Saturday, 20 February 2010

Stand By Me - Part Two



By the mid to late 50s, artists like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke were beginning to realise there was a lot to learn from the stripped down language of gospel songs as well as the singing which McPhatter had already introduced to a wider audience. They developed a new kind of music, with words cut to the bone, giving the singer space to linger over them, put more of himself into the performance: what was to become known as soul music.

Some say that There Goes My Baby is the first soul record; others go back to Ray Charles' I Got a Woman (1954), based on a gospel song; Charlie Gillett (author of the first serious study of Rock'n'Roll, The Sound of the City) has pointed out that the horns on this record are effectively doing the job of backing singers in a gospel quartet.





Sam Cooke was in a particularly good position to develop this new form, having been a professional gospel singer for years (in the Soul Stirrers, yet), singing songs as stark as Pilgrim of Sorrow, whose origins date back to the days of slavery. An inferior take with softened words, can be found on youtube here; if you have access to Spotify (not US at present), click here for Cooke's defintive performance.
Lord I'm poor pilgrim of sorrow
Down in this world I'm all alone
I have no hope for tomorrow
And I have no place that I can go
[...]
Sometimes I'm both tossed and driven
Till I decided that I would roam
That's when I heard of a city called Glory
And tried to make that city my home
In the same way the opening of Stand By Me is simple but disturbing in what it conjures up:
When the night has come and the land is dark
There's nothing to link that experience to any time or place - there's only desolation. It goes on:
I won't be afraid just as long as you stand by me
The singer is addressing his lover but from the context it could just as easily be his God. As in many gospel songs, the imagery is from the bible:
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
And the mountains should crumble to the sea
This would appear to come from Revelations - Saint John's description of the wicked being punished at the end of the world:
a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea
Note how, by the addition of a few specifics, Ira Gershwin renders a similar image comic and harmless:
In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble
They're only made of clay
Though I suppose the absence of imminent catastrophe in the G-Men's loved-up ditty also helps.

There's some truth in the generalisation that the pioneers of soul music would more or less just change the odd "God" to "girl" in a gospel number to be rewarded with an instant hit. Under the less-than-opaque pseudonym of Dale Cook, Sam Cooke amended the Soul Stirrers' Wonderful ("My God is ...") to Loveable ("My girl is..."); Ray Charles's This Little Girl of Mine, later covered by the Everly Brothers, was originally This Little Light of Mine. (I wish I could remember the recording of This Little Light which Alexis Korner, narrating a BBC radio documentary about the Rolling Stones, played after a section describing the death of his friend Brian Jones.)

Could the spareness of Stand By Me mean that it, too, is just a gospel song in disguise? The answer is not entirely straightforward. Ben E King's song does ultimately derive from a 1905 gospel number of that name but it's far from being a simple copy, even though some websites seem to assume the songs are one and the same.


The first Stand By Me was written by Charles Albert Tindley, a man who has been called one of the founding fathers of gospel music, immediately preceding the more well known Thomas A. Dorsey: Tindley died in 1933 and the song which established ex-bluesman Dorsey's gospel reputation, Precious Lord, was written in 1932.

Tindley who taught himself to read and write, took a correspondence course in theology and eventually became pastor at the church where he'd once worked as janitor. But that bare account ought to be fleshed out with this detail from the Christmas Songbook website:
Tindley grew up in extreme poverty and oppression. After his mother Hester Miller Tindley died, his father was forced to rent out Tindley's labor:

"It therefore became my lot to be 'hired out,' wherever father could place me. The people with whom I lived were not all good. Some of them were very cruel to me. I was not permitted to have a book or go to church. I used to find bits of newspaper on the roadside and put them in my bosom (for I had no pockets), in order to study the ABC's from them. During the day I would gather pine knots, and when the people were asleep at night I would light these pine knots, and, lying flat on my stomach to prevent being seen by any one who might still be about, would, with fire-coals, mark all the words I could make out on these bits of newspaper. I continued in this way, and without any teacher, until I could read the Bible without stopping to spell the words."
An article by C. Michael Hawn (including information about We Shall Overcome, also indebted to a Tindley original) is readable in full here. Below are the complete words of the first Stand By Me plus Hawn's commentary:
When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the hosts of hell assail,
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou Who never lost a battle,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of faults and failures,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of faults and failures,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When I do the best I can,
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou Who knowest all about me,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of persecution,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of persecution,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When my foes in battle array
Undertake to stop my way,
Thou Who savèd Paul and Silas,
Stand by me (stand by me).

