Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is a song any artist would strike a deal with the devil to write. It’s become as timeless as a hymn. It’s been covered endlessly and used in so many movies, TV shows and commercials that it’s easy to take its perfection for granted. But it’s also easy to forget that “Stand By Me” was just one highlight in a career that pre-dated and outlasted a lot of the R&B legends that come to mind before you think of Ben. E King. And if this sounds familiar, one more time we’re begging you to go deeper than the one song every obituary is calling out in its headline, we’re fine with that. The only thing Trunkworthy stands for is fighting to keep great art from being ignored, so you can expect us to get on the pulpit every time we see a great artist get reduced to their so-called “greatest hits.” And Ben E. King certainly proved himself to be a great artist.
Go back to 1959, and that’s him singing lead on the Drifters’ two biggest hits, “There Goes My Baby” and “Save The Last Dance For Me.” Then came his solo hits: “Stand By Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” and “I (Who Have Nothing).” All great, all later revived across decades as hits for John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross and others. And we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t also point you to “Young Boy Blues,” which towers above most anything that got pressed in 1961 in terms of pure impassioned beauty if not sales and spins.
But King didn’t stop there. He kept going as R&B turned to soul, and, always more comfortable uptown than down south, had no trouble landing hits through the late ’70s as even the mightiest of soul men got crushed by the thump of disco and funk. There are a few solid collections that gather his best and biggest, but one song that’s missing from all of ’em is the grittiest thing you’ll hear King sing. It’s the b-side to the shortlived supergroup, The Soul Clan. And it’s got one hell of a story, too.
In the mid-’60s, the collective kings of Southern Soul, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and Don Covay, had a radical idea: They would form a supergroup so obviously lucrative that Atlantic Records would gladly hand them a million bucks to cut an album. That advance would be used to refurbish black-owned businesses negatively impacted by desegregation. “Who’s gonna stay at the run-down Black motel when now you can stay at the Holiday Inn down the street?” Solomon Burke wondered. “The people who were running those motels, living in shacks, were our fans. We had a responsibility to them.” But in an era long before it was fashionable or even acceptable for artists to mix business, politics and pop stardom, the plan quickly started to break apart. Otis died, Pickett backed out, and the Clan’s million dollar demand got nothing more than an eye-roll from Atlantic Records.
Undeterred, Otis’ protege, Arthur Conley, stepped in to his mentor’s shoes and Ben E. King took Pickett’s part. The Soul Clan managed to cut one 45 before the dream died, but the single, “Soul Meeting,” barely registered on the R&B charts. Solomon said it was intentionally crushed to derail their larger plan, and that may be. But, damn, we wonder what might have happened if the DJs flipped it over and played the B-side. “That’s How It Feels” is a raw, hard look at black life that doesn’t define soul so much as explain where the pain and pride that fueled it came from. It’s a love song to soul itself, as each member of the Clan takes turns preaching about the brutal realities of growing up black and broke in the South. No messages hidden in metaphors here, something made brutally clear the moment King steps up the mic with the line, “My mother died when I was a baby boy…”
With Ben E. King’s death, all five members of The Soul Clan have gone home, but “That’s How It Feels” stands as a monument to each artist’s greatness and remains one of soul’s most profound, moving, and unreasonably unknown songs.