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Ben E. King And Friends At BB Kings On Friday, November 27th, 2013, Reviewed

Lala Brooks, Lonnie Youngblood, Charlie Thomas and Ben E. King celebrate at BB Kings

Ben E. King wasn’t in the first wave of rock and rollers, he was in the second wave of rock rollers from the late 1950s, where he took over lead singing duties for the Drifters on some of their greatest  hits, before maintaining a  career spanning  55 years.  

On Friday night, Ben E. concluded a  130 minute concert celebrating his 76th year birthday the following day, with a “Stand By Me” by having the “and friends” portion of the program, Lonnie Youngblood, La La Brooks and Charlie Thomas And The Drifters, join him on stage for an exciting singalong, with Charlie hogging the mic, till it changed to “Happy Birthday To You” and found the groove the evening hadn’t quite managed till then.

The evening began with saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood, who once hired a certain Jimmy James for in his band back in 1966, and wrote “Wipe The Sweat {Parts I and II)” with him before Jimmy, or should I say Jimi,  invited Lonnie to go live in the Village with him and Lonnie turned him down. Since then Lonnie has played  with the likes of  Chuck Jackson, The Coasters, Joe Simon, Joe Tex, Sam and Dave, Buster Brown, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and of course, Ben E. himself. Nowadays, Lonnie plays mostly Gospel, but tonight he brings out “Sweet Soul Music” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and he is a good lead man and an excellent saxophonist, much more interested in tricking melodies than percussive powers. But really, dow e need it? Is there anything left to “A Change Is Gonna Come”? Like too much of the evening, I spent it waiting for Julie McCoy to welcome me aboard the cruise.

After Phil Spector left The Teddy Bears to become a record producer, his first discovery was the Crystals and 13 year old lead singer Lala Brooks and she is nexy on stage.  All these years later, Lala joined us to remind us that it was Lala not Darlene Love on “Da Do Ron Ron” and listening to the song, well, yes, it is obviously Lala. To call it a blast watching one of the true great singers of a golden age in person is to damn it with faint praise. I blew off Atoms For Peace and Superchunk to be here because I love pop music like I love breathing and whatever problems I might have with Lala’s  the performance, despite her enegy, sexiness and sass Lala can’t save redundant takes on “Beast Of Burden” and “Proud Mary”,  who cares when you open with “And Than He Kissed Me” and close with “Da Do Ron Ron”.

There are more  Drifters then perhaps any band anywhere though personally my fave was the early 1970s disco band with Johnny Moore. I never bought the Drifters as a soul band or as a blues band and God knows, never a funk band. Charlie Thomas, who Ben E. knows from when they were in the Five Crowns together, and moved over to the Drifters with Ben E. in 1958. It is Charlie you can hear on “Sweets For My Sweet”, a song he performed  very very well Friday night, with three black gentlemen in sky blue tuxs. The Drifters can dance, and the 76 year old Charlie is a giant performer who can still do it and states “I will never never retire, I owe everything to rock and roll. And when he keeps to “On Broadway” and “Up On The Roof” though a long “Steam Boat” is a drag.

Ben E. opens his set with “This Magic Moment”, and follows it in quick succession with “Spanish Harlem” and “Don’t Play That Song” and, obviously, the next song should have been a song he co-wrote, “There Goes My Baby” but instead he goes with  his 1963 hit,”I (Who Have Nothing)” and we don’t get “Baby” or “Supernatural Thing” either. Odd choices but even stranger was the last song before the encore, a pretty good cover of Isaac Hayes “Don’t Let Go” which had you wondering exactly why he chose it over some of his own stuff. Ben E. is in superb voice -range was never his thing any way, and he performs with an electric assurance and command of the stage. He looks smart, handsome, sharp, timeless.

None of this is bad, even if the back up band sounds like they just dialed it in from a Chuck Berry show, but it is weird where it should be sharper. It is nostalgic about the wrong things. “Stand By Me”, a song Ben E. admits owing a great deal, is signature and stature but not the only thing he has done. The first time round, the Leiber-Stoller-King track was a contination of the Drifters pop slash r&b white crossover melting pot. But after the movie, in 1986, it became something more, and perhaps the diference speaks to a certain seismatic change in our perceptions of ourselves from the 60s to the 80s,the post WWII American optimism was getting harder to handle and morning in America needed help. What made the song great in 1986 was all the other things and that iteration, the three “stand by mes” that anybody can sing. It is, indeed, a song sung blue.

And it gave greatness to a night in which all the performers were greats. If it was a little too rote, if the musicians were workmanlike, if the artists were in their 70s, all of the caveats you can imagine, doesn’t change that that is Lala singing “Da Do Ron Ron”, Charlie singing “Sweets For My Sweet” and yes, the real, the indominatable Ben E. singing “Spanish Harlem”. These are immortal pop tracks, they have lived for decade after decade after decade and there they were, these legends of popular music, these brilliant singers and songwriters, and they were still doing it.

Really, the grade notwithstanding, the pleasure was all mine.

Grade: B

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