doo-wopping (ph) on the stoops and stuff like that. So I were more or less introduced to it when I first got to New York.

GROSS: Did singing in a vocal group on the streets give you the same kind of security as belonging to a gang?

KING: Yeah, well, it gave me, I would imagine, a means of communicating with other people because I was a very shy person when I first got to New York. I guess just a fear of New York itself made me that way. And it gave me a chance to meet nice people, nice guys to hang out with, kind of. And it was the alternative to other type of gangs. They were - we had gangs during our time, as well. But I - fortunately, for myself, I bumped into I think the right kind of people, you know.

GROSS: Now, you also sang before you started recording. You sang at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Did you all have matching suits in your group?

KING: Yeah, we had - what'd we have? We had pink jackets.

GROSS: Oh, great.

KING: I know, right? That's what I said - pink jackets, and black shirt and black trousers. I mean, it was a sight to behold, yeah.

GROSS: That's great. Singer Ben E. King is my guest. Now, you sang with the crowns - The Five Crowns. And you sang bass before you started singing lead. Can your voice still go that low?

KING: (In baritone) I think so.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Yeah, it can. I'm naturally a bass-baritone. I guess that's what - my voice tend to go very heavy. I'm naturally a bass-baritone, so I can sing bass still, I think, yeah.

GROSS: Did it have a certain prestige to be the bass man in a vocal group?

KING: Well, girls always thought so. Girls like the bass singer, I guess because they have that more mature depth to his voice. And they tend to pal around. And at that time, you have to realize that most of the bass things were done in the doo-wop groups, and stuff like that was the featured thing in the song.

You know, so the bass singer was the one that was doing the (vocalizing) - all that stuff, see? So you couldn't go wrong with that. You know, so I had the chance to do all those things. And the girls was just stand around, and giggle and stuff. So I think that that was, you know, one of the key things that helped me, as far as getting me introduced to the females there.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1988 interview with Ben E. King. We'll hear more of it - and listen back to my 1988 interview with Otis Williams, a founding member of the Motown group The Temptations - after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MAGIC MOMENT")

KING: (Singing) This magic moment, so different and so new, was like any other until I kiss you. And then it happened. It took me by surprise. I knew that you felt it too by the look in your eye - sweeter than wine, softer than the summer night. Everything I want, I have.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective featuring some of our favorite interviews from our first two years as a daily NPR program. We'll pick up where we left off in the middle of my 1988 interview with Ben E. King. From 1958 to 1960, he was the lead singer of The Drifters. Then he went solo and had the hits "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You went from bass singer with The Crowns to lead singer with The Drifters.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: And before I ask you to tell us a story about how The Crowns became the new Drifters and how you got to sing lead, I want to play the first song that you recorded singing lead as the lead singer of The Drifters. And this is "There Goes My Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE GOES MY BABY")

THE DRIFTERS: (Singing, vocalizing). There she goes. (Vocalizing). There she goes. (Vocalizing, singing) There goes my baby moving on down the line, wondering where, wondering where, wondering where she is bound. I broke her heart and made her cry. Now I'm alone, so all alone. What can I do? What can I do? There goes my baby...

GROSS: That's Ben E. King singing lead with The Drifters on "There Goes My Baby." So tell us how The Crowns, who you sang with, became The Drifters.

KING: Well, that's one of those strange stories, really. I - I joined The Crowns because the guy that was managing them, by the name of Lover Patterson, lived across the street from my father's restaurant. So he came in one day and asked me to join The Crowns. I brought him into the store and we rehearsed in the back of my father's restaurant, and I became a member.

And The Crowns were - I would imagine a very good, like, vocal type group, semi-pro. And we opened up at The Apollo with Ray Charles, and I think it was Faye Adams on the bill and of course The Drifters were on the bill as well. And we were the opening act. During that week, we were approached by their manager, George Treadwell, and he had mentioned to us that he had been watching us and he thought we were a very good group, and would we be interested in becoming a new set of Drifters?

GROSS: Now, he had just - what, fired Clyde McPhatter, who had been the lead singer?

