Ben E. King, the R&B singer known for generation-defining classics like "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem," has died. He was 76.
King's publicist Phil Brown earlier confirmed the singer's death to the Associated Press, but did not immediately return messages seeking a cause of death.
King's emotional yet approachable voice gave life to "Stand By Me," one of the most popular R&B songs ever recorded. In 1999, BMI declared that the single, written by King alongside Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- and originally intended for the Drifters, but ultimately recorded by King when the group turned it down -- was the fourth-most played song on American radio in the 20th century. The U.S. Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry earlier this year.
The song has also enjoyed ongoing life as a pop culture reference since its debut in 1961, inspiring the 1986 Rob Reiner-directed movie of the same name, and providing sample material for Sean Kingston's 2007 chart-topping single "Beautiful Girls."
King, born Benjamin Earl Nelson in North Carolina, moved to New York as a young man and quickly became entranced with the emerging doo-wop music scene. He began his career as one of many revolving vocalists in the Drifters, and his voice appears on the group's staple singles like "Save the Last Dance for Me" and "There Goes My Baby," which hit No. 2 on the US charts in 1959.
In 1961, after pursuing a solo career, he scored his first solo hit with "Spanish Harlem." Later that same year, he landed in the top 5 with "Stand By Me," the song for which he would forever be best known. In the years since, the song has appeared in the Billboard Hot 100 nine times, twice with King's version and seven by other artists including John Lennon.
In the liner notes for a career-spanning box set (reviewed by Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn in 1993), King explained how the song came to life. "Jerry and Mike asked me if I had anything I wanted to do," King said. "I went to the piano and played a little of 'Stand By Me,' which I'd gone over before with Jerry. So right at the end of the sessions, we cut it...I had tears in my eyes when I sang it."
Later, King would pep up his sound and venture into more upbeat tunes. "His accent is now on gaiety, rather than on melodramatic romanticism," wrote the Times' Dennis Hunt in a 1975 live review. Settling in Teaneck, N.J., in the late 1960s, King founded the Ben E. King Stand By Me Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping "assist those organizations that provide services in the areas of poverty, substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, teen pregnancy and domestic violence."
"I'm deeply touched by the passing of my good friend and brother Ben E. King," fellow R&B hitmaker Smokey Robinson told the Times in an email. "There is another soldier gone."
"Almost all of my memories of Ben are very fond," Stoller told the Times on Friday morning from his offices in Marina Del Rey. "We met him in 1959, when Jerry and I were 26. Benny must have been 20 at the time, but he had such a mature sound for a young guy.
"I saw him in New York in July," he added. "He was a good friend."