Earlier this year, Ben E. King passed away at the age of 76. While his name may not be instantly recognizable to every REBEAT reader, I’m betting that many of his songs are. “Stand By Me” is one of the most iconic recordings of the ’60s, “Spanish Harlem” is an oldies station staple, and the songs he sang as the lead singer of the Drifters, such as the #1 hit “Save the Last Dance for Me,” are solid R&B classics. Real Gone Music has just released a The Complete ATCO/Atlantic Singles Vol 1: 1960-1966, a collection that includes 50 of his biggest hits from his early career. A substantial number of his 37 pop and 30 R&B chart hits are on this two-CD set, including the A- and B-sides of all the singles he recorded for ATCO and Atlantic from 1960 to 1966. Though unfortunately his tracks from his days with the Drifters aren’t here, that’s understandable given the purpose of the collection, and certainly none of his solo efforts were omitted. In addition, many of the tracks have never been released on CD in the US, and many others are being released for the first time on CD in their original mono versions. Real Gone has released a very fine collection.
The collection is arranged chronologically, and after leading off with two solo sides from 1960, “Brace Yourself” and “Show Me the Way” (neither of which was successful on the charts — perhaps due to the fact that they sound like throwback songs from a few years earlier), the collection includes two sides King recorded with Lavern Baker, “A Help-Each-Other Romance” and “How Often.” During the ’50s, Baker had been fairly successful recording for Atlantic, with songs such as “Jim Dandy” and the magnificent “Tweedlee Dee,” so it seemed logical to pair these two great singers for a side or two. While “How Often” is a bit of a throwaway, “Help-Each-Other Romance” is a very good song.
The CD’s fifth cut is one of King’s most notable songs, “Spanish Harlem,” the hit from 1961 that made the Top 10 on the pop charts. Though not his biggest hit, it’s certainly one of his most identifiable. It’s followed by the single’s B-side, “First Taste of Love.” Interestingly enough, this song, written by Doc Pomus and Phil Spector, sounds a whole lot like the Drifters’ #1 hit that King sang lead on, “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Since Pomus also co-wrote that song, it’s probably not a coincidence!
“Stand by Me”
King’s biggest solo hit, “Stand by Me,” is up next. For the average person on the street this is probably his most recognizable song, and with good reason — it’s a real classic.
“Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”
After “Stand by Me,” the collection contains “On the Horizon,” “Amor,” “Souvenir of Mexico,” “Young Boy Blues,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Ecstasy,” and “Yes,” and several of these are decent tracks worth a listen. These are followed by the somewhat mournful hit “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” a big hit for King that went to #11 in 1962. If you haven’t heard it before and like “Stand by Me,” as you can hear it’s somewhat reminiscent of that tune.
“I (Who Have Nothing)”
“I (Who Have Nothing),” made the Top 40 in 1963. Based on an Italian tune, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote the English lyrics to this dramatic offering that has a definite Mediterranean feel to it. It has become a very popular song over time, and has been recorded by many artists. Although Tom Jones had the biggest hit with it in 1970, King does have the distinction of having done it first.
Though no one knew it at the time, “I (Who Have Nothing)” would be King’s last Top 40 pop hit for more than a decade. Because this collection offers all of King’s solo work up until 1966, we can hear how King’s music continued to evolve. King wasn’t afraid to experiment, and for example “Seven Letters” has a very countrified sound and could pass for a Ray Price tune. It would come closer to the Top 40 (#45) than any song King would release until he got on the funk/disco bandwagon in 1975 with the Top 10 hit “Supernatural Thing.”
All in all, pretty much everything King did between 1960 and 1966 is here, every release from the big hits to the B-sides. King was one of the biggest R&B artists of the 1960s, and you really need to hear this two CD set to appreciate the scope of his work. Real Gone has announced they will release a second volume of King’s work soon, the post-1966 classics including the songs that emerged when his career underwent a rebirth in the 1970s. I’m looking forward to hearing that as well, but for now we have this excellent collection to celebrate the early career of one of the ’60s greatest voices.
To get your copy of Ben E. King’s Complete ATCO/Atlantic Singles Vol. 1, head over to the Real Gone Music online shop.