When it comes to music, movies are kind of like vampires: to gain life, they often suck the blood out of popular songs. Just consider “Stand By Me,” the signature hit of Ben E. King (September 28, 1938-April 30, 2015) and the 1986 Rob Reiner film of the same name. Not only did the film gain an instantly recognizable and memorable title, it benefited from all the emotive association that came with King’s 1961 recording. It rooted the movie in its time period and connected with the over-arching sentiment of the movie, the enduring power and importance of friendship.
We’ve seen the parasitic relationships between movies and music elsewhere in the Revue, with Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and, to a lesser extent with Johnny Kemp’s “Birthday Suit.” (Perhaps I should be more kind and call it a symbiotic relationship, as songs often gain renewed popularity as a result of being in a movie, TV show or even a commercial. The use of “Stand By Me” in the film catapulted it back into the Top 10 a quarter century after its initial release.)
“Stand By Me” has been covered and recorded numerous times–the 4th-most-recorded song of the 20th century, according to BMI. And its popularity has continued well into the internet-dominated 21st century. The Playing for Change rendition of the song, pieced together from videos of street musicians from around the world, has been viewed over 75 million times since it was uploaded in 2008.
“Stand By Me” was written by King and the hit-making duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. King gets 50% credit for the song and Leiber and Stoller 25% each. According to a 2012 interview with Stoller in JazzWax, King is responsible for most of the lyrics and melody; Leiber and Stoller added distinctive elements, such as the bass line.
But King was hardly a one-hit wonder. He had a string of other hits, as both a solo artist and a core member of The Drifters. “Spanish Harlem,” “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” are all part of his recording legacy, which stretched from the 1950s all the way into the 1980s.