Drifter Ben E. King Dies At 76: Here’s The Story Behind The R&B Legend’s Most Famous Tune

The man who brought us “Stand By Me,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “This Magic Moment,” Ben E. King, has died at age 76 of natural causes, Variety reported.

King leaves behind his wife of 50 years, Betty. Almost until he died, the legendary R&B singer and songwriter kept performing – as late as last year – and released his last album in 2010.

He was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in 1938 in North Carolina; at age 9 he moved to Harlem, according to his biography. He was a founding member of The Drifters, which in the beginning was actually called The Five Crowns. He joined that group in 1958 and with his fellow Crowns, replaced the original Drifters. They had been fired.

The songwriter’s first act as a Drifter was to write its memorable hit – “There Goes My Baby” in 1958. A slew of other classics followed. He totaled 12 top ten hits and 25 top 40 hits over 27 years, ABC News added. He even dominated into the 1960s as The Beatles and Rolling Stones pushed their way into the scene.

Perhaps his most famous tune, however, is “Stand By Me,” so iconic that it made its way into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Ben’s solo hit entered the charts in 1961, then again in 1987 when it became the theme for the classic film of the same name. John Lennon even covered the tune in 1986, the Wall Street Journal added.

It was kind of an accidental hit. Ben wrote it for The Drifters, but the group never took an interest. Neither did King, apparently. Recording “Spanish Harlem” one day in the studio, he found himself with a little extra time and his famous producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, asked if he had anything else.

Stoller remembered the session – Ben sang the tune a cappella, while Stoller took to the piano and played the chords; then came the famous bass line. His roots were in gospel, and he may have taken inspiration for the song from a hymn called “Lord Stand By Me.”

Of course, the rest is history, the song indelible and immediately recognizable to any generation. As to his other hits, each has had a rightful place in many wedding receptions for half a century, and rightly so.

For a lifetime of romantic, memorable music, King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, with Clyde McPhatter, Rudy Lewis, Johnny Moore, Bill Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher and Charlie Thomas.

Friend and singer Gary U.S. Bonds expressed his grief now that Ben E. King has died, leaving the world with an amazing catalog.

“With an extremely heavy heart, I must say goodbye to one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than 50 years – Mr. Ben E. King.”

In April, fellow legend Percy Sledge died at 73 of liver cancer.

[Photo Courtesy Ethan Miller/Getty Images]