SONG: Spanish Harlem
ARTIST: Ben E. King
Listen to it here:
Spanish Harlem was written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector and was first recorded by Ben E. King in 1960. The famous riff to the song was originally conceived by Spector and his then-girlfriend Beverly Ross. She was shocked to hear it just a few months later in the King recording. Spanish Harlem was released as a B-Side to “First Taste of Love”, but this song did much better, peaking at number 10 in the Billboard pop music charts. King’s version was his first hit away from The Drifters, although it did not create waves at all in the UK. It experienced a resurgence in 1987, when it was re-released after Stand By Me was such a hit.
Benjamin Earl King was born in 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina, and moved to Harlem, New York at the age of 9. He began singing in church choirs, and formed a doo-wop group in high school called the Four B’s.
In 1958, King joined another doo-wop group called the Five Crowns. Later that same year, the Drifters’ manager George Treadwell fired all the members of the original drifters and replaced them with the members of the Five Crowns.
With the Drifters, King had a string of R&B hits, some of which he co-wrote. He also sang lead on some of their biggest numbers like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment”. King’s time with the Drifters was fairly short, only recording 13 songs with them, and due to contract disputes regarding King’s compensation, he rarely performed on tour or on television with the group, with other members often lip-synching King’s recorded parts.
In May 1960, King left the Drifters and assumed his stage name Ben E. King. He quickly scored his first solo hit with Spanish Harlem. This was the beginning of much more to come with future hits, Stand by Me, There Goes My Baby, and many many more coming in the ensuing years. King’s records continued to place well on the Billboard charts up until 1965 with a lot of R&B was replaced by British pop. However, King continued to record R&B tunes, and made a comeback in 1975 with disco hit “Supernatural Thing”.
In 1982 King returned to the Drifters and sang with them until their break-up in 1986. King saw a resurgence that same year when his song Stand By Me was used in the movie of the same name. King remained active in the 1980s and 1990s, recording hiphop versions of earlier hits, a children’s album, and making appearances on the late night scene.
Ben E. King also started a charitable foundation, the Stand By Me Foundation which helps provide education to deserving youth. Ben E. King died following a brief illness on April 30, 2015 at the age of 76.
- With the re-issue of Stand by Me in 1986, King became the first act to reach the Hot 100’s top 10 in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
I would like to preface this review by saying get ready for the worst sounding saxophone you’ve ever heard. Anyway, this is another song that had some heavy rotation on the local oldies radio station, so I’ve heard this song many many times, but once again, this is my first time really having a listen. So first of all, Ben E. King sings the hell out of this. I never really realized how great a voice he has, but it is so smooth and warm. My problem is with how the voice is treated – there is a TON of space around his voice. Too much space. Like the engineer was like “hey, let’s go sing this in an abandoned subway station! And voila. Instrument-wise there’s a lot going on here. It starts off pretty bare bones, but then builds throughout the song. The triangle player at the beginning is definitely trying to make his rent on this track. The 2nd verse the background singers come in more with some hmmmmms and aaaahhhs which adds a nice colour to it. Then we have an orchestra come in for a little soli, plus the aforementioned worst saxophone in the world. It sounds like a plastic “My First Saxophone”. What really makes the song for and takes it to a different level is the marimba that is featured prominently through the song. I think without it, it would be just a nice ho-hum song, but the marimba adds that Spanish flair and makes the song more memorable. Lyrically it’s a pretty and simple metaphor – the rose (obviously) is some luscious Latina that Ben wants to pluck and take home to his “garden”. The melody is pretty and isn’t just a boring basic do-nothing go-nowhere melody, it offers a lot of built in dynamics. I like this song!
This song was played on the oldies stations all the time, and frankly, I felt it was pretty forgettable at the time I would have heard this song back in the 1990s. Ben E. King’s voice though is soooo good. I can’t believe this didn’t stick with me as well. He sings this so well, and puts emphasis on the right places, and his singing gives this whole song its shape throughout. I’m not sure who made the instrumentation choice on this one, but I think it could have been waaaaay simplified. Do we need the tinkly triangle the whole entire time? Maybe not. Do we need an interruption from the entire string section? Also no. Do we need a bass drum outlining the bass line? Nope. Do we need that saxophone solo? FOR SURE NO. But what we do need is the marimba, the backup singers, and maybe a different sound engineer. I like this melody, it’s flowing but has some complexity to it. I’d love to head a different version of this WITH Ben E. King, but with a pared down instrumentation.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
The Mamas and the Papas did a version – slower, less orchestrated.
Aretha takes it somewhere completely different:
And Tom Jones presents the easy-listening version:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: