King was a member of The Drifters in the 1950s before going solo. Unbelieveably, “Stand By Me” was only a Top 5 hit on the American charts when it was released–at least the first time. The song eventually charted nine times just in the US over the decades. King’s version made it twice with the rest coming from covers from John Lennon to Muhammed Ali. (There are more than 400 cover recordings of the song). King’s second kick at the charts happened in 1986 when the movie Stand by Me (based on the Stephen King story) was released. The following year, King’s version hit #1 in the UK on both the strength of the movie and its appearance in a TV commercial for Levi’s.
“Stand By Me” was co-written by King and the Brill Building team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (listed as “Elmo Glick” in the credits), two of the most successful songwriters in history. It’s based on an old spiritual called “Lord Stand by Me” along with a couple of lines from Psalms 46: 2-3.
Even though he was a co-writer, King originally had no intention of recording it himself; it was supposed to be for The Drifters, but they decided they didn’t like it enough. King’s recording was an afterthought, made when he had some free studio time after cutting a session with a bunch of studio players for the song “Spanish Harlem.” With some extra studio time left, King, Leiber and Stoller decided to give it a shot.
- Before you click to listen to the song one more time, pay attention to the following:
- Stoller is responsible for the signature bass line who originally came up with that progression on a piano. A studio player named Lloyd Trotman plays on the recording. The changes in the bass line have become so popular that they’re now referred to as the “Stand by Me changes.” When the vocals begin, a slightly tremeloed electric guitar augments the bass.
- The delicate triangle playing adds a touch of light sweetness to the intro, evoking a sense of spiritual peace that sucks the listener into a state of calm. More percussion is slowly layered on the song. Listen for the muted maraca shake on top of a barely-there hi-hat around 40 seconds.
- There’s also some barely audible acoustic guitar strumming in the background starting with the vocals at around the 16 second mark. You feel it more than you can actually hear it.
- King’s voice veers from smooth to gravelly (distorting on the tape?), reaching up in intensity at the first chorus without giving up its sweet soulfulness. This is also when the string arrangement kicks in, leading into a new emotional crescendo.
- Around the one minute mark, the background doo-wop singers can be briefly heard providing a bass harmony.
- Notice the airiness of the natural reverb on King’s voice. It’s not overwhelming, but it does add presence to his delivery.
- The orchestral break beginning at 1:53 features sweetening from some female background singers.
- All the elements come together and the song fades away into the silence. Brilliant.