MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Another great American songwriter died yesterday - lyricist Jerry Leiber.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH HARLEM")
BLOCK: That's Ben E. King singing. The duo of Leiber and Mike Stoller is responsible for an incredible list of memorable tunes: "Hound Dog," "Poison Ivy," "Yackety Yack."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YACKETY YACK")
BLOCK: Mr. King, welcome to the program.
BEN E: Thank you, Melissa. How are you?
BLOCK: I'm fine, thanks. You sang and also, I gather, co-wrote one of the most famous Leiber and Stoller songs. And that's "Stand By Me."
BLOCK: What do you think makes that song such a keeper?
KING: I would imagine it's just one of those songs that people connect with a lot of different feelings of what one might have when they say, stand by me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")
BLOCK: So Ben E. King, these are your words here; you wrote the lyrics. What was Jerry Leiber's contribution here?
KING: When I introduced the song to him at the piano - and they would say well, instead of you saying this, say that, kind of thing, you know, as well as the great arrangement they came up with - one that as soon as you hear the song, you know the song instantly.
BLOCK: Do you have a favorite memory of working with Jerry Lieber, some moment in the studio that really comes back to you now?
KING: So they were kind enough - and I thought they were joking - they said, we're going to get you a label. And I thought they was really kidding, but they actually went right back to Atlantic Records, and had them give me a contract to stay a solo artist. If it wasn't for those two, I would not be Ben E. King.
BLOCK: Is that right?
KING: That's true.
BLOCK: What do you think that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller understood about vocalists?
KING: I would imagine they understood what the vocalist had not had in his career, and they would give it to him. Because I would never think of myself as singing songs like - and "Spanish Harlem," to me, was very strange to sing because it was like an R song and such. And from the time that I heard "Spanish Harlem" I said, oh, my God, this is not going to be a hit record.
BLOCK: Really? What was it about "Spanish Harlem" that you thought, this is not going to work?
KING: Well, it's very moving. It's like da-da-dee-da-da-da-da. It's like singing opera, ba-da-ba-ba-ba-ba-da. It moves and moves and moves, and never stops. That's not what we do in gospel. But when they introduced me to "Spanish Harlem," it was totally different.
BLOCK: The combination of these two death - of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford on the same day - it makes you think a lot about what creates a lasting song. What songs are going through your head over the last day, as you think about the deaths of Jerry Leiber and of Nick Ashford?
KING: Well, when I think about Jerry, of course, then there's "Spanish Harlem" and then definitely "Stand By Me," and then there's "Save the Last Dance For Me." I can just keep going and going and going until we run out of tape.
BLOCK: And what about for Nick Ashford? What song of his is really in front of your mind right now?
KING: Oh, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," definitely, because it gives all of what you need to have - to have strength to survive.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH")
BLOCK: Ben E. King, thanks so much for talking with me.
KING: You're welcome.
BLOCK: That's Ben E. King, remembering the songwriters Jerry Lieber and Nick Ashford.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.