From a sixties legend, to a legendary song from the sixties. Who’d have imagined, as we ticked over from 1986 to ’87, that three of the past four #1s would have featured Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, and now Ben E. King…?
Stand by Me, by Ben E. King (his 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 15th February – 8th March 1987
Let’s be quite honest, the world doesn’t need to know what I think of ‘Stand By Me’. It doesn’t need me to prattle on about the instantly recognisable bass line, and the passion in King’s voice; about the soaring strings and the gospel influence. What more can you say about it…? It’s a good song. Very good. Amazing. One of the best ever. It’s simple – a basic chord progression, accessible lyrics, fairly limited production – yet it proves the notion that writing a good simple song must be fiendishly difficult.
I usually roll the eyes when someone claims of a song that ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’, but when it comes to ‘Stand by Me’ then it’s hard to argue. It was written by King, alongside Lieber and Stoller, and was based on a spiritual song, which in turn had been based on Psalm 46: “will not we fear, though the Earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea”.
There ends today’s sermon, go forth and prosper (you can perhaps tell I’m not a regular at church…) So, ‘Stand by Me’ is technically a religious song, but whereas other holy #1s have preached – I’m looking at you, Lena Martell and Charlene – Ben E. King’s is a humble profession of faith, as long as someone, be it God or his lover, stands with him. Just a few chart-toppers ago, The Housemartins were being similarly low-key religious, and scoring an equally palatable hit.
When originally released, in 1961, ‘Stand by Me’ made a lowly #27 in the British charts. (Number one that week was ‘Well I Ask You’ by Eden Kane – perfectly pleasant, but somewhat lacking in ‘classic’ status.) Ben E. King wasn’t very well served in the UK: this being his only Top 20, though he did make #2 with The Drifters. And I’d always assumed that ‘Stand by Me’ was a 1987 hit thanks to the Rob Reiner movie – another classic. A tie-in video was made, featuring a young Ben E. King morphing into an older Ben E. King, who is then joined on stage by River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton (a sight which takes on a very bittersweet edge knowing the fate that would befall Phoenix just a few years later).
But it turns out that ‘Stand by Me’ was actually given a final push to the top of the charts by an advert for Levi’s jeans, which takes the wholesome gloss off it slightly. Filthy lucre was ultimately behind this beautiful song claiming its rightful chart position. Still, it feels only right that a song of its stature made #1, and it’s interesting to see how generation-defining classics that missed out first time around – ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Imagine’, this – seem to eventually find a way to the top. Class will shine through in the end…