If I had a nickel for every time I have listened to Ben E. King sing a song, I would be a millionaire. But I wouldn’t care, because the music is enough. What a voice, what a presence on stage, what a gentleman.
One of my favorite live performances was his guest starring spot in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the brilliant Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller musical revue that ran on Broadway for years. We took our children to see him in it; they were about 5, 9, and 11 at the time. When we took our seats, the people around us looked concerned about the arrival of a potentially boisterous five-year-old. I said to them, “Don’t worry. She’s been raised on Ben E. King.” He sang some of his greatest hits, as only he could, including “Spanish Harlem, “ “I (Who Have Nothing),” and, of course, the show-stopping “Stand by Me.” It was unforgettable.
After the show, we waited outside to see him (something I have done only one other time in more than 40 years of going to Broadway shows, and that was to see Yul Brynner in his final run of The King and I). By the time Ben E. King finally came out from backstage, almost no one was left on the street. I pushed my children ahead of me to shake hands with him, saying to them, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” How gracious he was to them. He even sang us a couple of lines a cappella from one of his Drifters’ hits for them. Who needed instruments when you had his voice?
The very next day, I went back to see him in the show again. I waited again outside the stage door. A friend took a photo of me with the inimitable Ben E. King when he came out. It was my Christmas card picture that year. It is still framed in my bedroom some 15 years later.
I had the pleasure of hearing him live a couple of times since those Smokey Joe’s days, once a few years ago. It seemed to me that his voice just got better and better with age—more mellow, more engaging, more everything. What a gift he had.
When it came time for the first commencement in 2012 at the Early College high school I co-founded in Brooklyn, we needed a song for our tiny musical ensemble to play and our totally untrained graduates to sing. I went to the obvious choice: “Stand by Me.” It made some logical sense, but I didn’t care. It was all about that melody and those lyrics. Our very talented music teacher, Mike Mucha, managed to get our kids to play the song, and he soloed himself on guitar for that gorgeous instrumental section. We brought it back by popular demand for our second commencement a year later. That song never gets old.
How could one man bring so much happiness to so many people around the world just by singing? And yet, Ben E. King did. We will miss him. But, as my sister-in-law said, “At least, there will always be the music.” Indeed there will.