I don't often get caught up in the outpouring that comes when a celebrity passes away. Not to sound like a cold and heartless, thousands of people around the world die everyday. Just because somebody was famous doesn't make their life any more meaningful than somebody else's; it's sad when anyone dies. Call me cynical, but I feel like people often use celebrity deaths so that they can post about it on social media.
That being said, R.I.P. Ben E King.
I woke up today, ready to share some music heading into the weekend, but when I heard the news of his passing I had more feels than I expected. It's not like me to get all worked up over the passing of a famous person, but I just couldn't shake this one. Going on about my day and writing about some random artist or act as if this didn't happen isn't right. So instead of sharing an ephemeral song, or a new "hot" mixtape that will get lost in the shuffle in a matter of weeks, let's take a few minutes to give some props to a legendary artist whose music stands the test of time. You may not be familiar with his name, but I can almost guarantee you have heard his most popular hit.
First and foremost, "Stand By Me" is one of my all-time favorite songs. I know I say that a lot, but it's never a lie. When you love music you change your favorite song more than your underwear. The way I separate a "right now" favorite vs. an "all-time" is by how much time passes with the song still in rotation and "Stand By Me" has been in rotation since I was a child. In fact, I have a very vivid memory of the song from when I was seven. Remember when you tired to watch a movie on a VCR and always had to fast-forward through the previews? Well, whenever I wanted to watch the Goofy Movie, I would always, always watch this one. It was one of the first times I remember thinking, "what's this song?" Even when I was seven, even if it wasn't Ben E. King singing it, I realized there was something special about the record. As I got older and my music knowledge grew, so too did my love of it; it's being played at my wedding (in between "Pony" and "International Players Anthem").
"Stand By Me" is timeless and it's all because of Ben E. King's heart. It's a simple, understated song - there isn't much going on instrumentally - but it evokes so much emotion. It's so pure. King's heart is what drives it; he's not belting out crazy notes or anything, but he still makes you stop in your tracks. I've listened to this ballad over and over again throughout the last 20 years and it never ceases to pluck at my feelstrings. We use the term 'classic' loosely these days, but in every single sense of the word "Stand By Me" is a classic. King captured something special, and as a result it has touched millions of lives through several generations. It's a song that can be appreciated by seven-year-olds, hip-hop heads, and even the grandparents of those same hip-hop heads. Ben E King, making white people dance funny since 1961. I'd love to make fun of them, but I probably look the exact same.
While "Stand By Me" is King's most popular track, it's but a drop in the bucket. Though his other work doesn't get nearly the acclaim, he had quite the career. I've long considered myself a big King fan - "Supernatural Thing," "Spanish Harlem" and "Young Boy Blues" are among some of my favorites and I have an album or two and even a single on vinyl - but recently I realized his career spans well beyond just solo material. On Record Store Day I found myself in the Doo-Wop section of a local shop and I realized that I know next to nothing about the genre. I hate not being in the know so I starter to do my homework. I picked up a record blindly and took it home. When I let the needle drop on The Five Crowns "I Want You"I heard a familiar voice; I came to find out it was my old friend Ben King. I was floored. Amazed. It was really exciting to hear an artist that has been a constant in my life in a completely new way.
But wait there's more! In addition to the solo stuff, in addition to The Five Crowns, King was also a member of The Drifters. As I said, I don't know a lot about Doo-Wop, but The Drifters was a name that I was very familiar thanks to "This Magic Moment" (shouts out Sandlot). Turns out that in 1958, the same year he joined The Five Crowns, the original Drifters were replaced by the King-led Crowns. Literally the whole band. All five Drifters were replaced be every member of The Five Crowns. Pretty crazy right? Anyway, it worked, because in just two short years of the King-led Drifters, with only thirteen songs recorded, he churned out some serious hits like the aforementioned "This Magic Moment," "I Count the Tears" and "Save The Last Dance," which reached number one on the Billboard Pop chart; it was the only Drifters song ever to reach number 1. King also had the second highest charting Drifters single with "There Goes My Baby." So basically in two short years, with just thirteen songs, he took the Drifters to another level. Again, this was all before "Stand By Me." That's power. That's talent. That's Ben E King.
The timing of his passing, after I had just encountered him by chance, feels weird, fated in some way. I'd love to think it was some sort of cosmic alignment, some mysterious force at work, but I know it's coincidence. When you are as talented, influential, and successful as King, it's inevitable your art will find people who aren't even looking for you. I'm sad Ben King is gone - my condolences to his family - but the greatest part about music is that it keeps the artist alive; we can still know, learn and grow with artists long after they leave us. Hip-hop heads are notorious for rallying around fallen emcees and Ben E. King deserves that same respect and devotion; know your roots.
So long as I have an iPod, so long as I have a record player, so long as I have ears and a heart, Ben E. King will always be standing by me.
Note: If your feeling inspired, or really want to pay tribute to him (sorry, a Facebook status doesn't cut it), why not donate to the Ben E. King Stand By Me Foundation?
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth]