The New Yorker published the following article regarding Ben E. King’s passing. King started his career in the late 1950s with The Drifters, singing hits including “There Goes My Baby” and “Save The Last Dance For Me”. After going solo, he hit the US top five with “Stand By Me” in 1961. We thank Mr. King for his song “Stand By Me,” as it transformed Playing For Change from a small group of individuals into a global movement for peace and understanding.
“Stand by Me”, the hit by Ben E. King, who died last week, was the fourth-most-popular song of the twentieth century; a 1999 music-industry report revealed that it had been played on the radio and television more than seven million times since its release, in 1961. (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” was No. 1.) The song’s popularity was due in part to its use in the 1986 film of the same name, with River Phoenix, which sent King’s hit back to the charts and revitalized his career. But the song itself has a unique ability to connect people. No one, short, perhaps, of John Donne, has better articulated our need for mutual connection.
Music fans know that there’s much more to King than that one song. They know that he was born Benjamin Earl Nelson in 1938, in North Carolina, and moved to Harlem when he was nine. They know that he came from foundational doo-wop and went on to the Drifters, where he secured that group’s place in music history with “There Goes My Baby,” and then gave voice to the Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman songwriting partnership. Records like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment” became sort of the bedrock of East Coast R. & B. as it turned into soul. The work also connected him, at least spiritually, with a generation of rockers Lou Reed had a longstanding relationship with Pomus, and Led Zeppelin played King’s song “We’re Gonna Groove” frequently. His later releases tended toward different orbits “Supernatural Thing”, from 1975, was very much of its time, mid-tempo, Latin-flavored funk; it topped the R. & B. charts in March of that year, and was later covered by Siouxsie and the Banshees.
But “Stand by Me” remains King’s crowning achievement, one that connected not only with the public but with an exceptionally high number of performers more than four hundred cover versions have been recorded. John Lennon’s loose, poignant rendition, from 1975, is the most widely known, but everyone from Muhammad Ali (who laid down a remarkably respectable version, in 1963, when he was still Cassius Clay) to Stephen King (his verbose, tongue-in-cheek take appeared in 1999) has tried it. With YouTube and other forms of digital media, the number of times that the song has been paid homage is incalculable. Just over two weeks ago, Tracy Chapman performed it on “Late Show with David Letterman.”
“Stand by Me” has a deeper resonance than most pop songs, which is perhaps why it has such a lasting and universal appeal. The instantly recognizable bass line echoes humanity’s collective heartbeat. The gentle tapping of a triangle at the introduction functions as a reminder to wake up, calling to mind Buddhist chimes. The song cuts across generations as it starts with a childish concern — fear of the dark — and then offers a kind of adult relief two-thirds of the way through, with an uplifting orchestral break. And there’s a twist to the pronouns at the end that essentially says, “If you help me, I’ll help you.”
This message of mutual support is rooted in the origins of “Stand by Me” itself. Like many songs of the Brill Building era, it was written by a number of people working together. In this case, King was in the company of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He had just left the Drifters, for whom the three of them had crafted “There Goes My Baby,” and he had scored a huge hit with their “Spanish Harlem,” written by Leiber and Phil Spector. According to “Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography,” King and Leiber worked up the lyrics for “Stand by Me,” Stoller came up with the signature bass line, and the arranger Stan Applebaum was responsible for the strings. Some might add that a higher power had a hand in its creation, too, as it was inspired by the gospel song “Stand by Me,” written, in 1905, by the Rev. Charles Albert Tindley, and also borrows from Psalm 46:2. Finally, it was King’s divine vocals, full of aching tenderness, that brought it all together.
Of all people to cover “Stand by Me”, perhaps the most influential was Roger Ridley (1948-2005). A year before he died, Ridley was playing it on the streets of Santa Monica, where the music producer Mark Johnson, who was working on a project devoted to showing how music can connect people and change the world, saw him perform it. Johnson was so moved that he recorded Ridley in situ, and went on to create a video with him and thirty other artists around the world contributing to the song. Since that video went up on YouTube, in 2009, it has been viewed more than seventy-four million times, and Johnson’s organization, Playing for Change, has found great success building music schools around the globe, reducing isolation, one note at a time.
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