KING: Yeah, well, what had happened - and that - I think - Clyde really wasn't in the group at that time. Clyde had more or less gone solo. But the other members were in the group. And he had, I guess, had problems with the group or the group had problems with him, and they decided to just split company and they did so, you know.

GROSS: Right. So Clyde McPhatter had left the group and then the producer fired the rest of The Drifters. That's the way it was. Right.

KING: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And when the producer decided that your group would be the next Drifters, did they do anything different with you or tell you to do anything different for you to become Drifters?

KING: Not really. I think that was - that was the strange thing about the whole situation is there weren't any instructions at all given to us, you know. We used to go on the road as the new set of Drifters before the record was released, and we were booed off the stage and we had balls thrown at us and chairs and the whole nine yards. So we weren't given any warning to what to do or how to act.

We got uniforms and I think we got a new station wagon or something like that, but that's the only thing that we received as far become the new set of Drifters, as well as the fact that we had to fulfill the Drifters' recording contracts. And we didn't - we weren't aware of that. You know, we were just four or five kids coming out of Harlem from a very, very amateurish background even during the time with The Five Crowns. So we didn't know about all the particulars that professionals would go through.

GROSS: You got booed because the fans were expecting the other Drifters, and here you were with no explanation.

KING: That's right. Exactly. Well, it's like - it's like going to see the - I want to say it's like going to see The Four Tops, and all of a sudden, the curtain opened and there's four guys about 17 years old. That's the kind of thing that you would face, you know.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song that you recorded with The Drifters. And this is - of course, you're singing lead on it - this is a song that made it to no. 1 both on the R&B charts and on the pop charts, which was a pretty, pretty big deal, really (laughter).

KING: No, that was a great deal during that time because in that time, you have to allow for the fact that they weren't actually playing a lot of black records. And not only weren't they playing a lot of them, they weren't even thinking about crossing them over.

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

THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye and let him hold you tight. You can smile every smile for the man who held your hand 'neath the pale moonlight. But 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. Oh, I know, oh, I know baby, that the music's fine like sparkling wine. Go and have your fun. Yes, I know, oh, I know. Laugh and sing. But while we're apart don't give your heart to anyone. But 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. Don't you know I love you so? Can't you feel it when we touch?

GROSS: Well, that still sounds very terrific.

KING: Thank you.

GROSS: We were talking a little bit earlier about choreography. Did you have a lot of choreography in your act?

KING: Not a lot. There are there are steps that I'd call short steps. And short steps are done, like, by groups like Platters and Drifters and - and then the fast, wide steps are done - like, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Temptations do wide and fast. And there was a group called The Olympics. They do fast movements and fast steps. We do little short, cute things, you know, things that don't require a lot of sweating and falling down. I'd never learn how to do the split and stuff like that, you know? I left all that stuff out. I don't know that. I don't know nothing about doing the split. I could never get into that, you know.

GROSS: You never took off your jacket and threw it into the audience?

KING: I did that.

GROSS: Did you?

KING: Yeah, I did that. That was - those days was great. That was easy. You know, and throwing your handkerchief away and stuff. I did those brave things, you know?

GROSS: I used to love that at the rock 'n' roll shows, when performers did that.

KING: Lot of fun, that.

GROSS: You know what I'd like to do? I want to ask you about how you started to perform solo. So why don't I play some of the record that launched your solo career?

KING: OK.

GROSS: And this is "Spanish Harlem."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH HARLEM")

KING: (Singing) There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem. It is a special one. It's never seen the sun. It only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming. It's growing in the street right up through the concrete, but soft and sweet and dreaming.

GROSS: Ben E. King, would you explain how you left The Drifters and started singing solo?

KING: Well, what happened in that is that I - once we got involved with all the recordings and we had all the hit records that we had once we started with the Drifters situation, we had - we were on salary as the new set of Drifters, and we were making, like, maybe a hundred dollars a week or somewhere in that neighborhood. And we were all more or less trying to make ends meet because that hundred dollars would have to keep us alive on the road, and of course tried to send some money home.

