Last week we lost two giants of soul music – Ben E King and Percy Sledge. Hearing the news brought back memories of listening to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes in the early sixties – back when the BBC Light Programme was a waste of time for teenagers, and before the advent of pirate radio.

It was ‘Spanish Harlem’ that really got to me.  Like most singles in those days (it was released in 1960) it was as light as air, far from over-produced, consisting of little more than tinkling vibes, a plucked bass – and Ben E King’s glorious, velvety vocal:

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 dreamin’

There are subtly-stated strings, and the middle break features a soulful saxophone, but that’s basically all there is. But, for all that, it’s a miracle, as much of one as that rose pushing it’s way up through the concrete of the city streets.

King grew up in Harlem.  Born Benjamin Earl Nelson in a small town in North Carolina in 1938, he first sang with his church choir before the family moved to Harlem in 1947. In high school he began performing with a street corner doo-wop group which won second place in an Apollo Theatre talent contest.

Ben E King
Ben E King

By 1958, King was part of another doo-wop group, the Five Crowns, who were hired to become a fresh version of the Drifters when the group’s manager fired all the original members in an attempt to reinvigorate the act. King only lasted a year with the group, but in those months he sang lead on the Drifters’ biggest singles, including ‘This Magic Moment’, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ and ‘There Goes My Baby’.

Ben E King and the Drifters in 1959
Ben E King and the Drifters in 1959

That was 1959, and, barely a teenager, I was electrified by these songs. ‘There Goes My Baby’ was co-written by King and was his first lead vocal with the Drifters. The lush backing arrangement made use for almost the first time of a string section, and the single became a massive hit.

There’s a great moment in the 1978 film biography of the dee-jay Alan Freed, American Hot Wax, when Freed, doing his how in the studio, gets a disturbing phone call from his father. When his father hangs up, he just sits there, head in hands, until the engineer tells him it’s time to cue up another record. Freed says nothing, just leans over and cues up ‘There Goes My Baby’.  As it begins playing, speaking over the intro he says, ‘This is Alan Freed and I love you. You know what? It’s raining in Akron, Ohio, but it’s a beautiful night in New York City, and these are the Drifters and ‘There Goes My Baby”

For me, it’s a great moment because it captures perfectly the romanticism and the sense of liberation of those innocent, early days of pop radio and pop singles.  Produced by Leiber and Stoller, the single marked a significant moment in the evolution of rhythm and blues into soul music.

A few months later came ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’, for an adolescent the perfect combination of intoxicating sweetness and melancholy. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it had perfect pop DNA: written by the grerat songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and produced by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller for Atlantic Records. Some say Phil Spector was apprentice producer on the record.  Mix in Ben E King’s sad, yearning vocals the soaring violins, it was no wonder that it was a massive hit in 1960 in both America and the UK.

Another summer rolled around and I found myself swooning to the strains of ‘Stand By Me’ which would become Ben E King’s most famous, enduring recording.  By 1960, King had broken with the Drifters and launched his own solo career with ‘Spanish Harlem’, a hit written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector.  Now came ‘Stand By Me’, written by King along with Leiber and Stoller. ‘I walked into our office, and Jerry and Benny were working on the lyrics,’ Stoller later recalled. ‘Benny started to sing and I went to the piano and fleshed out the chords and came up with the bass pattern and Jerry said, ‘Ah, now we got a hit!’ And he was right.’

In The Heart of Rock and Soul, Dave Marsh wrote that ‘Stand By Me’ is ‘as timeless as a basic black dress.’ The theme was gospel, the bass and percussion Afro-Cuban, ‘but the riffing cellos and soft quartet harmonies, the way the arrangement builds, adding instruments and growing more lush at each stage, is all pure Leiber-Stoller.’ We can see now that it was ahead of its time, prefiguring the work of Leiber-Stoller protege Phil Spector and the sound of Tamla-Motown . In 2013, King told the Guardian:

It was 1960, but in my vocal I think you can hear something of my earlier times when I’d sing in subway halls for the echo, and perform doo-wop on street corners. But I had a lot of influences, too – singers like Sam Cooke, Brook Benton and Roy Hamilton. The song’s success lay in the way Leiber and Stoller took chances, though, borrowing from symphonic scores, and we had a brilliant string arranger in Stan Applebaum.

Ben E King was 76 when he died, Percy Sledge just a couple of years younger. Although his career stretched from the 1960s to well into this century, Percy Sledge will always be identified with his first and greatest hit, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’.

Percy Sledge
Percy Sledge

Percy Sledge worked in a series of blue-collar jobs in Alabama before getting a job as a hospital nurse in the early 1960s. For several years, he toured as a member of the Southern soul vocal group the Esquires Combo on weekends, while working at the hospital during the week. On the advice of a former patient and local disc jockey Quin Ivy he went solo in 1966. His soulful voice was perfect for the series of soul ballads produced by Ivy and Marlin Greene, which rock critic Dave Marsh called ’emotional classics for romantics of all ages.’

‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was Sledge’s first song recorded under the contract, and was released in March 1966. The song’s inspiration came when Sledge’s girlfriend left him for a modelling career after he was laid off from work in late 1965.

Driven by Sledge’s passionate, pleading delivery, the million-selling song topped the US pop and R&B charts in 1966 and reached No 4 in Britain. The song is perhaps the ultimate expression of deep Southern soul.  It became the first gold record released by Atlantic Records.

Because bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright helped him with the song, he gave all the song-writing credits to them. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was followed by ‘Warm and Tender Love’ (covered in the UK by Elkie Brooks in 1981), and ‘t Tears Me Up’, one of the great songs written by Dan Penn.

After the streak of hits represented by ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, ‘Warm and Tender Love’ and ‘It Tears Me Up’, Sledge sank from view in the 1970s.

But he eventually returned to the limelight when a new generation discovered ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ through film and television soundtracks and a 1987 Levi’s TV commercial. On the back of the resurgence, Sledge released the 1994 album Blue Night, his first for a major label in two decades. Despite receiving positive reviews – including a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album – it proved to be Sledge’s last major project.  It was a fine album, and for me the standout track was ‘I’ve Got Dreams to Remember’. The pleading intensity of his voice remained just the same; the song, like ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, was superficially romantic, but actually deeply wounded:

I’ve got dreams,
Dreams to remember
Honey I saw you there last night
Another man’s arms holding you tight
Nobody knows what I feel inside
All I know, I walked away and cried
I’ve got dreams,
Dreams to remember

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