Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Play It Again, Ben - Ben E. King Interview

You could be in an aisle at the local Homebase, picking out blinds for the spare bedroom, when you here those first bass notes over the in-store radio:
“Duum, da, dumm, dumm; dumm, da, dumm, dumm …” followed by several ratchety percussive scraping sounds and then, introducing himself, the male singer begins the first line: “When the night … has come.”  The intro is one of the most recognizable in pop, instantly making the eyes glaze over. Suddenly you’re an innocent eleven year old again, when DIY was something your Dad did. You remember hanging out with your friends, taking the mickey out of each other and playing cards. You also reminisce about that time you helped your slightly chubby mate leap from a railway bridge to avoid a fast approaching locomotive. Oh wait a sec, sorry, that last bit might be from a film. Yes it is. As it happens, a film that featured and shared the same name as the song which started this bout of nostalgia: Stand By Me was already a classic ’62 soul hit for former Drifter Ben E. King long before being re-released in 1987 to become a UK number 1 and even now, in 2011, it’s still on every jukebox in town.  A song that, every time Ben E. King steps on stage, he’s expected to sing (King even recorded the similar sounding, ironically titled Don't Play That Song) - You could forgive him for being a little sick of the track. King’s having none of it.
“The film may have given Stand By Me greater longevity and brought a younger audience along but it’s always special whenever I sing that song, just seeing the reaction that I get from the crowd, I mean, I’ve been performing it for 50 years!”  
Currently halfway through a UK tour that began on February 1st, King has been receiving a great response, up and down the country, along with fellow headliner, friend and R&B legend Gary ‘US’ Bonds and by the time they roll up to Tunbridge Wells on March 9th they’ll have already squared away 30 hard day’s nights.
“It’s not as gruelling as it sounds,” explains King, who is momentarily interrupted by the voice of his drivers Sat Nav - “take the first exit onto the M4” (to save time the interview is taking place by car whilst he travels from Reading to the next venue in Northampton), “I mean, it is and it isn’t,” he continues unfazed, “Once you have a great band and a good show running there’s really no work involved, we do it because its fun.”

The show is called The Great American Soulbook, so named because King & Bonds have personally selected their all time favourite soul killers, such as In The Midnight Hour, When A Man Loves A Woman, Higher & Higher, Try A Little Tenderness & Lets Stay Together. But of all the artists King covers, one of his old peers stands out.
“I love performing Ray Charles - Let The Good Times Roll. Because, before I joined the Drifters I was in a group called the Five Crowns and Ray Charles signed us to a show at the Apollo Theatre (in Harlem, New York). That first show was special; it meant everything to my career.” Following that show The Drifters manager, infamously replaced the existing members en masse with The Five Crowns, with Ben E. King at the helm. The rest is history. Speaking of the Drifters, King will of course be dropping a few of their classics, along with his own, into the set list, which begs the question, can he still moan (“mmmmm”) like he used to on Save The Last Dance For Me?
“As long as I can still sing, I will always be able to do that moan.” 

Originally published in the Kent Messenger Newspaper, March 2011

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