Pete Frame never did a Drifters Family Tree. It would have been far too complicated and occupied too many pages, but if he had one name would have stood out above all the rest of the singers, and there were scores of them, that passed through The Drifters and other singing groups that called themselves a variation on the name, all of whom contained at least one singer who at one time or another sang with the parent group.
That name, of course, was Ben E. King, who died on Thursday, evidently from natural causes. For me King was the true voice of The Drifters, for he sang lead on ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, one of my all time favourite songs. Of course King was most famous for ‘Stand By Me’ and for signing the gorgeous Phil Spector ballad ‘Spanish Harlem’, but for me ‘Last Dance’ was his masterpiece.
As I have mentioned elsewhere on Just Backdated, at the bottom of the road where I lived in Skipton, on the corner before the right turn into Skipton High Street, there was a coffee bar with a juke-box where at the start of my teens I discovered American pop. I spent hours in there sipping coffee or coca-cola, putting three-penny and sixpenny bits into that juke-box and listening to my favourite records, mostly those that were released between the decline of the first wave of US rockers and the advent of The Beatles. I discovered ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ on this juke box and played it endlessly, along with ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ by Chuck Berry, ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ by The Teddy Bears, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ by The Shirelles, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ by The Platters, ‘Only The Lonely’ by Roy Orbison and ‘Rave On’ by Buddy Holly, some of which I’ve written about here. In hindsight, it occurs to me now that the hours spent in this little coffee bar was an education that served me far better than maths or history. It was only later that I realised that all my favourite records came from America, the spiritual home of pop and rock, and these records were universally loved by other music nerds like me that I would meet and share similar memories with in the fullness of time.
I would have been 13 going on 14 when ‘Last Dance’ seeped into my consciousness. It was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, mostly by Pomus, a wheelchair bound blues fanatic, evidently on his wedding night as he watched his bride dance with others while he waited on the sidelines, knowing that it was in his arms she’d be when he took her home.
In his eloquent obituary of King in today’s Guardian*, my former MM colleague Richard Williams rightly credits ‘Last Dance’ as the zenith of King’s tenure as lead singer with The Drifters. Richard also points out that King was a refined and dignified singer, perhaps too much so to compete with the more upbeat R&B and soul material from the Memphis-based Stax label later in the sixties, or the poppier end of the market that was virtually monopolised by Detroit’s Motown. King belonged in that twilight zone between Elvis and The Beatles, an era that better suited his sophisticated style, and it is his enormous credit that his voice can be heard on three of the period's most memorable recordings.
As I’m writing this I’m listening to a Drifters compilation on Atlantic called, appropriately enough, Save The Last Dance For Me. All 20 tracks are sheer magic but it’s track 4, ‘You can dance, every dance with the guy, who gives you the eye…’ that still gives me goose pimples; such a lovely, perfectly realized, perfectly recorded song.
RIP Ben E.