He joined a doo wop group, the Five Crowns, in 1958. Later that same year, the Drifters' manager fired the members of the group and replaced them with the Five Crowns, who had performed several engagements with the Drifters. He co-wrote the first hit by the new version of the Drifters, "There Goes My Baby" (1959). He also sang lead, using his birth name, on "Dance With Me," "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "I Count the Tears," and other Drifters hits.
In 1960 he left the group after failing to obtain a raise in salary and increase in his share of royalties. He adopted the stage name ben E. King and performed solo. His first hit as a solo performer was "Spanish Harlem" (1961). "Stand by Me" was his next recording. His records continued to place well on the pop charts until 1963, when British pop bands began to dominate the charts. His only hits after 1963 were "What is Soul?" (1967), "Supernatural Thing, part 1" (1975), and the re-issue in 1986 of "Stand by Me," which became popular after serving as the theme music of the movie of the same name.
Ben E. King continued to perform and record through the 1990s.