Ben E King, who has died aged 76, was the smooth, soulful baritone who led the Drifters on There Goes My Baby and Save the Last Dance for Me and as a solo artist recorded the classic Stand by Me.
King was working in his father’s Harlem luncheonette in 1956 when a local impresario, Lover Patterson, overheard him singing to himself and persuaded him to join a group he managed, the Five Crowns.
The Crowns attracted the attention of George Treadwell, who managed the Drifters and owned the name. Treadwell fired the original Drifters en masse and replaced them with King and three of his fellow singers. Atlantic assigned the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to produce the group's recordings. The match turned out to be inspired, yielding a stream of hits.
King's suave but impassioned vocals had a lot to do with it. There Goes My Baby, released in 1959, reached No 2 in the charts. It was followed by Dance With Me, This Magic Moment, I Count the Tears, Lonely Winds and Save the Last Dance for Me, a No 1 hit.
King left the Drifters in 1960 for solo career. Spanish Harlem, written by Leiber with Phil Spector, reached the Top 10 that year. Stand by Me, which King helped write, reached the Top 10 in 1961 and again in 1986, when it was used in the soundtrack of the Rob Reiner film of the same name.
In 1999 the music licensing organisation BMI announced that it was the fourth-most-played song of the 20th century, having been aired more than 7 million times on radio and television.
King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in Henderson, North Carolina, and grew up in Harlem. He took the surname King, which belonged to a favorite uncle, soon after joining the Drifters.
King scored modest successes throughout the 1960s but by the end of the decade his career was in decline though he continued to turn out albums for Atlantic and performed regularly in clubs and small concert halls.
He is survived by his mother, Jenny Nelson, his widow, Betty King, two daughters, Terris Cannon and Angela Matos, a son, Benjamin Jr, four sisters and three brothers. “I still think my whole career was accidental,” King once said. “I didn’t pursue it. I feel like I’m cheating sometimes.”