When I’m growing old and feeble,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When I’m growing old and feeble,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When my life becomes a burden,
And I’m nearing chilly Jordan,
O Thou “Lily of the Valley,”
Stand by me (stand by me).

Life was not easy [writes Hawn] for many members of Tindley's congregation during the industrial revolution of the northeastern United States at the turn of the 20th century. The opening stanza of this comforting hymn draws upon images from a narrative found in three of the Gospels in which Christ rebukes the winds and stills the raging waters.

Later stanzas painted a realistic picture of life's struggles through apocalyptic references such as "in the midst of tribulation," the "host of hell assail," and "in the midst of persecution."

In the final stanza, "Stand by Me" ultimately provides the assurance that Christ has the power to overcome all suffering on earth. Comfort will finally come as we approach "chilly Jordan" though Christ, the "Lily of the Valley."
For a detailed account of the transition from spirituals to gospel, and the roles played by Tindley and Dorsey, read The Gospel Truth about the Negro Spiritual by Randye Jones here.

One of my biggest surprises when originally researching the song's origins in the mid nineties - those faraway times before the net put all sorts of information a click away - was hearing, through a set of headphones at the National Sound Archive in Kensington, a recording of the gospel original by Elvis Presley.

It's not a full, nor a fully logical, rendition - we get the first verse plus two half-verses shunted together - but it is, nevertheless, an astonishing performance: vulnerable, unshowy, straight from the gut, backed only by a piano, the Jordanaires and some barely heard female singers, which can make you forgive the erstwhile Memphis Flash a great deal (except, perhaps, an execrable, possibly looped, nine-minute version of Don't Think Twice, It's Alright). And no need for Phil's little symphonies when the resonance of that piano fills the studio, an orchestra in itself; it even seems to echo the "raging" of the first verse. Dunno about John Lennon, but listening to this 1967 recording - for me among his finest two and a bit minutes - it sure as hell sounds like Elvis is steaming home.



But that lesser-known example of the musical cross-pollination which defined Presley's career steers us back to murkier waters. Sad to report that the song is "adapted and arranged by Elvis Presley" and credited solely to his music company in at least one songbook: it's one thing to fleece those who choose to be fleeced ...

I was going to add something like: "Still, all part of that other great tradition of making money out of a cut-and-shut job", but on reflection it doesn't do to become too sanctimonious in this area, as the more I learn about the development of popular music in the twentieth century once records and the radio kicked in, the more I realise that just about everything was up for grabs and that the terms theft, inspiration and homage are mere cultural constructs, more or less interchangeable (always provided Morris Levy Can't Catch You).

Which brings us to Exhibit B: a gospel song, written one year before King's, entitled Stand By Me Father. Credited to Sam Cooke and his manager, JW Alexander, it was recorded by Cooke's former group the Soul Stirrers; Cooke produced but did not sing.

This song was also inspired by Tindley's 1905 original but also draws from the common stock of gospel/spiritual imagery, specifically those biblical accounts of miraculous escapes such as Daniel from the lions' den and the Hebrew children from the furnace.

 The rest of the group appear to answer "... me, lord" after each "Stand by", so the full phrase is there. It's hardly a wildly original composition in itself but the big question is: is the repeated refrain of "Stand by me" close enough, musically, to Ben E King's recording to be able to say that King "borrowed" it?


Oh father, you've been my friend
Now that I'm in trouble
Stand by me to the end, oh lord
I want you to stand by
Stand by

Well
All of my money and my friends are gone
God I'm in a mean world
And I'm so all alone, oh lord
I need you Jesus
Stand by
Stand by

Well
They tell me that Samson lived in ancient times
I know that you helped him kill 10,000 Philistines, oh lord
Whoa I need you
Stand by
Stand by

Here's another thing
They tell me that they put Daniel
Down in the lion's den
I know you went down there father
You freed Daniel once again
That's why I said, oh lord
Do me like you did Daniel,
And stand by
Stand by

Well
Sometime I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders
And it's all in vain
When I begin to feel weak along the way
You come and you give me strength again

The Hebrew children went in a fire
Ten times hotter that it ought to be
Just like you delivered them father
I know you can deliver me, woah Lord
I'm calling you Jesus
Stand by
Stand by

