Ben E. King's "Stand by Me": A Hit in Two Decades

Ben E. King
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Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" is inarguably the late singer's signature song - so beloved it climbed the charts in two different decades. But how did it come about?

As the legend goes, Ben E. King had finished recording "Spanish Harlem" and had some studio time to kill. Inspired by an early 20th century hymn he'd tried to record while a member of The Drifters, he approached songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with a part of a verse he'd worked on.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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Stoller told The Wall Street Journal of the fateful day:

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...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!"

The song's chord changes have become so synonymous with a certain era of pop that it's now known as the "50s progression." Ironically, "Stand by Me" first took the charts by storm in 1961, soaring to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 the week ending June 12.

A quarter-century later, it would return, bolstered by its inclusion as the de facto title track of the 1986 coming-of-age film Stand by Me. Impressively, it would climb all the way back to No. 9, where it stayed for three weeks in 1986 and 1987, alongside hits by The Bangles, Duran Duran, Janet Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.

And in England, the song made an even more fascinating journey to the top of the charts: after it was featured in a 1987 advertisement for Levi's jeans, the song eclipsed its original chart position of No. 27, making it all the way to No. 1 for three weeks that winter.

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