As is the case with all the great pop songs, you can identify Stand By Me by its opening few notes.
Mike Stoller’s simple bassline, built around a 50s doo-wop chord progression, is decorated with little more than the faint ting of a triangle and the scrape of a gourd guiro – yet the effect is instant. King’s gospel-infused vocals followed this approach: the strength of his feelings imparted with no need for histrionics.
Fifty-five years after it was written, King’s original version still wields the kind of emotional heft that can reduce people to tears, and get others on their feet at weddings. Yet not everyone saw its magic at first. King had originally intended the song for his band the Drifters, before he left that group in 1960 – it was only after a songwriting session with Stoller and Jerry Lieber had come to an end, and they asked if he had any other songs in the locker, that he put it forward. “I wasn’t trying to make a hit,” he told the Guardian in 2013. According to King, legendary producer Jerry Wexler was even less aware of its magic: “He hated it because we’d gone into overtime in the studio with an expensive orchestra.”
Such disregard for the budget probably didn’t bother Wexler for long. Stand By Me was a top-five hit in the US, and the list of names who went on to cover it includes not just John Lennon – who delivered an iconic performance of it on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975 – and Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, but also Muhammad Ali and the writer Stephen King.
King’s novella The Body inspired Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand By Me, and the inclusion of the original version of the song on the soundtrack helped make it an even bigger hit in 1987, when it topped the UK singles chart. The renaissance continued shortly afterwards when Stand By Me was one of several soul classics to appear on adverts for Levi’s 501 jeans. Such ongoing success thrilled King, who vowed to keep performing the song “as long as I’m breathing”.
On paper, Stand By Me seems a simple song, and certainly King wrote it with simple intentions: a love song to his partner at the time, Betty Nelson. Pop songs are seldom expected to mirror the lives of the artists who created them, but it certainly adds a sparkle to the song to know that Nelson would go on to celebrate five decades of marriage with the man who sang to her: “If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall / All the mountains should crumble to the sea / I won’t cry, I won’t cry / No, I won’t shed a tear / Just as long as you stand, stand by me.”
It’s especially fitting that a song about enduring love – a love able to survive, no matter what trials and traumas it encounters – was built equally strongly to stand the test of time.