When I'm sick father
Stand by
When the doctor walk away from my bedside
Stand by me, father
When it seem like I don't have a friend
I wonder will you be my friend
Stick closer than my brother
Stand by
Stand by
Preparing my talk in 2001, I wrote: "My feeling is that King is quoting from Cooke - consciously or unconsciously." Well - it was conscious. Thank you, World Wide Web, where this page of BBC Radio 2's website has audio of King confirming:
I took Stand By Me from an old gospel song that was recorded by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers called,  I think it was, Lord I'm Standing By, and I kinda snuck that "stand" bit out and  I started writing and the song more or less had written itself ...
King appears to be confusing God Is Standing By and Stand By Me Father. Both were both recorded by that later version of the Soul Stirrers - Johnnie Taylor doing a pretty convincing Sam on lead - for Cooke's shoestring SAR label, a pet project he pursued alongside his hitmaking duties at RCA. God Is Standing By is credited to Johnnie Taylor.

Listening again, however, the bassline of God Is Standing By sounds not unlike the one which powers the recording of Stand By Me - so could what happened in the studio in 1961 have been a conflation of the two SAR recordings? But that would take Leiber and Stoller's rhythmic backbone, a contribution readily acknowledged by King, out of the frame, so probably not, unless that beat was just something in the air: there was certainly a craze in New York for Latin American music at the time, athough Leiber and Stoller claim specific credit here for introducing the Brazilian baion rhythm, later taken up by Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector, to pop:
"We first heard it a few years before on a soundtrack album," says Stoller, "and filed it away for future reference."
"The great thing about it," continues Leiber, "was that it was so attractive and so insistent, like Ravel's Bolero. Before that, whenever we did a slow ballad it fell apart, it would get boring. But the baion was a way of imposing a rhythm on the bottom of a slow ballad, so it kept going.
Burt Bacharach worked for us in the early Sixties. He learnt the baion from us and he used it his entire life. All those great Dionne Warwick songs? That's the baion. It is indestructible; that's why we used it so well and so often."
And the first record they used it on? There Goes My Baby.

I don't know whether the beat of Stand By Me is technically a baion, although it certainly seems Latin American, and its function appears to be precisely as Leiber describes above: Stand By Me keeps going, alright. In Leiber and Stoller's autobiography Hound Dog (quoted in this review), Jerry Leiber goes so far as to say:
The lyrics are good, King’s vocal is great. But Mike’s bass line pushed the song into the land of immortality. Believe me — it’s the bass line.
A fair assessment?  Shorn of its symbolic significance, the 1966 cover by Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) demonstrates what happens when you keep the bassline but lose the voice.

Incidentally, on the BBC page above, King says that the "scratching sound" was not produced by a guiro, even though that's the instrument seen in the 1986 promo:
What they had done, they taped over the snare drum and the wire bits on the end underneath the snare drum is the scratch noise.
There are some contradictions in King's and Leiber and Stoller's accounts of the recording of Stand By Me. King says that Stand By Me was recorded at the end of a session (widely agreed to be the case) but that, being unexpected, it was a head arrangement. King may have thought this was so, but as mentioned in another entry I had the chance to ask Leiber and Stoller directly during an audience Q&A which followed the premiere of a 2001 documentary:
Q: How unfinished was the song Stand By Me when Ben E King brought it to you, did you make the arrangement on the spot?

MS: Well, the song wasn't finished when he brought it in. However, it was totally finished before the recording session took place. That's a figment of somebody's imagination, because the arrangement... the bass line I created for it, was picked up and played by the strings, it had bass and guitar playing from the top, and it was a fully orchestrated piece. As was Spanish Harlem. It was the same session. It turned out to be three and a half hours, and what Jerry was referring to [in the documentary] about the half-hour overtime, was that Atlantic was complaining about spending the extra money on this first session for Ben E King as a solo singer. It proved to be worthwhile to them - they had two smash hits.

JL: And one other thing, we never went into a session where every note of the orchestration wasn't written down and in triplicate, so it could be changed quickly. Everybody who could write had a copy of it. We were very well organized.
Nevertheless, it has to be noted that Leiber and Stoller were recalling events of forty years ago at the time, so who can tell, as we approach the recording's fiftieth anniversary, precisely what the truth is? It may also be that the newly solo King, surrounded by the panoply of musicians and singers, was too wracked by nerves at being put on the spot and having to deliver to be able to take everything in; I would need to see it again but I vaguely remember his talking in the documentary about similarities with the There Goes My Baby and Stand By Me sessions: all the imposing set up then suddenly it's all down to him and he has to go for it. [I may revise this passage once I have seen the documentary again.]

