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“[A] one-hit wonder,” said Bob Dylan in his recent MusiCares Person of the Year acceptance speech, “can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him.”
Dylan was referring to the late rockabilly star Billy Lee Riley. But he could’ve been referring just as easily to the soul singers Ben E. King and Percy Sledge, both of whom died in April.
King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a Drifter) in 1988. Sledge was inducted in 2005. And while neither was a one-hit wonder, it’s for one hit apiece—“Stand by Me” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” respectively—that each will be best remembered.
King wrote “Stand by Me” with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was his second hit after being dismissed from The Drifters. With its lilting syncopation and gospel-inspired lyrics, it hit No. 4 on the pop charts in 1961 and No. 9 when it was re-released 25 years later on the soundtrack to the film of the same name. “When a Man Loves a Woman” only charted once, in 1966, but once was enough. Sledge’s yearning tenor and Spooner Oldham’s heart-tugging organ sent it to No. 1.
Both songs have long been staples of oldies radio and 1960s hit compilations. They’ve also long overshadowed their singers’ other accomplishments.
Prior to going solo, King had sung lead on five Drifters hits, “There Goes My Baby” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” chief among them, and his first solo single, “Spanish Harlem,” had reached No. 10. Between two chart runs for “Stand by Me,” he hit the Top 40 four more times, the last in 1975 with the disco-friendly “Supernatural Thing, Pt. 1.” On 13 other occasions, he achieved middling R&B-chart success, bringing his hit total to 27.
Quantitatively, Sledge was less successful. After “When a Man Loves a Woman,” he scored only four pop hits. But the last of those, the emotionally wrenching 1968 cuckold classic “Take Time to Know Her,” reached No. 11 and skillfully balanced the romantic optimism of his greatest hit with world-weary wisdom. His three R&B-chart-only hits (“Out of Left Field” and “Cover Me” in 1967 and a cover of Chuck Willis’ “Any Day Now” in 1969) brought his hit total to eight.
It’s tempting to say that King’s and Sledge’s deaths mark the end of a musical era. But that era ended long ago. It’s on its grave that hip-hop has been dancing for the last three decades.
What their deaths do mark is the vanishing of a generation of black performers for whom church-reared, gentlemanly class and timeless, soul-deep expression were more important than hypersexualization and exploiting racial animus.
Such eroticism as there was in their songs was tastefully sublimated. And both King and Sledge worked eagerly with anyone sensitive to their strengths, regardless of his color. One of King’s strongest albums was Benny & Us, a 1977 collaboration with the Average White Band.
In the interviews that King and Sledge gave over the years, it was gratitude that emerged more than anything else. “Believe in the Lord, put the Lord in front of you, and trust in Him,” Sledge said in 2011 when asked what advice he’d give to today’s aspiring singers. It’s good advice for today’s aspiring non-singers as well.