Black Music Month: Ben E. King Beyond the ‘60s

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

It’s Black Music Month, as just as we’ve done in past years here at Rhino, we’re celebrating the occasion by sprinkling in a number of posts where we spotlight a black artist or an album by a black artist. Today we’re shining the spotlight on one of the most iconic R&B singers ever signed to Atlantic Records, but that spotlight is on a very specific – and often forgotten – period of his career.

Ben E. King’s star as a singer began to rise just as the 1950s came to a close, thanks to George Treadwell, manager of The Drifters, who decided to fire the entire lineup of the group and replace them with members of another R&B group called The Five Crowns. This was decidedly fortuitous for King, who was a member of The Five Crowns, if perhaps not nearly as much so for the original members of The Drifters. When all was said and done, King – who went solo only about a year after joining the group – only sang on a grand total of thirteen Drifters songs, but given that they included “There Goes My Baby,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and “This Magic Moment,” he secured his place in music history handily nonetheless...and that was before he’d even recorded “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me.”

King remained a fixture in the upper reaches of the charts throughout the first half of the 1960s, but with the advent of the British Invasion, his successes became more sporadic, with his last top-20 hit of the decade, “Seven Letters,” released in December 1964. As a result, King left Atco in 1968 after the release of his single “Hey Little One,” spending the next half-decade or so on indie labels. In 1975, however, he found his way back to Atlantic in a big way, releasing the SUPERNATURAL album and scoring a #1 R&B hit – not to mention a top-5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 – with the single “Supernatural Thing, Pt. 1.”

King would go on to release five more solo albums on Atlantic Records – I HAD A LOVE (1976), RHAPSODY (1976), LET ME LIVE IN YOUR LIFE (1978), MUSIC TRANCE (1980), and STREET TOUGH (1981) – as well as 1977’s BENNY AND US, a collaboration between King and the Average White Band. While none of them spawned singles which were even remotely as successful as “Supernatural Thing, Pt. 1” or its follow-up, “Do It in the Name of Love,” which hit #5 on the R&B Singles chart, there’s a lot of great music in the grooves of those LPS, not to mention a lot of great grooves in the songs themselves.

We’ve put together a playlist which contains all of King’s post-1960s material, so you can familiarize yourself with what he was doing throughout the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s. Give it a spin, listen to the music, and remember what a wonderfully soulful vocalist Ben was.