The review of Hound Dog referred to above also discusses some conflicting details reported in various books including Ken Emerson's Always Magic in the Air and Toby Creswell's 1001 Songs. Commenting that "collaboration is a messy business" the reviewer adds:

It’s worth noting that one-third of “Stand by Me” is a valuable thing. BMI reports that it was the fourth-most-played song on Ameri­can radio and TV in the 20th century.
Which, along with that bit "kinda snuck" out of Stand By Me Father, may be another reason for King's acceptance of the situation. On the issue of borrowing vs stealing, however, that "snuck" doesn't sound like any kind of shameful confession, especially when he talks of Stand By Me "more or less" writing itself: a song which demanded to be brought into being - and immediately felt like it had been around forever.

Revising the above, I came across an odd coda to the affair: God Is Standing By, the Johnnie Taylor composition which I thought King had confused with Stand By Me Father, was remade into a soul song called I'm Standing By. It was recorded, with the same bassline as the gospel side, by one Ben E King in 1962. It is credited to Taylor plus Jerry Wexler and Betty Nelson, who is Ben E King's wife.

Betty Nelson also wrote Don't Play That Song: she had been listening to Stand By Me, told Benny she had an idea, which he first ignored ("She's always got an idea") then encouraged her to take it to Atlantic, where she worked on it with Ahmet Ertegun, resulting in another big hit for her mocking husband.

Basslinewise, however, there's no denying that (like this blog entry) it's Stand By Me Pt.2. One wonders how Mike Stoller felt - although he may have been pacified (or piqued?) when Aretha Franklin's remake was a big hit with an entirely different underpinning - and I won't go into its piano intro which always makes me think of the (Cooke-era) Soul Stirrers' Were You There, a hard gospel style version of a spiritual ... Confusingly, in his "audio biography" King says that Don't Play That Song was "her one contribution to music - after that she just folded up," so I don't know where I'm Standing By fits into the picture.

Seductive, or maddening, though such internet sleuthing may be, the precise apportioning of the authorship of Stand By Me is less important than considering what is unique to the 1961 song. It may draw from King's gospel roots but it's not a gospel song. In terms of message, Tindley's orginal and Cooke's Stand By Me Father have far more in common. Both are (at least in one sense) upbeat: whatever life throws at you, you can depend on a God with a proven track record of helping those who have faith.

King's lyric is saying something different:
No, I won't be afraid, oh, I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
He's hoping for support, not certain of it - and the way he hesitates between words emphasises the idea that he doesn't actually know who or what he can count on should disaster strike. There's no God in this Stand By Me - only the possibility of kindness from another human being.

Drawing, perhaps, from Clyde McPhatter's balance of control and hysteria, King's vocal is the equal of its surroundings: he claims he won't cry, although his voice seems on the verge of tears; and as the arrangement builds and the violins and cellos play that riff more insistently it's as though they're out to expose the fear and anxiety he's trying to deny - and much as I love those earlier, simpler doo wop recordings, I have to admit that the arrangement here is no mere garnish but integral to the record's effect.

But where does that anxiety come from, exactly? It may have been hijacked for a tale about boyhood friendship and all manner of other things but this is a song about a man who's afraid of being deserted by his lover ("Darling"). You'll find the same feeling, however, in many gospel songs and, especially, spirituals: the outsider down in this world all alone, feeling like a motherless child a long way from home. There is one solution for the poor Pilgrim of Sorrow - but there's no convenient City Called Glory in the secular landscape of blues songs, which nevertheless explore similar themes: not belonging; searching for something which, it seems, can't be found in this world.

Not too difficult to work out why a sense of alienation keeps recurring in African Amercian music. And it's worth remembering both that Ben E King grew up in the South and that Stand By Me was released in 1961, the year of the brutality against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama. It would take another three years before a Civil Rights act was finally passed outlawing all forms of segregation. In the Land of the Free, music had been one of the few relatively undhindered outlets for black expression so it's hardly surprising that a sense of something fundamentally wrong with the world should be reflected in so many songs, even if direct protest had had to be coded in the past. You can bet that listeners to spirituals would have seen a double meaning in stories of people escaping from lions and fiery furnances. And the City called Glory could be heaven but could equally be freedom in the North, as in the spiritual which entreats the listener to Steal Away.


