The successful boxer and singer start their careers similarly. Both are unknown in the very beginning, and by the force of their will power and talent, must rise from obscurity. With discipline and determination they patiently work at their craft through trial and error, until gradually and eventually their performances are impressed on and accepted by the public.
The American soul singer Benjamin Earl Nelson (he later changed his name to the more memorable King) was born in 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina, and later moved to Harlem, NY when he was nine. His father operated a luncheonette restaurant. Young Ben’s musical career started just for fun as a teen by singing in church and at the famous Apollo Theater with a doo-wop group called the Four Bs. One day, a man who lived across the street from the family’s eatery, walked in looking to recruit singing talent. King agreed to do some harmonizing with the man’s group and ended up joining them. ‘The Drifters eventually had a top 5 hit before King was 21 years old.
During his childhood, King became a boxing fan. “I never boxed myself,” says King who is now 71. “I just got into the enjoyment of watching Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ezzard Charles, Joe Walcott, all the way up to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.”
When asked what is the appeal of boxing, he responds without pause. “It’s gladiators. Everyone likes a gladiator.”
King says his most exciting experiences in boxing were: “Meeting and knowing and becoming friends with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.” The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer even allowed the Boxing Hall of Famer to belt out a few tunes with him. “Joe was with a group called ‘The Knockouts’ at the time. He came to some of my events and I went to some of his events in Philadelphia. He shared the stage with me a few times.” Though Smokin’ Joe did not set the music world ablaze with his vocal skills, King detected natural talent. “His voice is very soulful. Like Wilson Pickett. He has a rough, rowdy voice.”
Just the same as his pals Ali and Frazier stood on top of the athletic world, Ben E. King achieved similar success in the musical sphere. The song he sang and co-composed – the enduring classic “Stand By Me” was a top 10 hit in the U.S. in both 1961 and again in 1986. The song was featured prominently in a major motion picture of the same title in ’86, giving it a second wave of popularity. “Stand By Me” was also a #1 hit in the U.K. in 1987 and was voted, “One of the songs of the century,” by the Recording Industry Association of America. King says the creation process of that world famous tune took him, “About an hour or two. It doesn’t take me long to write songs. I kind of get an idea, and from the time that I more or less commit it to paper, I find that it flows down pretty easy. It would probably take me an hour to two to write it down, get the feel of it, and that’s with quite a few changes. It’s not really a hard thing for me to do. But, to complete a song could take weeks.”
Like a champion boxer, King has performed all over the world – Japan, North America, Europe – including the Prince’s Trust Birthday Party at Wembley in 1987 with Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Alison Moyet, Bryan Adams, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Mark King, Midge Ure, Mark Knopfler. Like a champion boxer, some of his best work earned #1 rankings, like the hit songs, “There Goes My Baby,” “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “Supernatural Thing.”
When it comes to boxing, King says his favorite fights are “the ones with Ali and Frazier. I loved all the Ali-Frazier fights.”
His favorite boxing film: “Raging Bull.”
First famous boxer he remembers meeting: “I met Joe Louis when he was hosting at the hotel in Las Vegas. Such a nice, gentleman. I met Sugar Ray Robinson in Harlem a few times. The first time I was 17. I remember he had a big crowd around him and he had his pink Cadillac, and he owned a barber shop and a night club. And Ali and Frazier – I got to meet my four favourites.”
He says he attended several championship fights in New York, with the most memorable night being his most recent visit to the Mecca of Boxing. “The last time I was there I saw Sugar Ray Leonard at the Garden. Against Terry Norris. It was not a very good night for Sugar Ray. Sugar Ray Leonard was a such a beautiful, amazing fighter in his youth. But everyone is gonna lose eventually. It’s just a matter of time until it happens.”
Today, King lives just outside New York City, in Teaneck, NJ (also the former residence of Mark Breland and Zab Judah) and is still quite busy with his own career. He’s released six albums in the last three years. He operates a foundation. He also performed “Stand By Me” during a recent televised tribute to the late American comedian George Carlin, as King was one of Carlin’s favourite artists.
The boxer and the performing musical artist – so different yet similar…independent, courageous, adaptable, driven to fulfill their vision. But as King points out – there is a major difference. “What I do, there is no feeling of pain,” he tells me. “There’s no pain involved in being a singer. When people go to see us sing on stage – they pay to see us. In boxing, they pay to see someone get hurt.”