Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 17: Ben E. King, "Stand By Me"

Artist: Ben E. King
Song: "Stand By Me"
Album: single (1961)/Don't Play That Song (1963)
Label: ATCO

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Throughout the long history of recorded music, there are an elite handful of songs that are so timeless, so perfect, that one simply cannot think of a time when the song did not exist. These truly special songs transcend generations, musical tastes, and all other barriers, becoming universally loved, and instantly recognizable across the world. Combining perfectly orchestrated music, moving, timeless lyrics, and one of the most honest and beautiful voices in history, there are few songs that are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Ben E. King's legendary 1961 single, "Stand By Me." The name of the song alone brings the vocals and musical hook to mind almost instantly, as in many ways, "Stand By Me" is just as relevant and widely played today as it was nearly fifty years ago. From commercials to internet memes to musical covers by modern day musicians, the song remains in the public eye, and this is perhaps all the evidence that one needs to argue that it is one of the truly special songs in music history. Though it has been covered by countless artists across nearly every genre over the decades, the fact that the original version is still so heavily played serves as a testament to the fact that it is without question still the definitive version, as well as proving that the combination of music and lyrics on that version are nothing short of extraordinary.

The evolution of how "Stand By Me" came to be a single for Ben E. King as a rather strange one, as the song itself had been written years earlier by King, along with the legendary writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. King had never intended on recording the song as a solo piece, but his previous group, The Drifters, passed on recording "Stand By Me," and the song "sat on the shelf" for a few years. Furthermore, King only decided to record the song because he found himself with some extra recording time after the sessions that produced his first solo hit, "Spanish Harlem." Clearly, if one thinks more about this, one can see that there was a very good chance that "Stand By Me" may never have seen the light of day, which in many ways makes the song even more impressive. King had originally played the song only on piano, but after Leiber and Stoller heard the song, they brought the "Spanish Harlem" musicians back to the studio, and they began to record "Stand By Me." These musicians excel brilliantly, and one cannot overlook the fact that the bassline is without question one of the most simple, yet absolutely perfect non-blues "walking" basslines that has ever been constructed. It is this progression, along with the equally fantastic, and equally simplistic chord changes that defined the sound of a generation, and in modern day, such musical progressions are often referred to as "Stand By Me Changes." One also cannot overlook that there are few songs of any popular genre that so perfectly involve one of the most underused instruments: the triangle. Keeping the music quiet and simple, the song is easily relatable, and it also leaves plenty of room for Ben E. King to stun listeners with his soulful, flawless vocal performance.

When one looks back on the history of music, there are truly few people who had as much impact and influence on the soul and R&B sounds than that of Ben E. King. From his earlier days, creating brilliant orchestrations with The Drifters, to his solo work, the way in which he approached his songs, as well as the sensational power of his voice remain virtually unrivaled. On "Stand By Me," his voice truly soars, overflowing with emotion, and creating what remains one of the most beautifully honest vocal tracks in music history. Never pushing too much, King gives every lyric on "Stand By Me" the perfect touch, and this subtle approach is one of the keys to the unparalleled mood and tone found on the song. Yet perhaps the most interesting and somewhat overlooked aspects of "Stand By Me" is the way in which the song feels like a love song, yet it is more about true friendship than anything else. In many ways, one can see this as one of the key reasons for the songs' success, and such a powerful underlying theme, presented in such a beautiful and moving manner surely touches the heart of all who have ever heard "Stand By Me." Again turning to the simplicity of this classic musical masterpiece, the lyrics are straightforward and simple, making them easy to learn and so universal that they can be applied in a countless array of situations. Combining all of these elements together, with the phenomenal vocal work of King, it is little surprise that "Stand By Me" has persevered over the decades and remains equally as relevant nearly fifty years after its initial release.

There is little question that "Stand By Me" is one of the most powerful and memorable songs in the history of recorded music, and nearly every aspect of the song remains unique to this day. Though the music and vocals cannot be ignored, the song is also significant for the fact that it reached the top ten on the singles charts on two different occasions, more than twenty-five years apart. Powered by the 1986 movie of the same name, "Stand By Me" cracked the top ten again, proving that, even in an dominated by hair metal and "new wave" music, classic sounds like that of "Stand By Me" were still as relevant, and an entirely new generation fell in love with the amazing song. This continual relevance is perhaps due to the fact that, while straightforward love songs may become outdated due to the style or lyrical content, "Stand By Me" is truly a song of the deepest friendship, and such a theme is unquestionably universal, and this is much the reason that the song is so well known all across the globe. Anchored by one of the most simple yet memorable basslines in history, and accentuated by a subtle, yet rich string section, the musical side of "Stand By Me" is appealing across the spectrum of musical tastes, as in many ways, "Stand By Me" is in a genre all its own. Capped off by the moving, soulful, yet steady vocal performance of Ben E. King, "Stand By Me" is without question one of the greatest songs in music history, and there is little doubt that it will continue to be relevant and emotionally move listeners for generations to come.

1 comment:

Peter Stoller said...

This story of how Ben E. King's record of "Stand By Me" came to be recorded is a persistent legend—mostly because this is how King tells it—but still only a legend. "Stand By Me" features a full orchestration by Stan Applebaum, which was not composed—let alone copied out by hand for a large number of musicians—in a few minutes at the end of a recording date. As with all sessions produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the song was written, the arrangements prepared, and the performance rehearsed in advance. Stoller recalls finding King and Leiber at work on the lyrics when he arrived and added the now-famous bass line.

The first solo King session that L&S produced was on October 17, 1960. (King says it was supposed to be a Drifters session, but the Drifters didn't show up.) They recorded four songs: "Spanish Harlem," "First Taste of Love," "Young Boy Blues," and "Stand By Me." Cutting four sides in one session was not unusual. Clearly, they had planned to record "Stand By Me" that day, as the charts were at the ready. However, had they not, they would simply have scheduled it for the next session. (They may even have done so; recording engineer Tom Dowd was adamant to the end that "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem" were recorded at different sessions, despite what the master numbers indicate.)

None of this has any impact on the greatness of the record or the timelessness of the song. It's just that Stan Applebaum, great arranger that he is, couldn't have dashed off a full orchestral chart in the few minutes required to squeeze a fourth song onto a three-song date.