In yet another example of the strange cross-fertilisation which characterises popular music, when he joined RCA records Sam Cooke may have been freighted with all he had sung and learnt in the Soul Stirrers, and may have used that, often to to great effect, on numbers like Bring It On Home To Me, a duet with fellow ex-gospeller Lou Rawls (Pilgrim Travellers), but according to Peter Guralnick's biography it took a Bob Dylan song to spur him into creating A Change is Gonna Come: hearing Blowing in the Wind, he was apparently ashamed that no African American had as yet written his own Civil Rights anthem. I also note, on the site linked to above, that "He wrote the song after he spoke with sit-in demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina in May 1963 after he did a show there" - a mere forty miles from the place where Benny spent his early childhood.
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running every since
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me don't hang around
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother, help me please
But he winds up knocking me
Back down on my knees

Ohhhhhhhhh.....

There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Listening to it here ought to be enough to inform, or remind, you that this was Cooke's masterpiece, a final, perfect blend of all the lessons he had absorbed on either side of the gospel/pop fence. But there are several things particularly worth pointing up in the context of the themes covered in these two posts,

First, note the masterly way he moves from the gospel-type spareness of the opening (running like the river) to the specific detail of either being refused admission at a cinema (or being moved on afterwards?) which makes it unnecessary to spell out that the "brother" to whom he then goes for help is white.

And as in King's Stand By Me, there may be no God ("I don't know what's up there"), a particularly painful detail for black gospel fans who had already felt a deep sense of betrayal when Cooke crossed over to pop. And it wasn't the first time they'd had salt rubbed in their wounds, as Dave Marsh notes in his critique of Bring It On Home To Me. The gospel music community felt ripped off, he suggests, not simply through the perceived debasement of their music:
that wouldn't have been so bad, if the new wave of gospel-trained pop singers hadn't also stolen from gospel its poetry, whence stems so much of its power. From a fundamentalist Christian point of view, Bring It On Home to Me actively blasphemes, for Cooke declares himself a slave of love rather than a slave of God, and compounds the felony by usuing hymnal imagery to put the idea across. 
One can only imagine how they felt when Cooke went on to deny, or at least doubt, his God in the later song.

But the record is a mightily seductive one, which brings me to my second point. To grasp the significance of A Change Is Gonna Come, you could do worse than look at the list of musicians (below).

That list says a great deal about Sam Cooke's power at RCA by that time: their biggest-selling performer after esteemed gospel composer E.A. Presley. We're talking a full-blown orchestra, not a couple of violins - indeed, the original drummer was apparently so intimidated by the sight that he quit, leaving Earl Palmer to do the honours. Cooke apparently gave "rare freedom" to Rene Hall to arrange it, and if odd moments now seem a little sweet for those brought up on the tartness of Leiber and Stoller and George Martin, Hall knew exactly what he was about: smuggling a message into as many homes, black and white, as possible, and if that meant a little sugar coating, so be it ...
Chuck Badie
Israel Baker - violin
Norman Bartold - guitar
Harold Battiste
Arnold Belnick - guitar
Louis Blackburn - trombone
John Ewing - trombone
Harry Hyams - viola
René Hall - guitar
William Hinshaw - french horn
William Kurasch - trumpet
Irving Lipschultz - violin
Leonard Malarsky - violin
Alexander Neiman - viola
Earl Palmer - drums
Jack Pepper - violin
Emil Radocchia - marimba, tympani, percussion
Emmet Sargeant - cello
Ralph Schaeffer - violin
Sidney Sharp - violin
Darrel Terwilliger - violin
David Wells - trombone
Clif White
Tibor Zelig - violin
... although the "I go to the movie" verse was cut for the single release.

And finally, Cooke's voice on this recording. It has been said that Sam Cooke sang with more passion to his God, on those early fifties Specialty recordings, than he ever did to his girl. It's a good line, and there are certainly songs where you get a strong sense of his holding back for commercial reasons, especially those early attempts at pop like I'll Come Running Back to You, whose sweetening of white female backing singers so sickened Specialty owner Art Rupe that he allowed his greatest asset to leave the label, taking his pop masters with him in exchange for relinquishing all rights to his gospel output.

But Cooke's performance on A Change Is Gonna Come may have been enough to satisfy even Rupe: no backing singers of whatever colour, and a vocal which achieves the perfect balance of control and emotion.

I have to admit that when first immersed in the Specialty gospel recordings, Cooke's singing on A Change ... struck me as tame in comparison to his gospel highlights like Touch the Hem of His Garment, or Were You There? Now, however, I can appreciate all that reined-in passion.

I have read that director Peter Hall, when working on a Pinter play, would encourage his actors to let it all out, all the anger and rage, in the early days of rehearsal (sometimes to Pinter's discomfort). But then at a certain point he would say remember all that, but now sit on it.

