STAND BY ME is one of a handful of songs whose outstanding appeal to every new generation of musicians, label managers, producers and listeners is great enough to transmute them into time-travellers, tirelessly circulating through the different styles, substyles and genres of pop music.
It was on the 26th of October in 1960, when soulsinger Ben E. King (born in 1938 as Benjamin Earl Nelson) proposed a new melody to his producers, singing it a capella to the legendary Atlantic Record duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. One of the most important songwriter and producer teams in post World War II popular music, the songwriters for Elvis Presley, The Coasters and others immediately noticed the potential of King’s tune, added the chords and a subtle instrumentation and finished the lyrics. In only a few takes they recorded one of the greatest hits of pop music history that same evening, conducted by Atlantic arranger and band leader Stan Applebaum (vgl. Lauterbach). The credits on the single mention Elmo Glick as co-writer, a pseudonym for the team of Leiber & Stoller.
When Ben E. King first presented his gospel-inspired composition to his african-american vocal group The Drifters in 1960, he failed to meet the approval of his colleagues. The song got its second chance when King abandoned The Drifters shortly after this episode. Benjamin Earl “King” Nelson decided to start a career as a solo act and in the same year launched his first top ten hit in the US pop-charts with “Spanish Harlem”.
Containing two verses from psalms 46:2-3, the lyrics of STAND BY ME are an unmistakable demand and an imploring invocation of a strong and steadfast-for-ever partner, who repels all possible danger and protects the singer against every outer (“mountains crumble to the see”, this is the bible-citation) or inner catastrophe. Musically the song is a mixture of musical simplicity (the repeated I-VI-IV-V-I pattern later often called “STAND BY ME Changes”; the melodic contour developed out of a short ascending motif; the formal modesty) and a little but ear-catching novelty (the scratch-sound). Besides the vibrating scratch of a guiro on the third eighth, which adds a latin rhythm smell to the song, the most characteristic musical elements are the acoustic bass line with a accent on the fourth eighth and the luscious string arrangement with rich melodic parts and background vocals in the last verse. Ben E. King’s vocal style is representative for the late rhythm & blues style on the crossing to early soul; King sings with the characteristic gospel fervor the young Sam Cooke along with others introduced to R&B. His timbre is as noisy and the handling of short bluesy melismatic ornaments resembles the style of influential contemporary Atlantic-singers like Solomon Burke and Ray Charles, and the following soul star Otis Redding.
King’s 1960-recording ranked fourth in the US charts and reached not more than the top 30 in UK. It was a solid, though not outstanding success for King. However, to our times, STAND BY ME successfully entered the US pop charts in eight different versions; a record breaking account (Ben E. King, 1961; Earl Grant, 1965; Spyder Turner, 1966; David & Jimmy Ruffin, 1970; John Lennon, 1975; Mickey Gilley, 1980; Maurice White, 1985; 4 The Cause, 1998 – and used as a sample in “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston, 2008).
The song has to be considered as the fourth biggest radio hit of the twentieth century, played more than seven million times in US broadcastings until 1999 and thus almost reaches the level of Lennon/McCartney’s “Yesterday” (BMI 1999). In the following years, houndreds of cover versions were released also in european countries: In France, the chansonnière Dalida successfully sang “Tu croiras”, in Italy Adriano Celentano popularized “Pregheró” and in Germany the second-rate artist Ronny Twen tried to make his breakthrough with “Komm zu mir”. Actually most German music listeners did not become acquainted with the song until John Lennon recorded an album with songs of his youth in 1975. His re-interpretation of STAND BY ME, also available as a music clip, climbed to the 22nd position in the German pop charts. The catalyst for the exploding popularity of STAND BY ME in the late 1980s was a mix of appearances in other mass medias. In a short-term 60s-revival several movies and corresponding cinematic and television commercials appeared and subsequently popularized much music of this decade. The most important of them was Rob Reiner’s youth drama Stand By Me, a Stephen King-adaption with amongst others the young actors River Phoenix, John Cusack and Kiefer Sutherland (1986). Besides the title, it played King’s initial recording during the closing credits, whereas a very popular commercial for Levi’s jeans used an imitation-cover of the original version in the same year. As a result, the twenty-five year-old song not only entered, but took the German single charts by storm.
Conductor: Stan Applebaum
Arranged by: Stan Applebaum
Songwriting: Ben E. King/ Leiber & Stoller
Producer: Leiber & Stoller
Label: ATCO Records
Ben E. King. “Stand by Me”. On: “Stand by me”, 1961, ATCO Records, 45-6194, US (7”).
Ben E. King. “Stand by Me”. On: “On The Horizon”, 1961, Atlantic, 112039, France (7”).
- Bielefeldt, Christian/Pendzich, Marc: Spot checks of pop history. The cover recordings of Stand by Me and Tainted Love. In: Original und Kopie (= Lied und Populäre Kultur. Jahrbuch des Deutschen Volksliedarchivs 56). Ed. by Nils Grosch and Fernand Hörner. Münster: Waxmann 2011, 97-111.
- Leiber, Jerry/Stoller, Mike/Ritz, David: Hound Dog. The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster 2009.
- Warner, Jay: American Singing Groups. A History from 1940 to Today. New York: Trade Book Division 2006.
- Stand by Me – Das Geheimnis eines Sommers. Regie: Reiner, Rob. Drehbuch: Evans,Bruce A./Gideon, Raynold. Columbia Pictures 1986.
- Anonym: BMI announces top 100 songs from the century. In: BMI, 13. Dezember 1999. URL: http://www.bmi.com/news/entry/232893 [25.04.2009].
- Lauterbach, Frizz / Wenger, Ulli: Stand by me. Die Macht der Kopie. In: Darwin jetzt. URL: http://www.br-online.de/darwin-jetzt/darwin-kreativitaet-stand-by-me-ID12 31331758331.xml [25.04.2009].
- Artist homepage: http://www.beneking.info/ [19.12.2011].
- Database: http://www.discogs.com/artist/Ben+E.+King [19.12.2011].
- Download: http://www.musicload.de/ben-e-king/stand-by-me/musik/single/8698807_4 [19.12.2011].
- Music video: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x22u88_ben-e-king-stand-by-me_music [19.12.2011].
- Lyrics: http://www.metrolyrics.com/stand-by-me-lyrics-ben-e-king.html [19.12.2011].
About the Author
All contributions by Christian Bielefeldt
Christian Bielefeldt: “Stand by Me (Ben E. King)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/standbyme, 11/2011 [revised 10/2013].Print