Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Don't Stand So Close By Me

 This is by way of a coda to an earlier post, here, about the origins of Ben E King's recording of Stand By Me. If you have read that - or even if you haven't - you may know that the famous song which is credited to King and Leiber and Stoller derives in part from a 1960 Soul Stirrers number called Stand By Me Father, cowritten by Sam Cooke - though that came in its turn from an early gospel song by Charles Tindley simply entitled Stand By Me. (With me so far?)

Anyway, this all-new communique is prompted by the fact that a couple of days ago I acquired a Junior Parker songbook, and saw that he had recorded a song called Stand By Me in 1961, so I checked the credit to see whether it was yet another variant, and had a look for the song on youtube.

Well, as you can see from the snippet of sheet music above, the song is credited to Herman Parker Jr, aka Little Junior Parker. The odd thing is that the song is quite clearly a secular version of the Soul Stirrers' Stand By Me Father, composed by Sam Cooke and J.W. Alexander. Done very well, too, with a sax substituting for the vocal background in best gospel-to-soul tradition.

Here are both of them, if you want to decide for yourself:

Parker's version is, as Kenneth Williams might have said, bold: apart from the lightest possible secularising of the lyrics there is no absolutely attempt to disguise the song. There's even the occasional Cooke-style yodel in Parker's voice - though strictly speaking this is a second generation copy: it was Johnnie Taylor, doing his best Cooke imitation, who was the Stirrers' lead at the time.

Given his close involvement in Sam Cooke's career,  I assume that Allen Klein didn't know about the Parker track. I mean, wouldn't he have done something about it? (Or did he? Enlighten me.)

Then again, it was issued in 1961, I imagine (though I haven't checked) to take advantage of the popularity of Ben E King's song. Could Parker's reasoning have been that if King had already confessed with impunity to nicking part of the Cooke song then surely he, Parker, could safely go the whole hog and appropriate the whole thing? Ben E King is on record as saying that he "snuck out" the "stand by me" refrain from Cooke's song for his own composition - though I admit I don't know just when he first went public about that.

But as so often in these cases, the waters, once stirred, become even murkier. I say "Cooke's song" but how much of Tindley's gospel number can be heard in Stand By Me Father? Can the former truly be considered an original piece?

 And on the subject of Sam Cooke and musical purloining I recall that in Peter Guralnick's biography of Cooke Bobby Womack says that Cooke admitted to the younger man that he would inevitably "grease" him - meaning, I think, that he would take advantage of his songwriting ideas, whether creatively or financially, though he did add that he would be gentler about the process than some others.

I'm not suggesting that Bobby Womack had any involvement with Stand By Me Father but if Cooke was aware of Parker's cheeky copy he may, perhaps, have shrugged it off - especially if it was unlikely to be a recording which generated much money.

And Parker had had an experience of his own: I hope that Mystery Train generated a lot of income for him but I only learnt recently that the composition, originally credited solely to Parker, as below, had Sam Phillips' name added later.

But then again, I vaguely remember reading that Mystery Train was one of the songs Sam Phillips pushed towards Elvis. Would he have done so otherwise? And according to wikipedia Parker's Mystery Train borrows from, or builds on,  a section in the Carter Family's Worried Man Blues - but that is"based on an old Celtic ballad."

 Hope you didn't miss those lines at the end:
If anyone asks you who composed this song,
If anyone asks you who composed this song,
Tell him ‘twas I and I sing it all day long.
What one might call a moot point, as AP Carter was known for adapting traditional sources. And when it comes to Presley, it's known that he had his name added to some songs - like Jolson, I think the reasoning was that writers would accept 50% (or whatever) of something as opposed to 100% of nothing - and there is also the difficult question of how to quantify what a singer may bring to a song and ...

But going much further will lead to far too many entanglements for a post which was originally intended simply to draw your attention to the Parker song, an unexpected footnote to my earlier piece about the origins of Ben E King's song, so perhaps I should call a halt.

Once, that is, I have pointed out that in at least one songbook of gospel numbers associated with Elvis the song Stand By Me - Tindley's gospel song - is credited thus: "Trad. arr. Presley." Now that is plain wrong.

But I suppose all the above points up an odd situation with modern music. Before electronic media, songs were altered and embellished as a matter of course, whether it was a consciously creative act or merely a consequence of the faulty memory of some elderly listener-turned-singer. There's something pleasing about the idea that the essence of a song survives down the centuries, whatever might get rubbed off along the way, that the song itself is the thing, not its association with a single maker. It belongs to all of us - and its survival, in whatever form, is determined by whether it continues to explain each new generation to itself: its universality, in other words.

Against that, I want people to be rewarded, and the history of the kind of music I love is filled with tales about the exploitation of artists. But there is something appealing about the idea that none of that matters, that each of us is free to respond to what we hear in whatever way we choose.

To close, a prime recent example of this. Ian Whitcomb has seethed on air, and online, here (and quite rightly), about this "Bob Dylan" song. I don't know what the current situation is, and  whether appropriate credit has now been given, but I suppose the real test will be in a couple of centuries, which version has endured. Let me get back to you then.



Part Two 
Part Three
Part Four
Goldmine article by Ray Funk about SAR Records here.
Piece by Lindsay Terry about Charles Tindley and the song By and By here.


I have now found the passage in Peter Guralnick's autobiography referred to above. The squared brackets are Guralnick's. "Zelda and Alex" are Zelda Samuels, a songwriter, and J.W. Alexander, Cooke's manager and cowriter of Stand By Me Father.
Gradually it dawned on Bobby that he was supplying Sam with song ideas, and he got into it one time with Sam directly, how he had let Zelda and Alex steal songwriters' credits from the Womacks on Lookin' for a Love. At first Sam denied it. "He said, 'You took that song [from someone else]. You took a few [others] too.'" But Sam could never take a hard line with Bobby for long, and after a while he owned up with an impish grin. "He said, 'Okay I'm taking your sh*t but I'm doing you better than James Brown [would].' He said 'At least I'll f*ck you with grease, James'll f*ck you with sand.'" Bobby had been on the verge of telling him off once and for all. "I was like I'm gonna tell this motherf*cker, 'If it's good for you, [how come] it ain't good for me?'" But when Sam put it to him like that, he found himself totally disarmed and came to see it as part of his education, part of the same growing-up process that Sam and all the others had had to go through And now that it had at last been openly acknowledged, he assumed that Sam wouldnt be f*cking him any more, grease or no grease. 
Guralnick goes on to recount an incident involving Jerry Butler on tour. Bobby is playing in Jerry's room when Sam calls him out: "You never go around playing with these people and just give it to them", adding that "anything we do together [from now on] we're partners on it fifty-fifty.

Which may not have been exactly the way it worked out," Guralnick adds, "but Bobby took it in the spirit in which it was offered, as evidence of Sam's implicit faith in him."

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