Ben E. King: Voice like a pool of honey beneath a crispy surface

Story highlights

  • Singer Ben E. King died Thursday at 76
  • Gene Seymour: 1960 saw recording of two great pop songs by one artist

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Look up the date October 27, 1960, on the Internet and what would you find? Hope. But where exactly?

Let's see...well, the American League agreed that day to expansion teams in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. that would begin playing the following year. Maybe, maybe not...
Here's something far more significant: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was discharged from Georgia State Prison eight days after his arrest during a sit-in demonstration in Atlanta. His release was partly attributed to the intervention of Robert Kennedy, then managing a presidential campaign for his brother, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy.
    Gene Seymour
    Many believe the Kennedys' role in this incident helped tip the scales for the Democratic candidate in an extremely tight race that stayed tight right up to its end less than two weeks later.
    While all that was happening, two of the greatest pop singles ever made, "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand By Me," were recorded in a New York City studio under the name Ben E. King, who died Thursday at age 76.
    The first song evoked the singular image of a red rose bursting through city grit and squalor, while the second pledged deliverance from loneliness and fear of the kind of night so dark and forbidding that "the moon is the only light we see."
    Coincidence? Maybe. Hope? For sure.
    They are both so ingrained in the hearts of several generations that it now seems hard to imagine that they could have been forged on the same day. Indeed, Tom Dowd, the legendary Atlantic Records engineer who worked on those productions, insisted until his death in 2002 that they were cut on different dates despite what the master tapes say.
    Whenever it happened, however, the stars were aligned.
    It was just another day in the studio for producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, legends in their own right for writing some of the biggest rhythm-and-blues hits of the era ("Hound Dog," "Yakety-Yak," "Searchin'") and for King, who up until that point, was best known as lead singer for The Drifters, an Atlantic doo-wop franchise whose hits stretched back to 1953's "Money Honey" and 1959's "There Goes My Baby" -- and would someday include 1962's "Up On the Roof" and 1964's "Under the Boardwalk."
    King's voice, a pool of honey draped beneath a crispy surface, was supple enough to convey both the sultry Latin-tinged street poetry of "Spanish Harlem" (which Leiber had co-written with a young producing prodigy named Phil Spector) and the blue-edged secular gospel of "Stand By Me," whose credits include King's name, along with Leiber and Stoller.
    "Spanish Harlem" was released on the last day of 1960 and it got as high as number 10 on the Billboard Pop Music charts. It was so much in the air during that brutal winter that comedian Lenny Bruce, performing at Carnegie Hall on the cold, snowy midnight of February 4, 1961, made a detour in the middle of a larger routine to wax rhapsodic about the song. ("It is soooo pretty, man....really beautiful!"), especially its image of a rose "growing in the street/ right through the concrete..."
    "Stand By Me" had even greater success upon its release in September of that year, rising to number four on the pop charts and number one on the rhythm-and-blues charts. That song's blend of ominous imagery countered by loving fidelity seemed especially meaningful in a year of Cold War anxiety and civil rights workers holding their own against threats, beatings and imprisonment.
    Ben E. King was able to reap the benefits of that revival, having maintained in the intervening years a steady presence on the concert stage, helped along by two other hit songs, 1962's "Don't Play That Song" and 1963's "I (Who Have Nothing)."
    Yet, surely he must have known by the time he died that those two songs he recorded more than a half century ago have such staying power that they may in the coming centuries follow us into the stars -- where, by the way, human beings first began journeying at about the time they were released on 45-rpm records.
    Coincidence? Maybe. Hope? For sure.