Previously unheard updates of gems by one of the primary shakers and movers of black music bring back that cosmic feeling – and Bootsy’s sway to boot.
It was a rather rare case in pre-soul rhythm-and-blues to hear a singer easily switch his pipes’ approach from grit to glamor, but Ben E. King, like Otis, was possessed with this gift; unlike Redding, though, he lived long long enough to find fame and fortune – if mostly on the strength of a single song. Still, over the decades the veteran notched much more hits than just “Stand By Me” – several of them covered by such legendary acts as Aretha and Dusty – and back in 1996 he decided to cut refreshed versions of a bunch of classics, which for some reason got left over on the archive shelf to be dusted off recently and upgraded by a few guests to shine anew now.
Sure, the song is here too – there’s no rarities in terms of repertoire on display – yet while the purely Kingly take on it feels lush and smooth where roughness reigned earlier, when Bette Smith’s arrestingly strident voice and Ronnie Earl liquid licks are added to the punchy number, Ben’s vocals acquire a slightly different color – and they seem even brighter and silkier on the truly transcendental “Supernatural Thing, Part I” that’s given a bulging line by Bootsy Collins whose bass passages are simply earth-splitting on the piece’s instrumental track. At the same time, the warbler’s not averse to casting a glance in the rearview mirror farther and farther to remember what he’d laid down aeons ago with THE DRIFTERS and serve up a brilliant potpourri of his old ensemble’s perennials from which “Save The Last Dance For Me” emerges in his warm delivery as a grand finale – although on “Spanish Harlem” Ben’s polished tone will arguably sound more inspired thanks to Rafael Riqueni’s flamenco lace.
The 58-years-old singer may come across as incredibly young on the seductive ebb of “Amor” and the crunchy balladry of “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” yet his long experience shows on the finely orchestrated, and masterfully patinated, “Seven Letters” which should appeal to Ben’s longtime fans and his novices alike. Both of these categories must derive a lot of joy from the recently uncovered cuts, a great reminder of King’s royal presence on the scene.