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Ben E. King dies at 76; singer-songwriter behind classic 'Stand By Me'

Singer-songwriter Ben E. King, who had one of the most enduring hits ever with 'Stand By Me,' dies at 76

Singer and songwriter Ben E. King, who had one of the most enduring hits of all time with "Stand By Me," almost didn't become a solo artist.

In 1960 he was the lead singer with the Drifters when the group got into a disagreement with its manager over money. The manager wouldn't back down.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Ben E. King: In the May 2 California section, the obituary of "Stand by Me" singer Ben E. King was accompanied by a Getty Images archive photo that was misidentified as King. The photo was of musician Jimmy Castor. —
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"He said, 'If you're not happy, you can leave,'" King told the Herald in Glasgow in 2012. "So I left the room, expecting the rest of the guys to follow me. I waited and waited but they never came out, and I became an accidental solo artist."

King, 76, who was also known for his solo hits "Spanish Harlem" and "I (Who Have Nothing)," and "There Goes My Baby" and "Save the Last Dance For Me" with the Drifters, died Thursday at Hackensack University Medical Center, near his home in Teaneck, N.J.

His attorney in New York, Judy Tint, said he died after a brief illness.

"He was magnificent," said legendary songwriter Mike Stoller, who with partner Jerry Leiber shares credit with King for writing "Stand By Me." The R&B anthem, which has become a tribute to togetherness in hard times, is the fourth most-performed song on the BMI roster, with more than 12 million performances.

If the sky,that we look upon

Should tumble and fall

And the mountain should crumble to the sea

I won't cry, I won't cry

No, I won't shed a tear

Just as long as you stand, stand by me

It has been covered by such widely diverse artists as Otis Redding, John Lennon, The Fugees, Ronnie Milsap, Tracy Chapman and U2. But King's 1961 version, used in the 1986 Rob Reiner movie of the same name, is the best known.

"There's a winning, almost effortless Everyman quality to his work," Robert Hilburn, The Times' then-pop music critic, wrote in 1993.

Stoller said Friday that King had that quality from the beginning. "Ben was 20 when we met," Stoller said, "and he always had that really mature style for such a young guy."

Inspired by an early 20th century hymn of the same title, King wrote "Stand By Me" as a tribute to his wife, Betty. They were married in 1958.

When the film about a group of boyhood friends in the late 1950s came out, the song took on a different meaning.

"What's interesting to me," King said in a 1986 Chicago Tribune interview, "is that a song I wrote as a love song is being adopted by kids everywhere as a song about friendship.

"I think that's interesting: two generations listening to the same song are getting different, but equally positive, meanings from it."

Stoller said Friday that Leiber, who died in 2011, worked on the lyrics with King. Stoller said his main contribution was the highly recognizable bass line that runs through the song.

King said "Stand By Me" was originally meant for the Drifters but instead was recorded for his first solo effort, produced by Leiber and Stoller.

"Jerry and Mike asked me if I had anything I wanted to do," King said in a booklet for a box set of his recordings. "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 session we cut it.

"I had tears in my eyes when I sang it."

He was born Benjamin Earl Nelson on Sept. 28, 1938, in Henderson, N.C. When he was about 10 his family moved to New York, where his father opened a restaurant.

"We ended up in Harlem, where I heard music other than gospel for the first time in my life," he told the Philadelphia Tribune in 2003. In his late teens, he joined a singing group called the Five Crowns. The Drifters already existed and had hits, but its manager fired the singers and asked members of the Five Crowns to take their place.

King's song, "There Goes My Baby," was the first big hit for the reconstituted group. He also sang lead on "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance For Me."

His popularity tailed off as the 1960s progressed, but King had another top-10 hit in 1975 with the disco-flavored "Supernatural Thing — Part 1." And his career got a major re-start when the film "Stand By Me" came out.

Even when he didn't have songs on the charts, King toured extensively, finding fans in unexpected places. For him, Japan was a surprise.

"These little Japanese kids came up to me," he said in a 1996 Philadelphia Inquirer interview. "They went down on their knees and they were bowing to me. I was kind of embarrassed.

"Then they started singing. They knew all of those old Drifters songs note for note."

King is survived by his mother, Jenny; wife, Betty; daughters Terris Cannon and Angela Matos; son Benjamin King Jr.; four sisters; three brothers; and six grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcolker

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