585. ‘Stand by Me’, by Ben E. King

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…

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8 thoughts on “585. ‘Stand by Me’, by Ben E. King

  1. Words like ‘classic’ get thrown around, but this one truly is. It’s the favourite song of one of our national treasures, ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris. Back in the first lockdown he assembled a version of this to raise funds for musicians. If you haven’t seen it before, enjoy this and share in his delight at playing the triangle 😊

      • I’m sure there have been some bad ones! What I particularly like about this is the huge number of people who agreed to play a part: testimony to the many friendships Bob has made in 50+ years of broadcasting.

  2. So far….this could be my favorite number 1 of the 80s…of course that is not saying much lol…this is a classic and I love it.
    I do like John Lennon’s version also with that heavy reverb.

    • I love Lennon’s version too. That’s probably the one I heard first as a kid.

      When it comes to picking my next Best Chart Topper, it’s hardly fair that this one pops up. It’s like dropping Ronaldo in an under 10s game… (sorry for the soccer analogy haha) Though to be fair it would be a winner at any time

      • Oh cool! It’s something about that Lennon version that has some bite…but I like this one also….don’t get me wrong.

        Yea it’s not fair but hey…it is what it is. All I have to do is sub “Babe Ruth” for Ronaldo and I get it lol.

  3. I vaguely knew of this song before John Lennon did his amazing cover which topped my charts in 1975, but i really wasnt that familiar with it till the Levi ad. And its even better than a solo Beatle record. Pure timeless classic. Still popular. I virtually never buy products from adverts on principle but i made an exception for 501’s – cool use of 60s soul classics and the jeans are notable for being the last time I consciously bought something with brand name to look vaguely trendy. After that labels meant nothing to me, I bought things cos they were on sale or cos i liked the look of them 😃

  4. Pingback: 595. ‘La Bamba’, by Los Lobos | The UK Number Ones Blog

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