So in other words, to make a long story short, we had managerial problems. And I, along with Charlie Thomas, Doc Green and Elsbeary Hobbs - we had discussed trying to go to George Treadwell and ask for a raise. And this is a group with a No. 1 record. And once we got to the office - we had set up a meeting. We got to the office to discuss this problem that we were having as far as salary. He told me instead of me standing up to speak for the group to speak for yourself, and I did so. And he fired me.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: He was great at firing people, you know? And I walked out of the office assuming that the other guys would follow, and they didn't. The only guy that followed me was the same one that came across the street to my father's restaurant and convinced me to join the Five Crowns, who was Lover Patterson. And it was his determination and his, I guess, feeling that I had something in my voice that should keep on. He insisted that I stayed in the business. And he's the one still I find very responsible for me still being here now. I hold him very near and dear. He's long passed away for many years now. But to answer your story, he's the reason why I more or less stayed and started a solo career.

GROSS: But did you think of "Spanish Harlem" as a solo record or a Drifters record?

KING: No, no, no, it should have been a Drifter record. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who at that time - we had developed a very strong friendship as writers and producers and friends. And they're the ones that went to Atlantic and spoke to Ahmet Ertegun and asked him, would he consider "Spanish Harlem" being a Ben E. King record opposed to a Drifter record? And that's how I started a solo career with that record there, really.

GROSS: Ben E. King recorded in 1988. He died in 2015 at the age of 76. After a break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective and return to 1988 for an interview with Otis Williams, a founding member of the Motown group The Temptations. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED MITCHELL AND CLARK TERRY'S "SWINGIN' THE BLUES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective. In 1988, I spoke with Otis Williams, who sang with The Temptations, the great soul harmony group that had the hits "My Girl," "The Way You Do The Things You Do," "I Wish It Would Rain," "Since I Lost My Baby" and "Papa Was A Rolling Stone."

The Temptations were one of the most successful groups on the Motown label. Williams started the group and kept it together with various singers long after the departure of lead singers David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. Williams is the last surviving original member and continues to tour with The Temptations as the group's leader and organizer. In 1961, this became the first Temptations record to reach No. 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May. I guess you'd say, what can make me feel this way? My girl. My girl. My girl. Talking about my girl. My girl. I've got so much honey the bees envy me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Welcome...

OTIS WILLIAMS: Thank you.

GROSS: ...To FRESH AIR.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

GROSS: You point out in your group The Temptations were subtler and more romantic than a lot of the other guys and that there was no sweating or grunting...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Stage. So I want to ask you how you think that was reflected in your songs and in your style onstage.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that Paul Williams, who was one of the original members, he always believed in us trying to convey selling sex as well as keeping the class. And I wish I could take credit for not sweating, but him and I especially were sweaters.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: But we always tried to do things in a top-notch fashion.

GROSS: Berry Gordy, the head of Motown Records, liked your singing, liked your style and finally signed you to Motown Records. Did he tell you once he took you in what he had in mind for the group, changes he wanted to make?

WILLIAMS: Not necessarily. Berry was very into the creative end of it more so than anything else. And he left that up - that's why artist development came to be, because of he knew that he had to have somebody that, well, I've got all these talented artists here - The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Miracles - somebody needs to come in there and refine and polish them so we wouldn't be just like everybody else and know - knew how to get on and off the stage while we were onstage.

GROSS: Now, you said that Gordy really had more respect for producers and writers than he did for the performers. You describe how if a group didn't show up in the studio on time for their recording date he'd have another group come in and record the song.

WILLIAMS: That's true. We had that happen to us with "Do You Love Me?" But it was not because of us not coming to the studio and knew that we had to be there. It was that this one particular day we were at St. Stephen's Community Church and watching The Dixie Hummingbirds and harmonizing for it 'cause we were very into gospel groups.

And so the next day when we came up to the company - and they said, man, where were you guys? Mr. Gordy were - you know, he was looking for you all over town because he had to see a song for you guys. We said, well, we were at church. At church - and so we said, well, we were into spirituals and we just had to watch those guys sing. He said, well, he gave the song to The Contours. And it was "Do You Love Me?"

