Saturday, 26 May 2018

Stand By Me - the short(ish) read


Knowing of my regard for Ben E King's song Stand By Me, a friend emailed to share his unease that it had been "so casually appropriated for such a trivial event" as occurred last Saturday. He assumed I'd share his pain but, as it happens, I didn't. Not that I felt particularly moved by what seemed a sedate and streamlined rendering of the soul classic, although its inclusion in a royal wedding is certainly noteworthy as an illustration of just how much the song has become part of mainstream culture, adaptable to any circumstance. It has survived being a film theme, being used to peddle jeans, and it's still around, unaffected, uncheapened, bigger than any of the uses to which it has been put.


And still wedded indivisibly to Ben E King's original recording. Almost all those who attempt the song copy his phrasing, as was audibly the case in Windsor  - even though in live performance King himself didn't, feeling it afresh each time, or at least giving a pretty good impression of doing so. Which may be partly why I couldn't oblige my friend with some semblance of wrath: even in the ropiest cover version of Stand By Me there is still an echo, however distant, of the man who wrote and first sang it.

The song itself is memorable, of course, beyond that compelling first performance. It's both timeless and a product of its time, the musical and social influences which shaped King, who was born in the South but moved to New York in 1947 at the age of nine. Benny and his friends may have sung in church on Sundays, writes author Gerri Hershey,
But until dawn delivered those sweet harmonies unto the feet of the lord, Saturday night bore a wave of voices tuned to the frequencies of earthly love.
King told Hershey that singing began as "a neighborhood thing", a way of acclimatising to the move:
Turn you into a city boy, you know? I was in two groups most of the time. I sang with an R and B one, but I stayed with the gospel ... For me the feeling I got was the same ... you took a song and made it your own.
When King was recruited in 1958 for a group called the 5 Crowns it was a particularly lucky break: they soon replaced the original Drifters, sacked en masse, and were given fresh material to record from the best of the Brill Building writers - including Leiber and Stoller, their initial producers.

A major influence on King and many other singers was Clyde McPhatter, who had left the Drifters sometime earlier. The first major doo wop star after Sonny Till of the Orioles, whom he eclipsed in popularity, his contribution to the genre has been summed up by Bill Millar:
McPhatter took hold of the Inkspots' simple major chord harmonies, drenched them in call-and-response patterns and sang as if he were back in church. In doing so he created a revolutionary musical style from which - thankfully - popular music will never recover.
King himself said:
Clyde ... made a wide-open space by mixing it up like that. A space a lot of guys were grateful for.
By the late fifties increasingly sophisticated production techniques were bringing about a wider change. The overall sound of a record began to matter more: the vocals might still be in the centre but now they were part of a bigger picture.

King's first lead in 1959 with his Drifters, the self-penned There Goes My Baby, is of considerable significance in this respect. Charlie Thomas, the intended singer, couldn't pick it up quickly enough to satisfy Leiber and Stoller, and Ben was asked to take over. Forced to sing at the top of his range, he delivers a great gospel-inflected lead but it was the arrangement which sealed the crossover success of the group. As Bill Millar says:
The strings on There Goes My Baby were not the dull, weepy violins used on popular recordings by white singers for the past twenty years. They rose and fell with a stark, triste and positive allegiance to classical music ... bringing the Drifters from the comparative obscurity of the large but segregated black community into popularity in over half a million white homes.
Some have called There Goes My Baby the first soul record. It's not simply its sound which prefigures the transition from doo wop - usually recorded with more basic backing - to the newer form: the song itself, the starkness of such lyric as there is, feels a world away from the romantic cliches which make up the typical doo wop record.
There goes my baby, movin' on down the line
Wonder where, wonder where, wonder where she is bound?
I broke her heart and made her cry
Now I'm alone, so all alone
What can I do, what can I do?
But the tone doesn't quite match that of non-crossover rhythm and blues songs, leavened as they often are with a knowing wit, a worldliness; King's lyrics are closer to a rawer, earlier blues - or gospel.

