King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson on September 28, 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina, and moved to Harlem, New York, at age 9.
In 1958, King (still using his birth name) joined a doo wop group called The Five Crowns. Later in 1958, The Drifters' manager George Treadwell fired the members of the original Drifters, and replaced them with The Five Crowns. King had a string of R&B hits with the group on Atlantic Records. He co-wrote and sang lead on the first Atlantic hit by the new version of the Drifters, "There Goes My Baby" (1959). He also sang lead on a succession of hits by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, including "Save the Last Dance for Me," "This Magic Moment," and "I Count the Tears." King only recorded 13 songs with The Drifters, including a non-single called "Temptation" (later redone by Drifters vocalist Johnny Moore).
Due to a dispute over his contract, including a salary increase and a fair share of royalties, King was never again given a chance by Drifters manager George Treadwell to perform with the group on tour or on television. After the dispute settled, King was hired only to sing until a replacement for him was found. On television, fellow Drifters member Charlie Thomas usually lip synched the songs that King had recorded with the Drifters. This end gave rise to a new beginning.
In May 1960, King left the Drifters, assuming the more memorable stage name Ben E. King in preparation for a successful solo career. Remaining on Atlantic Records on its Atco imprint, King scored his first solo hit with the ballad "Spanish Harlem" (1961). His next single, "Stand by Me," written with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, ultimately would be voted as one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America. "Stand by Me," "There Goes My Baby," and "Spanish Harlem" were named as three of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and were all given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, as well as "Save The Last Dance For Me." King's other well-known songs include "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)," "Amor," "Seven Letters," "How Can I Forget," "On the Horizon," "Young Boy Blues," "First Taste of Love," "Here Comes the Night," "Ecstasy," and "That's When It Hurts." In the summer of 1963, King had a Top 30 hit with "I (Who Have Nothing)," which reached the Top 10 on New York's radio station, WMCA.
King's records continued to place well on the Billboard Hot 100 chart until 1965. British pop bands began to dominate the pop music scene, but King still continued to make R&B hits and minor pop hits, including "What is Soul?" (1967) and "Supernatural Thing" (1975). A 1986 re-issue of "Stand by Me" followed the song's use as the theme song to the movie Stand By Me, and re-entered the Billboard Top Ten after a 25-year absence.
In 1990, King and Bo Diddley, along with Doug Lazy, recorded a revamped rap version of The Monotones' 1958 hit song "Book of Love" for the soundtrack of the movie Book of Love. He also recorded a children's album, I Have Songs In My Pocket, written and produced by children's music artist Bobby Susser in 1998, which won the "Early Childhood News' Directors' Choice Award" and "Dr. Toy's/The Institute For Childhood Resources Award." King performed "Stand by Me" on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2007. Ahmet Ertegun said, "King is one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll and rhythm and blues."
As a Drifter and as a solo artist, King had achieved five No. 1 hits: "There Goes My Baby," "Save The Last Dance For Me," "Stand By Me," "Supernatural Thing," and the 1986 re-issue of "Stand By Me." He also earned 12 Top 10 hits and 25 Top 40 hits from 1959 to 1986. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Drifter; he has also been nominated as a solo artist.
King's "I (Who Have Nothing)" was selected for the The Sopranos' Peppers and Eggs Soundtrack CD .
Currently, King is active in his charitable foundation, the Stand By Me Foundation and is also a founding Champion of the Global Village Champions Foundation along with Muhammad Ali, Gary US Bonds, and Yank Barry. He has been a resident of Teaneck, New Jersey since the late 1960s.
King performed "Stand By Me" during a televised tribute to late comedian George Carlin, as he was one of Carlin's favorite artists.
On November 11, 2010, he performed "Stand By Me" on the Latin Grammys with Prince Royce.
King toured the United Kingdom, performing at venues in England, Scotland and Wales during 2011. For a full list of the tour dates, visit CanAm Entertainment.
King's album "Heart & Soul" released in 2010 on the CanAm Records label takes a page from The Great American Songbook and features contributions from various jazz greats. JazzTimes heralded King's new release for its emotional and musical impact.
"Lovingly produced and expertly performed, it deserves to be heralded, and heard."
"King's vocals front and center, and he responds with warmly intimate performances that fairly ooze romance."
"Sometimes magic just happens!"
- Heart & Soul co-producer Lanny Williamson
"Magnificent performances...No wonder they call you 'A Legend'."
- Heart & Soul co-producer Linda Nash