I was born in 1961. During that same year, a song was released by Ben E. King which has stayed with me in more ways than one. “Spanish Harlem” was a song awash in reverb,orchestration during the middle break that could take you soaring into the clouds, and oh such deep soul. King’s voice was the link to every piece of vital essence holding that song together. In my mind, it still remains a masterpiece. So much attention is lavished on “Stand By Me”. Don’t get me wrong. “Stand By Me” is an incredible song and justifiably revered for the classic that it is. But there’s always been something about “Spanish Harlem” that gets at something that has grown to mythical status within my musical considerations whenever I hear it.
Something happened during the recording of that song which took on a life of its own. It’s still alive. Those two aforementioned songs came after he had split from the group and went on to develop his solo career. It was proof that when he had the really good songs, he could work his magic on them and make you take them in as your own.
There’s been debate among a lot of music fans on various music forums over songs which had reverb on them and if the reverb worked or not for those said songs. I’ve often wondered how people felt about it for “Spanish Harlem” given that reverb can be a touchy subject among music lovers-whether it was natural or added on in any case for any piece of music.
Ben E. King became known to many of us as a part of The Drifters. He came along after Clyde McPhatter’s tenure with the group (and McPhatter had come over from the legendary Billy Ward & His Dominoes). After Ben. E. left, Rudy Lewis took over to finish off the last great run of The Drifters. In having had some time since I learned the news of King’s passing earlier this morning, I was awestruck by how incredibly blessed we all were for having these three giants in the same group at different points. Strangely enough, I still think of him as a member of The Drifters.
King’s real name was Benjamin Nelson. It was during King’s tenure that the more straightforward R & B vocal style of McPhatter gave way to King’s stamp on Soul Music. Many people have cited that it was during King’s time in the group that The Drifters hit their peak. “Save The Last Dance For Me” (the Doc Pomus penned tune), “There Goes My Baby” and “This Magic Moment” formed the core of the middle period Drifters on the charts as well as in the estimations of music critics.
When I think of Ben E. King, I think of him as one of the most accessible voices of which one could draw themselves into so that they could discover different branches of Soul Music-especially early Soul. It may have been a case that his musical accessibility was very likely the result of his being a very easy to approach human being. Over the years, one never heard an unkind thing said about him. For music fans listening at home or in their cars, King was like one of those people you never knew, but it seemed like he knew the parameters of the depths of your emotions and helped you to more intuitively define to yourself just what they were. How deep can you go?
It didn’t always have to be the tortured artists who took you to the deep inner places to discover that depth. Sometimes it was the nice guys like Ben E. who took you there instead. It’s actually a relief to come to the realization of that simple thing. And when you took home a song like “Stand By Me” with you, it snuck up on you and hit you for real at the most unexpected moments. It might have sprung its head up at some point in your life when you were with a loved one and you were being accessible. And then that loved one revealed something to you which caught you off of your guard and you knew that you needed to step up to the plate for them. It could have been the other way around. Maybe it snuck up on you because something shattered you? What mattered was that Ben E King’s version of a musical path for you to discover was laid out like a hand extending outward to you in friendship. I greatly suspect, before movies fell in love with Ben E. King’s music, that people who’ve been the real music fans have known this all along. The Stand By Me movie only served to reinforce concepts which were there long before the ’80s. I should know so because I was one of them. The song was an icon to me and established before the movie even existed. Us crusty guys wear it on our sleeves.
And then I keep coming back to “Spanish Harlem”. This song has affected me so much over the years. My life opened up in 1961. That orchestration opened up my dream to fly through it all while the flight has been rough with personal drama and reverb of its own. My flight’s still rough, but the song keeps taking me forward by hook or by crook. I’ve got to watch all of this grow in my garden. I envy Ben E. in some regards. I am of the belief that he got to see it all grow. I don’t know if it’s going to the same case for me. But I’m glad he was there in my musical life to at least give it some lift when it has appeared it wasn’t capable of any at all.