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Singer Ben E King, best known for the lovesong Stand By Methat was inspired by the woman he went on to marry, has died aged 76.

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King was a R&B and soul singer whose career began with doo-wop in the 1950s and continued for more than half a century, touring the UK as recently as 2013.

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Described by a friend as “one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls”, King had a string of hit songs, starting with the Drifters in 1959, but it was for Stand By Me that he will be remembered for most. He said two years ago that he was proud it had “stood the test of time”.

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 Among the tributes paid to him as his death on Thursday was confirmed was from Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren who asked in a tweet: “One of the best singers ever and is there a better song ever written or sung than than (Lieber+Stollers’)Stand By Me?”

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The 1961 song, which was later covered by John Lennon, was credited to him jointly with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller but he had originally hoped to use it with The Drifters before he went solo. He wrote it about his wife-to-be, Betty, whom he married in 1964 and who survives him.

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The song has become a mainstay of wedding celebrations and has charted on the US Billboard 100 seven times, twice by King. In the 1980s with the release of the hit film Stand By Me the song reached No 1 in the UK charts.

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Among the tributes paid to him yesterday was from Gary Bonds, a friend and fellow musician who described him as a “sweet and gentle soul”.

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Bonds wrote: “With an extremely heavy heart, I must say goodbye to 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

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“Ben E. will be missed more than words can say. Our sincere condolences go out to Betty and the entire family. Thank you Ben E. for your friendship and the wonderful legacy you leave behind.”

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Other tributes came from Martin Bashir who said “his song will continue to be sung” and the actor Jerry O’Connell, who played Vern in the film Stand By Me and who tweeted: “You know you are good when John Lennon covers your song. Ben E. King was a wonderful and immensely talented man.”

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King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in North Carolina in the US but at the age of 9 his family moved to Harlem and he began singing professionally at the age of 20 with the Five Crowns. The group became The Drifters in 1959 and had hits including “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment“. He also wrote “There Goes My Baby” which is widely regarded as the first R&B single to feature strings.

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He went solo after a contract dispute and, changing his name to Ben E King, enjoyed immediate success with “Spanish Harlem” and followed it with “Stand By Me”. It was chosen as one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and earlier this year it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.

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He turned to jazz in later years, releasing his last album in 2010, and he also started a non-profit organisation, the Ben E King Foundation. The aim of the Foundation is to help “deserving youths working to further their education”.

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