Ben E King: King Of The Seventies
By David Nathan
Love is lovelier, they say, the second time around. Well, so's success and Ben E. King knows just how to handle it. He's a legend in his own time; a guy who's made his mark on two decades…
CURRENTLY enjoying a renaissance — a second taste of major success — is a gentleman who has become something of a legend in his own time. When we jokingly referred to Ben E. King as a musical institution, he beamed and took it as a compliment! After all, there are few singers around who can claim to have been part of the history of modern r&b and soul — during the golden era of The Drifters in the early Sixties — survived and come back for another round of hits.
Always amiable, Mr. King has provided the musical world with more than an average share of classics: "Stand By Me", "Save The Last Dance For Me", "Spanish Harlem", "Don't Play That Song", "Seven Letters", "I (Who Have Nothing)" are just a few of the many hits the man notched up when he was with Atlantic in the Sixties. If he'd never recorded another song, Ben E. King would still be considered a giant in terms of pop music history.
But not content with leaving his mark on the ‘60s, Ben E. is back to leave his mark on the ‘70s. His very first single for Atlantic under his new contract — "Supernatural Thing" — was an immediate smash and provided him with a gold record. Now, with a new album, "I Had A Love", the gentleman is ready to bring more gold home.
The secret of his longevity, he says, "is staying closely involved. I've stayed as close to my profession as possible, without becoming overbearing. I've taken life as an average person without all the pimp's clothes and diamond rings and I guess sincerity has always been of the upmost importance to me. And I've never considered myself a star. I'm always aware that there is a public 'interpretation' of an entertainer and a private side. You have to make that choice sometimes, and, admittedly, I've tasted success early in my life, so I know this time what I want out of it. it's easy — there's a temptation — to believe that you are all the things the public see you as. But I know now that when you take off that silk suit, you're just like everyone else. And I have to say that my family has contributed a great deal to bringing me in touch with reality. Because so many entertainers lose that: they forget the realities of life. And you can understand it — all the glamour and excitement can bring you away from it all."
"This time," the man declares, "I feel secure. I know how to handle it. Originally, remember, I started out as a backing singer and I was singing really for fun. Then, there were no contracts or business aspects to consider. But circumstances demanded a change and I was out in front. But I never wanted to do anything outside of singing. Sure, I've done other things. Worked in a restaurant, been an auto-mechanic — even been a typist! And those things all helped me to learn. And it still knocks me out to realise that I've gotten this far. Because I realise that the public these days don't hold on to stars the way they used to. Consider how many 'forever' people there are around — people like Sammy Davis, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine. I consider myself to be a little better than midway in the whole spectrum of entertainers and I feel that there are still so many things I haven't even begun to deal with yet. If you check it out, the number of black entertainers who are household name thoughout the States alone is minute. Those people I mentioned and maybe a few more — Diana Ross is one. But people we consider as having made it may mean nothing to masses of people out there."
Yet another of Ben's 'secrets' has been his conviction that "you always do your very best in public performances and recording. You put a strong concentration on giving your best every time. Sometimes it doesn't work like that — you have your off-nights and situations may not be conducive to giving people that. But you never let it affect you. Like, if you have a cold or feel ill, you don't tell the people and you'd be surprised. Unless you tell them, they might never know. If you do, they expect less than your best. And that's bad. Especially these days, when people have spent their hard-earned money to see you." Obviously, Ben is a great believer in the motto that the show must go on!
He's naturally very happy with his latest album which was partly produced by Bert de Coteaux and Tony Sylvester (who were responsible for "Supernatural Thing") and partly by Norman Harris and company down in Philadelphia. "Recording with both teams was fun," Ben relates. "There is never any feeling of uptightness. They both use the old recording method, wherein the artist is involved in each stage of the production rather than just having you sing over tracks. There have definitely been times in my career when I've had to work with tracks which didn't suit my style — or were even in the wrong key! You know, there have been producers who've dictated what should happen. But luckily, with all the people I'm working with now, that just doesn't arise. I feel that this new album is really representative as a Ben E. King album — it's what I'm all about. And not being a Ben E. King fan," he laughed, "I never listen to my work for pleasure!"
Ben likes to feel that he's "naturally motivated with technical tenderness! In other words, I like things to be spontaneous and with feeling but they must also be correct. It's easy to over-rehearse and take the life out of a song. But my experience has stood me in good stead." He also feels that he's lucky in having a whole new generation to cater to. "My children have just been so helpful in that respect. I've been hanging out with my son — who's sixteen — and we've gotten into writing songs together. And I always check with my two daughters as to what they're listening to and get them into what I'm doing to get their opinions. I'd say that they've been instrumental in helping me in the last ten years. Plus I spend a lot of time checking out other performers with my wife. We go out as much as possible to keep abreast of what's happening out there."
When Ben isn't busy recording, performing or keeping ahead of the scene, "I like to spend time with my kids. And do a spot of gardening. Or bowling. And I guess you could say I'm into drawing — things like landscapes. I guess they're 'unprofessional' — I know that whenever I go to put one up in the hall, my wife keeps me back telling me I'm not puttng one of them out there on public display!"
Ben is looking forward to getting into two definite areas in the future — acting and television. "But I guess I'll always be in the business and into music. I still love all the travelling and although it's nice to be home, I still love being out there. Plus I'm still learning from those people who've been around longer than I have. There is just always so much growing to do. And I still feel I haven't done anything yet!"
For someone who's notched up so many hits and so many classics in his career, that's something of an understatement. But Ben E. King's star continues to shine and he remains one of the true nice guys on the music scene.