Who Wrote the Classic Song of Friendship, “Stand By Me”

It’s a song that can bring you to tears with a simple bass line. It’s a song that means friendship. It’s a song of love and companionship. It’s a bouquet of notes. It’s “Stand By Me.” And it’s one of the best songs of all time, bar none.

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But where did it come from? Who wrote it? How did it get to its classic status? Let’s dive in.

The Three Writers

“Stand By Me,” which was first performed on April 12, 1961, was written by the triumvirate of Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller. The latter two wrote under the moniker Elmo Glick.

King, born on September 28, 1938, rose to fame as one of the members of the singing group, The Drifters. With him singing “Stand by Me,” the song became a top 10 hit in the United States—twice. First in 1961 and then later in 1986 when the song was used in the film of the same name. King was also known for songs like “There Goes My Baby” and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

As for Leiber and Stoller, the former was a lyricist and the latter was a music composer. Both were born in 1933 (Stoller is still alive today). Together, they wrote songs like “Hound Dog” in 1952, made famous by Elvis. They also wrote the pop hit “Yakety Yak” in 1958. The duo also wrote “Jailhouse Rock” for Elvis, and many more hits for The King. Together, Leiber and Stoller co-wrote more than 70 songs that charted. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

The Song’s Composition

King said that the song’s title was inspired by a spiritual song written by the great Sam Cooke and J.W. Alexander, which was called “Stand by Me Father.” That song was recorded by the Soul Stirrers.

In 1960, King said he wanted to update the gospel hymn “Stand by Me” by Charles Albert Tindley, which included the line, “will not we fear, though the Earth be removed, And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.”

But, according to the documentary History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, King said he didn’t want to record it himself. He’d written the song for The Drifters, but they passed on recording it. Later, during a recording session, King had some free time and Leiber and Stoller asked if he had anything more in his bag. So, he played the song on the piano and they liked it and recorded it.

Though, Stoller himself, tells a different story, saying in the book, Hound Dog: the Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, “I remember arriving at our office as Jerry and Ben were working on lyrics for a new song. King had the beginnings of a melody that he was singing a cappella. I went to the piano and worked up the harmonies, developing a bass pattern that became the signature of the song. Ben and Jerry quickly finished the lyrics.”

In another interview with JzzWax, Stoller added, “Ben E. had the beginnings of a song—both words and music. He worked on the lyrics together with Jerry, and I added elements to the music, particularly the bass line. To some degree, it’s based on a gospel song called “Lord Stand By Me”. I have a feeling that Jerry and Ben E. were inspired by it. Ben, of course, had a strong background in church music. He’s 50% writer on the song, and Jerry and I are 25% each… When I walked in, Jerry and Ben E. were working on the lyrics to a song.

“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!” We used my bass pattern for a starting point and, later, we used it as the basis for the string arrangement created by Stanley Applebaum.”

However it went down, King’s record hit No. 1 on the R&B charts, and the rest is history.

The Movie, Other Versions (Including Muhammad Ali’s)

In 1986, the song was the titular track for the film of the same name. There was even a whole new music video released, which featured King and actors, River Phoenix and Will Wheaton, from the coming-of-age movie. As a result (combined with the use of the song in a 1987 European commercial for Levi’s jeans), the royalties for the track are estimated in the $20-plus million range.

Fifty percent of those royalties were paid to King. Later, in 2015, King’s version of the song was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress because it is “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” That honor was appreciated by King, who died just five weeks later.

To date, there have been more than 400 versions of the track recorded by artists, including those by Otis Redding, John Lennon, Tracy Chapman, Florence and the Machine, and even Muhammad Ali in 1963 when he was still known as Cassius Clay.

Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

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