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Ben E. King – A Soul Man’s Jazz Odyssey


Ben E. KingFifty years since Ben E. King left the Drifters to start his solo career, his hits are still being covered by everyone from American Idol hopefuls to Michael Bublé to U2. And yet, throughout the past decade, the soul legend with the rough-but-tender voice has kept a low profile, singing in supper clubs and jazz lounges to audiences of connoisseurs. His new album, Heart & Soul, reflects the intimacy of such gigs — it’s a small-group session of old-school ballads (“When I Fall in Love,” “My Funny Valentine,” etc.) featuring jazz heavyweights such as Randy Brecker and Guido Basso. With its release this summer, King will at last be stepping onto bigger stages again, starting with a high-profile show at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Over the phone from his New Jersey home, the 71-year-old King looked back on his constantly shifting career and revealed the best way to persuade your fans to stand by you.

You recorded your new album in Calgary. How did that come about?

Linda Nash, who’s the executive producer, came to see a show that we did at The Blue Note [in Manhattan]. She said, “What you been up to?” and I gave her a big-band CD that I did a few years back. … When she went home, she took a listen to it and called her husband [Lanny Williamson, owner of The Beach studios in Calgary]. She said, “I got a guy that did some big-band stuff.” He says, “Who is this?” She says, “Ben E. King.” He says, “Can’t be.” They enjoyed the voice and the material, and they decided I should come up there. He has a brilliant studio with great engineers, great atmosphere. I call him “the Doctor,” and he is unbelievable. We took a year and change and did a CD.

How did you like it up there?

Well, it’s not New York because you don’t hear a lot of cursing. But it’s very nice, very comfortable, very laid-back — I enjoyed it. A good place to go and rest your brain.

This album is more intimate in conception than your early work. Was that the idea from the start?

We took time to select the songs and made sure they were in a comfortable key before I began. Then all of a sudden [Nash and Williamson] decided, “Why don’t you record in your baritone voice? You never do.” I said, “I never do because they never ask me.” It was enjoyable because all through the years I’ve recorded in a much higher key.

One of the highlights of Heart & Soul, for me, is the way that your voice and Guido Basso’s flügelhorn trade off on “My Funny Valentine.”

He frightens me, he sounds so good. You couldn’t ask for a better sound to be on a record than his. I haven’t had that feeling as a musician in many, many years.

The last track, “That Old Feeling,” includes some false starts and studio chatter. It sounds as though there was a very loose atmosphere during the recording.

Well, you know, when you get with guys like that, it’s so different from the hustle and bustle in the world of soul music. With Guido and [trumpeter Randy] Brecker and [pianist Larry] Willis, it’s like, “Hey, man, just chill.” And they’re so knowledgeable. All you have to do is have a few seconds [of] discussion about something, and then go with it. These are some of the best of the best musicians in the world. I wish I could work with them all my life, but they all have their individual careers all over the place, headlining their own shows.

Is that one reason you started recording jazz, to have that feel?

Maybe it’s an age thing, I don’t know. You get to a certain age and you stop trying to win a contest. You settle back and you enjoy life, and you still want to do something in the world, and you find a place that’s comfortable for you. It’s not that I won’t still do my R&B thing and my soul thing; it’s just that I’m so far removed from doing the “I Who Have Nothing” and the “Spanish Harlem” and the “Dance With Me” music anyway. So I just took a step up to a world that has a total respect for music, regardless of what it is. And that’s what I’ve found in jazz musicians over the years — they don’t play at music; they romance it.

If you’re playing one of your older soul classics with jazz musicians, will they be looking to reinvent it?

Yeah, over the last five years I’ve kind of blended the two musics together, and I never have offended the audience that I’ve had over the years.

It must be a relief not to be expected to do the same songs the same way, night after night.

That’s so true. And I think at a time in life, you want your audience to expect you to go somewhere else. They don’t want to come to see you just sit there and not explore whatever talents you have — give me something that I haven’t seen, or say something that you haven’t said to me.

In their autobiography, Leiber and Stoller describe battling with Jerry Wexler from Atlantic over the cost of the studio sessions with the Drifters, and then your solo work. What’s your memory of those conflicts?

I knew that was going on. One of the things that I admired about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is that they were always in a different place than anybody else when it came to producing and arranging and writing. I was happy to be in their company because it was something new for me, but I learned to admire them even more, the more that I was in the studio with them. I knew there was a battle about the cost factor with Jerry [Wexler], and I knew he didn’t like a lot of the songs, and I was very pleased that the songs came out and were successful [laughs], so it kind of stopped him from complaining for a few days anyway.

In the early ’60s, the arrangements in your songs became very complex, such as on “Don’t Play That Song,” with strings, horns, harps and percussion. Did you have any input into the creation of those arrangements?

