Saturday, May 2, 2015

A hidden gem in Ben E. King's discography

Ben E. King (1938-2015)

"Stand By Me" is dominating the obituaries of R&B singer Ben E. King, who left us on Thursday at the age of 76. And why shouldn't it? Not only did King co-write and sing the ballad, but it was a big hit twice -- twenty-five years apart, no less! -- and inspired cover versions by everyone from John Lennon to Muhammad Ali. It's one of those indestructible oldies which has burrowed so deeply into the collective subconscious that we take it for granted. But Mr. King's career did not begin or end with those three minutes of evocative, violin-drenched music. Along with his solo career, of course, he was a key member of the Drifters during that group's early prime and thus provided lead vocals on even more indelible prom night classics: "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Spanish Harlem," "This Magic Moment," and more.

But none of those are the Ben E. King song I like best. "Stand by Me" and those Drifters hits I mentioned are definitely on the softer, more genteel side of soul music. Nothing wrong with that. But King could definitely throw down when the song called for it. As a prime example, take a song he recorded as a B-side for Atco Records in 1964, three years after "Stand by Me." It's called "Let the Water Run Down," and I first heard it on a compilation of songs with the so-called "Bo Diddley beat." (BOMP BOMP BOMP uh BOMP BOMP!) This record is about as un-"Stand by Me" as you can get. There's not a violin for miles. The song is edgy, insistent, and urgent. King sound genuinely perturbed as he retreats to the bathroom to sob over the woman who's just dumped him. While he's freaking out, there's a line forming of people who just have to use the can. That's a high pressure situation, and the song captures it perfectly. Enjoy.

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