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New York (AFP) - Ben E. King, the soul singer whose Gospel-influenced "Stand By Me" became one of the most broadcast songs of the 20th century, has died at 76, his spokesman said Friday.
King, who lived in New Jersey, died of natural causes on Thursday, spokesman Phil Brown told AFP.
R&B singer and collaborator Gary U.S. Bonds wrote on Facebook that King was "one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than 50 years."
Discovered while working at his father's restaurant in New York, King had several early hits with doo-wop vocal band The Drifters including "There Goes My Baby" and "Save the Last Dance For Me."
But he had by far his greatest success with "Stand By Me," which King had initially started writing for The Drifters before pursuing the song on his own.
Inspired by a traditional Gospel spiritual and a Psalm, the song was led by a now instantly identifiable bass line and featured chord progressions common in 1950s popular music.
The song was first released in 1961 but had several revivals and was covered hundreds of times in various genres.
"Stand By Me" went on to become the fourth most broadcast song on US radio and television in the 20th century, with more than seven million plays, according to songwriting body BMI.
- Song for 'hundreds of years to come' -
The lyrics could be interpreted either as about a relationship with God or a partner, beginning with the image of a pitch-black night and the words, "I won't be afraid / Just as long as you stand, stand by me."
King would play down his lyrical skill, saying that "Stand By Me" was personal to him but that he wrote songs quickly.
"Songwriters just write songs. It's like an artist that paints," he told Boston public television network WGBH.
"But when I wrote 'Stand By Me' as a song, and to know that the song will probably be here for hundreds and hundreds of years to come, it's great," he said.
The song reached a new audience when it became the theme for the 1986 movie "Stand By Me," a coming-of-age drama directed by Rob Reiner. The song again rose in the charts when it appeared in a jeans commercial.
The Library of Congress earlier this year chose "Stand By Me" for its National Recording Registry of "American treasures."
In its announcement, the Library of Congress said that "Stand By Me" carried "perhaps the best known bassline in recording history" which was composed by songwriter Mike Stoller and played by Lloyd Trotman.
"But it was King's incandescent vocal that made it a classic," it said.
King's other hits included "Spanish Harlem," written with legendary producer Phil Spector, which has been covered by artists including Aretha Franklin and Tom Jones.
- Unexpected musical stardom -
King was born as Benjamin Earl Nelson in segregated North Carolina but moved as a child to New York City, where he had no formal musical education but would sing in church.
His break came when a local promoter, Lover Patterson, entered a luncheonette in Harlem run by King's father and asked the young singer and his friends to perform for him.
The young men sang in the deserted back of the restaurant and Patterson offered them gigs.
"I discussed it with my dad when he got back, and he said 'as long as it doesn't interfere with what you're doing here to help me in the restaurant,'" King later told music interviewer Gary James.
"I thought of it as something to have fun with. I never wanted to pursue it as a profession at all," King recalled.
A major break came when the manager of The Drifters, who had a number of upcoming dates, fired the original line-up in a feud and brought in King's fledgling group as replacements.
The new band was sent to the studio by Atlantic Records, which had won a reputation for bringing African American R&B and jazz stars such as Ray Charles to a wider audience.
King remained active in his later life and kept touring. He also set up the Stand By Me Foundation, based in his home of Teaneck, New Jersey, that supported youth education.
He is survived by his wife Betty, three children and six grandchildren, Brown said. Funeral arrangements were pending.