Behind the Song: “Stand By Me” by Ben. E. King, Leiber & Stoller

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

In the history of rock & roll, there are countless hits. But only a chosen few of these truly become standards, songs which transcend any one recording, and become performed by many artists. “Stand By Me,” written by Ben E. King with Leiber & Stoller is an undeniable rock and roll standard. Even among Leiber & Stoller’s miraculous songbook, which includes “Kansas City,” “Hound Dog,” “Is That All There Is,” “Jailhouse Rock” and more, few are truly standards. “Hound Dog” is among the most famous rock & roll songs ever, but not a song many have covered, as the hit record so defines it.

“Stand By Me,” though, which was first recorded by King in 1961, has been recorded more than 500 times, and by a remarkable range of artists including John Lennon, Tracy Chapman, Warren Zevon, Florence & The Machine, Mickey Gilley, Prince Royce and even Muhammad Ali.

Playing For Change created a beautifully poignant record and video uniting singers and musicians around the world all singing parts of it, as they did also with Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” It’s evidence of the power of this song, and its beautiful simplicity, lyrically and musically, as few songs could hold up to that treatment. BMI named it the “Fourth most performed song of the 20th century,” with over seven million reported performances up to 1999. 

But that transformation, from hit song to veritable standard – a “song sung at weddings and all,” as Stoller said – is something that happened some 25 years after its original release, thanks to Rob Reiner’s use of it a movie he named after the song, Stand By Me. It was a choice which made no sense to Leiber & Stoller, but for which they both expressed lasting gratitude. 

So how was it created? Many presume that Ben E. King’s inclusion as a songwriter with Leiber & Stoller didn’t signify that he had had a substantial contribution to the writing, but was simply an instance of an artist getting unwarranted songwriting credit, as in the tradition of Al Jolson and Elvis. But that didn’t happen with this song, as Leiber & Stoller confirm in this account.

So here, from an interview conducted with the songwriters in 1992, is the story behind “Stand By Me,” as related by Leiber and Stoller.

JERRY LEIBER: We were scheduled to have a rehearsal with Ben E. King, and Mike and I got there early, and a couple of other guys were in this rehearsal –

MIKE STOLLER: I have a totally different memory. Go ahead.

LEIBER: — were in this rehearsal hall. We had a small auditorium in a junior high school with a piano. Ben E. came in and “Hi, hello,” you know. And he said, “Hey man, guess what? I wrote a song.” Ben E. was not a songwriter. A very good performer, but not a songwriter. 

And he sang it a cappella. He went [sings softly, to the tune of “Stand By Me”], “When the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we’ll see… I won’t cry, I won’t cry…” 

He said, “That’s all I wrote.”

I said, “That’s pretty good. You want me to finish it for you? You want me and Mike to do it?”

Leiber & Stoller, 1994. Pictured in their office at 9000 Sunset Boulevard. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.

He said, “Oh, yeah, man, that would be great.” So Mike and I finished it. And Mike put that incredible bass line on it. And when I heard that bass pattern, I said, “That’s it. That’s a hit.” And I didn’t do much predicting of hits. But I knew that was in there. 

I also knew “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton was a hit. And “Kansas City” by Wilbur Harrison. Which I wasn’t crazy about, but I knew it was a hit.

And we started writing “Stand By Me.” And it became what it became. We finished it right there. Like we did most of the stuff. We did it there. I mean, these were not assignments that you took home and worried over for a week or two or three or a month. These were hot off the griddle, and we always felt that way, that when they were hot they were more effective and more attractive.

He’s not a songwriter, but he came up with something pretty good. A couple of sentences and a hunk of the refrain, or maybe all of the refrain. And we started writing “Stand By Me.” And it became what it became.

We didn’t take it away and work on it. We finished it right there. Like we did most of the stuff. We did it there. I mean, these were not assignments that you took home and worried over for a week or two or three or a month. These were hot off the griddle, and we always felt that way, that when they were hot they were more effective and more attractive.

He had the first few lines and the beginning of a melody. And I think he had the chorus. Because it was only one phrase, one line. But he said he couldn’t get the rest of the lyrics. He’s not a songwriter, but he came up with something pretty good. A couple of sentences and a hunk of the refrain, or maybe all of the refrain.