GROSS: I - now, see, I can't imagine the Temptations singing "Do You Love Me?" It's - you know, I know The Contours version so well.

WILLIAMS: Right.

GROSS: It doesn't seem like the perfect song for the group. I don't know.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I guess we'll never know now because...

GROSS: That's right (laughter).

WILLIAMS: ...He wanted to try it out on us. And I think it would have been designed for Paul Williams had, you know, we had the chance to do the song. But I think the record went to No. 2. And we were kind of jealous, but we were happy for The Contours as well 'cause we felt that our time would come.

GROSS: The first song that you had that really made it onto the charts, that crossed over onto the charts was "The Way You Do The Things You Do." Now, this song was the result of a competition in-house, right?

WILLIAMS: Well, Berry always - like I stated in the book, he always had that competitiveness with his writers and his producers. Every Friday, Motown was noted for the thing of having a quality control meeting where they would bring all the material that was recorded that week. On that Friday, they would have, like, an evaluation of who would get the release and what did they think would be this and that and the yeas and nays. So with Smokey having so much success with us, Berry was kind of torn between, yeah, I like that "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," but Smokey did have the hit on "Ain't Too Proud To Beg;" I meant "My Girl" and "Get Ready."

So he said, here's what I'll do. If "Get Ready" - I'm going to go with "Get Ready." And if it should go to the top 10, Smokey would get the next release. Now, if "Get Ready" didn't go to the top 10 nationally, Norman, you have the next release because "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" was so strong that it could not be denied any longer. So "Get Ready" must have gotten to the top 20, didn't crack the top 10. And so Norman came in there with "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," and we had seven years of hit making with Norman Whitfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T TOO PROUD TO BEG")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go. If I have to beg, plead for your sympathy, I don't mind 'cause you mean that much to me. Ain't too proud to beg, and you know it. Please don't leave me, girl. Ain't too proud to plead, baby, baby. Please don't leave me, girl. Now, I've heard a crying man is half a man with no sense of pride. But if I have to cry to keep you, I don't mind weeping if it'll keep you by my side. Ain't too proud to beg, sweet darling. Please don't leave me, girl. Ain't too proud to plead, baby, baby. Please don't leave me, girl.

(Singing) If I have to sleep on your doorstep all night and day just to keep you from walking away, let your friends laugh. Even this I can stand 'cause I want to keep you any way I can. Ain't too proud to beg, sweet darling. Please don't leave me, girl. Ain't too proud to...

GROSS: You described how some of the producers would have the singers sing slightly above their range.

WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. Motown was noted for recording their songs like a step higher because they wanted the tension, the vocal dynamics, the stressing point, the pleading sound. So when you would hear it, you could say, wow, I feel what he's saying - like, pain in the voice. They didn't want you to sing too relaxed because the song wouldn't come across with that emotional outlet, that meaning where you could really feel it. So they would always cut the tunes, especially Norman and Holland-Dozier-Holland - would cut it a step higher because that's the way "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" was recorded.

It was recorded just a key too high for David. But he was able to do it, but it was not without us having to stop the tape and let him rest because he was straining his vocal chords. And his glasses was sliding all off his face, and sweat was popping off. But we were, you know, just saying, go ahead, David. You can do it; you can do it. And it turned out to be one of our biggest sellers.

GROSS: You described a little bit the competition between songwriters...

WILLIAMS: Right.

GROSS: ...About who would get to write the next song for the group. Was there competition between the group? Did you have to compete, say, with the Four Tops over who would get the song that you wanted to do?

WILLIAMS: No because Berry never let that happen. He would always let - OK, Holland and Dozier had the Supremes and the Four Tops even though we really like what they were doing, speaking of Holland-Dozier-Holland. But he said, no, you guys are having too much success with Smokey Robinson or Norman Whitfield. And then he didn't want all the songs to start sounding alike, you know? So he wanted to always make sure that there was that division, that separate kind of identity. And so he would never let that happen, whereas Holland and Dozier would just do, you know, more than what they should have done. And the sound would have became too saturated.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1988 interview with Otis Williams, a founding member of The Temptations. We'll hear more of the interview after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.

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