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'There were greater singers than me when I started'

SOUL SURVIVOR: Ben E. King

HUMILITY IS always an endearing quality. But it’s all the more refreshing when it is displayed by someone who actually has good reason to brag.

Case in point: Ben E. King. Boasting a career that has spanned over five decades and spawned hits including Spanish Harlem and the timeless classic that is Stand By Me, the former lead singer of The Drifters is still going strong – as is proved by the series of UK dates he’s set to perform alongside fellow soul star Jimmy James later this month.

But ask the 74-year-old what he feels is the secret to his success and longevity and he quips with a chuckle: “People have terrible ears! No, I don’t know. I guess it’s the fact that great songwriters gave me great songs. I then learned how to write myself and great songs came out of that too.

“But I got a lot of great opportunities from people who allowed me to be free in the studio and enjoy what I was doing. I never imagined I’d have survived this long in this business, because there were greater singers than me when I started.”

Does King, whose career began in 1958, not consider himself one of the greats?

“Oh no! I mean, you have to remember the ones who didn’t make it. I remember hearing some of those singers and I’d sit there with my mouth wide open, in awe of their voices. And some of those people never got into the studio to make a record.

“My wife and I often reminisce about that,” says the singer, who has been married for 54 years. “We’ll say: ‘You remember how that guy was trying out for that group but he never made it?’ So those are the kind of people I consider great. And when I got involved in music professionally, I was not a lead singer. Being a lead singer didn’t occur to me at the time.”

Nonetheless, King was to become the lead singer of the popular soul group The Drifters, who went on to enjoy success with hits including There Goes My Baby, This Magic Moment and Save The Last Dance For Me.

But with the group notorious for its ever-changing lineup, King’s time with The Drifters would soon come to an end, allowing the North Carolina-born vocalist to pursue a solo career. And it was as a solo artist that he scored the 1961 smash hit Stand By Me, which was later used as the theme song of the popular 1986 film of the same name, earning the singer a UK number one in 1987.

Recalling how his most famous hit was born, King says he had never intended to record the song himself.

“I’d had had a misunderstanding with the manager of The Drifters when I was with them, and he kinda dismissed me from being involved with the group. But even after he did that, I wrote the song Stand By Me for the group. I showed it to them and they loved it.

“They went downtown and performed it for the manager and he looked at me and said: ‘It’s not a bad song, but we don’t need it.’

“So I ended up in the studio one day with [songwriting and production partners] Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and they were like, ‘what have you got?’ I told them about the song and they said, ‘why don’t we try and record this?’ So that’s what we did and so the song was born.”

Insisting that he had no idea the song would enjoy the level of success it did, King feels that only “arrogant” artists would think their music is the best thing since sliced bread before it has been released to the public.

“When you’re in the studio recording, if you’re that arrogant, something’s wrong with you. There are those who might be like, ‘I’ve just recorded the greatest song in the world.’ But the reality is, we’re [the artists] not in control of that.

“Once you put out a song, it’s up to the people in the streets whether they take to the song or not. Yes, you might get the feeling that it’s a good song, and you enjoy it in that moment. But beyond that, it’s up to the people.”

So what does King make of some of today’s younger acts who are known for their arrogance or diva-type behaviour?

“We had those type of artists back in the day, but it’s more prevalent now because the artists now… you’re talking huge dollars, private planes, limousines, big houses surrounded by security and dogs! With all that, you would be overwhelmed.

“And the saddest thing about it is that everyone around those artists has convinced them that they’re the most talented human being breathing, and so they live in this world where they’re not really meeting real people. They’re just surrounded by all these people who are telling them how great they are, and that can start to raise suspicion; make them wonder why all these people are really around them.

He continues: “There was that kind of thing back in the day, but not like it is now. And I feel sad for the young ones out today because the money is tremendous and so the pressure is unbelievable.”

Though he admits he did have what he describes as his “star moments” at the height of his career, the father-of-three and grandfather-of-six, says his one-time wild lifestyle is firmly behind him.

“When I think back to how I was back then, it seems like I was a totally different human being to the person I am now,” he laughs. “I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘Man, do you remember back in the day, me and you used to hang out and drink and gamble?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Are you talking to me?’ I can’t believe I used to do that!

“But you learn to grow out of that life because it’s crazy. Now I sit back and enjoy my family – six wonderful grandkids that I love to death – and just have a great old time with life.”

Ben E. King and Jimmy James will embark on a UK tour from August 23. For full dates and tickets visit www.ents24.com

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