STOLLER: As I remember, it was in our own office. We had an office on 57th Street. And Jerry and Ben E. were fooling around with the lyric on “Stand By Me.” I came in. Ben E. was singing it in the key of A. And I sat down at the piano and I just felt this bass pattern, and I started working on a bass pattern, and within five minutes I had the bass pattern, which is the bass pattern of the song, and is a big part of it. 

In the orchestration, it starts with bass and guitar, and it goes into strings playing it, and it builds up, and this pattern is from beginning to end. But Jerry was working with Ben E. on it, and I think most of the melody of the tune is Ben E.’s. I wrote the bottom part. Which is kind of a signature of the song. [Sings bass line]. “Boom-boom, boom-boom-boom, boom, boom-boom-boom, boom…”

The chords are mine. The shift [to the VI chord] was  kind of implied. To me, it was implied. I think the melody may have shifted a little with the chords I was using. But it’s basically his. 

It was a hit when it came out. But when it came to be this wedding song and this everything song is when Rob Reiner made this movie.

I met Rob at a party, and he insisted on singing all of the Leiber & Stoller songs. And he insisted I go to the piano while he sang. And he called me up months later and said, “I have this movie. It’s called The Body. And it’s been in the can for a while, and I like it. The Body is the right title for it. But it’s not good, because it’s based on a short-story by Stephen King, and people will think it’s a horror film. It’s really a coming-of-age movie. So I want to call it Stand By Me.”

I said, “Great! Be my guest.”

And then I thought about it, and I called him back. This was 1986. The record came out in ’61. 

And I said, “Hey, who do you think we can get to record it and put it into your film?”

And he said, “We talked about that. But I view this movie as a period film. So I’d like to go with the original record.”

I said, “We produced the original record.” So it wasn’t that I wasn’t flattered, but it was that I thought that, well, this’ll be an album cut, and if we got Tina Turner [laughs], or somebody else to do it, it might become a hit. But he wanted the original. And it did become a hit again. The same record. Nothing was done to it.

LEIBER: I couldn’t make heads or tails out of that choice. I thought it had nothing to do with that movie at all. And I still think so. I think he was in love with the record and the song, and he wanted it in his movie. And the movie was about a dead body in the woods. And what does “Stand By Me” have to do with that, with children in the movie? What –

STOLLER: Whatever it is, I am so grateful to him. Because it became –

LEIBER: Yeah. A monster hit.

STOLLER: I think people liked the song [when it first was released], but it didn’t become that powerful. It became a much bigger hit 25 years later. Which is really great. I mean, five years, maybe. But 25 years

John Lennon recorded it, but it was a different feel. It still had the bass pattern. It wasn’t like the difference between Big Mama’s and Elvis’ versions of “Hound Dog,” which were so different. It was the same song, it just had a very different feel. But it was legitimate. It felt right. It felt good, also.

LEIBER: It was too fast. It felt too fast.

STOLLER: It was stiffer. It was definitely a stiffer feel.

LEIBER: Ben E.’s was more syncopated.

LEIBER & STOLLER: [Sing rhythmic bass patterns of both in unison, in which Lennon’s is straight-time, and Ben E.’s is more fluid and syncopated.]

STOLLER: That’s really the difference.

LEIBER: Unison! Did you hear that unison?

STOLLER: It felt good, I like it.

LEIBER: It felt white. That’s what we’re trying to say. And as Mike said, it’s somewhat stiffer. It doesn’t really have that loop in it. We prefer the original.

Here for your listening and viewing pleasure, are three versions of “Stand By Me”: the 1961 original by Ben E. King, John Lennon’s 1975 version, recorded for his album “Rock and Roll,” and the inspirationally global 2008 version by Playing for Change.

“Stand By Me,” the original record by Ben. E. King, written with and produced by Leiber & Stoller, 1961.
John Lennon’s 1975 version of “Stand By Me.”
“Stand By Me,” by Playing for Change, 2008.

Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music, born from the shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. Our primary focus is to record and film musicians performing in their natural environments and combine their talents and cultural power in innovative videos they call Songs Around The World. https://playingforchange.com/

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  1. Nothing compares to the original Ben E. King version of this song. That being said, Playing for Change made the song a global experience.
    By using a song so universally loved and familiar, the performance exemplifies how more alike than different we are.
    In my work as an instructor, I use the video as a motivational/inspirational aid. Without fail, more than one person in the group is moved to tears. Needless to say, I love this song; the King and Playing for Change versions are definitive in their own way.

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