Meet the Writers Behind Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”

When Ben E. King’s smooth voice came through the radio airwaves in 1960 with the sweet sound of “Stand by Me,” it set the stage for becoming a timeless classic. But his vocals aren’t the only contribution King made to the song, as he also wrote it alongside famed lyricist Jerome Leiber and composer Mike Stoller.

Videos by American Songwriter

Prior to his solo career, King was also a member of the R&B group, The Drifters, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He notably sang lead on the hit song “Save the Last Dance For Me,” which reached No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. He also got experience songwriting while in The Drifters, co-writing their 1959 hit “There Goes My Baby,” which was produced by Leiber and Stoller. “Spanish Harlem,” “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” “Armor” and being the first artist to record the Italian song “I (Who Have Nothing)” in English are among King’s other famous songs.

Prior to teaming up with King on “Stand by Me,” Leiber and Stoller were an already well-established songwriter and composer team with a slew of hit songs to their names. After meeting in Los Angeles, their mutual appreciation for R&B inspired them to start writing together. The pair scored one of their first hits, “Kansas City,” which was originally recorded by Little Willie Littlefield and later turned into a hit when Wilbert Harrison took it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.

The duo is responsible for such classics as “Hound Dog,” originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton and later famously covered by Elvis Presley, who they also saw success with on “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me,” “Don’t” and others. They also had a string of hits with R&B and rock vocal group The Coasters, penning “Young Blood,” “Searchin'” and more. Peggy Lee and Stealers Wheel are among the other artists who had hit songs written by the dynamic duo, the former of whom won the 1970 Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Is That All There Is?”

As for “Stand by Me,” Stoller says the song came together in mere hours, as King and Leiber already had a jump start on it when Stoller got to the office that day. “When I walked in, Jerry and Ben E. were working on the lyrics to a song,” Stoller recalls in an archived interview with the Wall Street Journal. “They were at an old oak desk we had in the office. Jerry was sitting behind it, and Benny was sitting on the top. They looked up and said they were writing a song. I said, ‘Let me hear it…’ Ben began to sing the song a cappella. I went over to the upright piano and found the chord changes behind the melody he was singing. It was in the key of A. Then I created a bass line. Jerry said, ‘Man that’s it!'”

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No, I won’t be afraid
No, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand
Stand by me 

The origins of the song go back to the early 1900s, as King was inspired to update the traditional gospel song “Stand by Me Father,” which was written by composer and Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley and released in 1905. Though Tindley’s song has religious undertones, King and the team took a more romantic approach. “Stand by Me” is one of King’s most well-known songs, reaching the top 10 on the Hot 100 and serving as the title track of the Academy Award-nominated 1986 film. Weeks before King’s death in 2015, “Stand by Me” became part of the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.

“Among all the kids singing back then, Ben was the most mature-sounding young man,” Stoller praised of King’s voice in the WSJ interview. “His delivery and the timbre of his voice was advanced beyond his years. Most of the young kids singing back then sounded like, well, kids…His sound was settled. It wasn’t in a hurry. That was a wonderful characteristic about Ben.”

The three artists have all created lasting musical legacies. As part of The Drifters, King was inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000. Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a year prior to The Drifters. They were also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985, with King following suit in 2012 as a solo artist.

(Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Sony ATV Music Publishing)

Leave a Reply

KISS’ Paul Stanley on His ‘Black Series’ and Painting Without Limitations