It would then inform a more restrained performance, which is what I think is happening with Cooke here. You only have to hear the posthumously issued Live at the Harlem Square Club to know that he retained that gospel power in the RCA years - but he was never, in any case, trying to emulate the likes of sometime Soul Stirrer and famed throat-shredder June Cheeks (whose New Burying Ground, with the Sensational Nightingales, is a stone classic).

A much-bandied quote is that Sam didn't want to be "that deep, pitiful singer", preferring to win hearts and minds by subtler means. Someone else described Cooke's voice as a blend of sandpaper and honey; the honey's important.

And to make the distinction between those songs which bookend Cooke's pop career absolutely clear: A Change ... is, for me, the steely sound of power in reserve; I'll Come Running Back to You sounds more like someone trying to work out what people want instead of trusting his own experience to tell them what they need.

All of which may inform Stand By Me but, again, has shifted our focus. I'm not suggesting that a geographical coincidence means that Ben E King's song is necessarily political in intent, like Cooke's; as mentioned earlier, I have seen it claimed as a Civil Rights anthem but haven't found much direct evidence. Perhaps it's both the strength and the weakness of the song that it can be appropriated for so many purposes, from jeans upwards (A Change ... could only be used to sell night sticks). Nevertheless, Ben E King's childhood in the South cannot help but be part of the song, and even though it's directed towards a lover its plea for support, for some sign of common humanity, seems bound up with the time in which it was written.

And I don't think he's being false to his gospel roots by taking its poetry to a wider audience, as Cooke was accused of doing. He is, essentially, doing what he said he did as a teenager: taking a song - or in this case a whole tradition - and making it his own: a personal statement that has proven itself over the years to be universal, as illustrated by this remarkable Playing for Change video of street singers around the world united by the song:



I didn't realise quite how personal the origin of King's statement until looking over the net just now. I knew that the rage which Cooke is sitting on in A Change ... stemmed in part from an incident when Cooke and others were arrested in Shreveport, Louisiana, for "disturbing the peace" by trying to register at a white motel but had no idea that for all the sense of apocalypse in Stand By Me its composition seems to have owed something to an entirely happy circumstance:
I was also newly married and I thought that enhanced the song. I had a feeling of love in my heart and romance in my soul.
And King's own, rather more succinct, take on the song?
Straight out of church. And a few parts Harlem. Sweetened up with some plush Broadway strings.
Gerri Hershey's book tells us that the newly married Kings (or Nelsons) moved to New Jersey to start a family and keep his children free from the streets where he was brought up.
He still goes back to those streets. "My training ground," as he calls them. But he always goes alone. driving in over the George Washington Bridge, down the West Side to 116th and Eighth Avenue, where the Sultans whopped and the Five Crowns doowopped. And where now, the dominant rhythm is the junkie's nod.

"I park my car and I walk. I see myself there if I don't be cool. And I've seen myself there quite a few times if I didn't be cool to the point where I could say, 'Hey, nothing spectacular about you, babe. You just have a voice. Just that one thing."
I had thought of ending this piece with a youtube clip of a karaoke Stand By Me, and say over to you, dot dot dot. But it seems more fitting to give Ben E King back his voice - in two senses.

I have written in this and other entries of his diminished vocal power. I even wondered, near the start of this piece, whether my reaction to his performance in Glasgow may have been a sentimental one, that what I took in at the time as a more truthful performance than his louder cabaret buddies could simply have been an underpowered one.

Two performances, twenty years apart, put the lie to that. The first shows King, high on his revival in 1987, at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in an extended workout of his song. He thanks us for giving him a hit record when we should be thanking him. At the end he makes a gesture: "I can't do any more," which seems to apply both to his voice and himself. It's more than enough.



There, finally, we leave The Song. This last video finds Benny near his training ground in a tribute to the late Doc Pomus at Prospect Park, Brooklyn, on the 22nd of July 2007. Almost fifty years on from when he first recorded it as a member of the Drifters, he sings a beautiful and touching reworking of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's This Magic Moment, lingering over phrases, feeling the words afresh - doing, in short, everything which I had stopped trusting myself to believe he had done in Glasgow on whatever date it was in a genteel theatre in the mid-eighties.

So no: not Archie Rice, never Archie Rice. And as he finally sashays into the darkness with the ghost of those long-ago-learnt Atkins moves, I salute him and return his thanks.







No comments:

Post a Comment