Oh, not at all. Are you kidding? I was way out of my league with those guys. As a matter of fact, when I first went into the studio and saw that stuff, I didn’t know that was not the norm. I said, “Oh, this is cute, this is how they record it with everybody.” I didn’t know that this was something that they started doing with us.

Would they consult with you about what worked with your voice?

We’d sit at the piano, go through the song; I’m not at all told about the direction of the arrangement, but they would map out where the voice would not be. They would say, “OK, now, I’m going to do a four-bar solo over here; now come back in at this part here.” It’s like someone tailor-making a suit for you: The tailor will put it on you, take it away from you. You know how [it’s supposed to look], but they don’t show you all the things that are done to this suit. By the time you put it on again, you’re so pleased with the fit that you’re almost in tears. That’s how it feels when I work with Jerry and Mike — I don’t want to know if there’s cellos or violins or kettledrums, because from the time the intro starts, you know it’s going to be a four-bar intro or an eight-bar intro, and that’s when you pop in. And from the time that I start singing, the suit fits.

It surprised me that after you left the Drifters, they would lip-sync to your versions of their songs on TV.

I know, I know. Even now my grandkids look at the TV and they see them lip-syncing to “Save the Last Dance” or whatever. They say, “We thought you said you did this?” I say, “Trust me, I did!”

You ended up joining the Drifters again in the ’80s and touring, so I guess the lip-syncing didn’t end up being a big issue.

Well, it hurt a bit at the beginning, but like I say, there are certain fights that you might not win, and then you just tuck it in your pocket and say, “Just go and see what happens after this.”

In his liner notes to The Very Best of Ben E. King, Billy Vera says that you’re “one guy you will never hear a bad word about from the often backstabbing world of Backstage.” Are you generally looking to smooth things over and avoid conflict?

More times than not. When someone is asked to do things of that nature, sometimes they don’t want to do it, you know what I mean? Sometimes you’re put in an awkward position where we’re forced to be in things that we don’t want to be in or doing things that we don’t want to do.

What’s your feeling on the Drifters touring in 2010?

Well, which ones? [laughs] There’s Charlie Thomas’ Drifters — obviously they’re doing well traveling and touring, and we’re still good buddies because we came through the background days in Harlem together … The name “Drifters” is alive and well, and I still do quite a few Drifters songs onstage, and the audience loves it to death.

The Drifters’ history is confusing. Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: You were originally one of the Five Crowns, and then when the Drifters’ manager fired the members of the Drifters, he hired you and the other Crowns to become Drifters?

Yeah, it’s always been a strange thing! It’s like a movie that you don’t want to see but you can’t help lookin’ at.

It sounds as though being a Drifter must have been like having a job rather than being an integral part of a group.

Well, it was, because there was constantly stuff going on that was interfering with your talent. You go left, and before you know it somebody says, “Oh, no, you should have gone right, because we didn’t want you to go left.” And unfortunately still today, it’s the same situation. You’ve got Drifters in Canada; Drifters in Australia [made up of people who were] never, ever, ever a Drifter, but they’re so popular — I could not ever get a gig in Australia. There’s the Drifters in Texas; and then again there’s the Charlie Thomas Drifters; and there’s another set of Drifters in New York; and of course there’s a set of Drifters in the UK. So if I decide I want to be a Drifter, I have my choice to pick, of quite a few. [laughs]

I guess they were well-named.

That’s for sure.

You wrote and sang your own biggest hit, “Stand By Me,” solo, and it’s been taken up by many other artists. Do you have any favourite cover versions?

David Ruffin from the Temptations did a great version of it. And, of course, the one that held up in my head the most was John Lennon’s version. He took it and made it as if it should have been his song as opposed to mine. Now there’s a [Dominican] singer named Prince [Royce] — he has a version out there that I think is brilliant. And then there’s Sean Kingston, with ‘Beautiful Girl’ [chuckles] — that’s another one that did well. So many of them have done well. As a songwriter, it pleases me a lot — you don’t always have a chance to write a song that people can relate to.

I heard recently that Lady Gaga and Sting just did it. I have to find my grandkids to Google stuff up and find out what that was about.

Are you going to be running your golf classic this summer?

We decided to take a break for the first time this year. We did 12 years; we shut it down this year based on the fact that we’re trying to make sure that it’s going to be right for the next 12 years. We’re involved with helping the kids out up at Berklee College [of Music] in Boston, so we went up there about a month or so ago to talk to them. We planned our next move.

Will you be getting the chance to take a few golf swings nonetheless?

If I do, they’re the worst swings you would ever want to see. I’m not bad – I’m terrible. [laughs]

So the only type of swinging you’ll be doing will be –


— Originally published in Spinner, July 2010


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