By the mid to late 50s, artists like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, aware of that "wide-open space" created by McPhatter, were extending the gospel influence to the songs they were writing, borrowing from the stripped down language of gospel songs. Cooke was in a particularly good position to develop this new form, having been a professional gospel singer for years (in the Soul Stirrers), singing numbers as stark as this spiritual:
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
In a similar way, the opening of Stand By Me is both simple and 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 is 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. It's as direct as King's earlier composition but there is a difference. In There Goes My Baby he had used stock pop/blues phrases ("down the line"); now, however, the imagery is biblical:
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
So is Stand By Me just a gospel song in disguise? The answer is not entirely straightforward. Ben E King's song ultimately derives from a 1905 gospel number of that name but it's far from being a simple copy.


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, preceding the more well known Thomas A. Dorsey. Below is the opening verse:
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).
The opening stanza of this comforting hymn [writes C. Michael Hawn] 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 "hosts of hell assail" ...
Elvis Presley was among the many who recorded a version of Tindley's song. It's a moving performance: from the gut, backed only by a piano plus the Jordanaires and (I think) some barely heard female singers. An orchestra in itself, a piano fills the studio, echoing the "raging" of the first verse.

But Tindley's song is not the only inspiration for the composition credited to King and Leiber and Stoller. There is also Stand By Me Father, written by Sam Cooke and his manager, JW Alexander. This was composed one year before King's song and seems also to have been inspired by Tindley's 1905 original.
Oh, Father You've been my friend
Now that I'm in trouble
Stand by me to the end, oh, oh
I want You to stand by me, stand by me
The repeated refrain of "Stand by me" as heard in Cooke's song is very close, musically, to Ben E King's composition, as he acknowledged in an interview:
I took Stand By Me from an old gospel song that was recorded by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers ... and I kinda snuck that "stand" bit out and I started writing and the song more or less had written itself ...
Also important to the song's success is the rhythmic backbone added by Leiber and Stoller, whose contribution was readily acknowledged by King. (It's not precisely clear how complete the song was when he brought it to them but he never disputed their right to a share of the credits.) There was a craze in New York for Latin American music at the time but Leiber and Stoller were the ones who introduced the Brazilian baion rhythm - later taken up by Bacharach and Spector - to pop:
"The baion was a way of imposing a rhythm on the bottom of a slow ballad, so it kept going."
Stand By Me keeps going, alright, although Jerry Leiber went so far as to say:
The lyrics are good, King’s vocal is great. But Mike [Stoller]’s bass line pushed the song into the land of immortality. Believe me - it’s the bass line.
I'm not so sure. There is a 1966 cover by the then Cassius Clay  which demonstrates what happens when you've got the bassline but don't really have the voice.

But the lyrics are, as he said, "good". When the three sets of words are compared, however, it becomes clear that although Stand By Me may draw from King's gospel roots it's not gospel in attitude. Tindley's original and Cooke's Stand By Me Father have far more in common: whatever life throws at you, they say, you can depend on a God with a proven track record of helping those who have faith. The bridge in Cooke's song spells it out:
Well, sometimes 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
King 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 reinforces the idea he doesn't know who or what he can count on should disaster strike. There seems to be no God in this Stand By Me - only the possibility of kindness, or its absence, from another human being.

Drawing, perhaps, from Clyde McPhatter's balance of control and hysteria in such songs as The Bells, 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.

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 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, searching for something which, it seems, can't be found in this world.

It's not too difficult to work out why a sense of alienation should keep recurring in African American music. King grew up in the South and 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 an example of the cross-fertilisation which characterises popular music, when he joined RCA Sam Cooke may have been freighted with all he had sung and learnt in his gospel days but 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. "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.

The resulting song was Cooke's masterpiece, a final, perfect blend of all the lessons he had absorbed on either side of the gospel/pop fence. And like Stand By Me, and There Goes My Baby before it, there are strings - in this case to ensure the message would reach as wide an audience as possible:
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

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

I'm not suggesting Ben E King's song is consciously political in intent, like Cooke's; 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, King's childhood 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 in the face of impending disaster, 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 stark poetry to a wider audience, an accusation occasionally levelled at Sam Cooke when he first crossed over to pop. Essentially, King is doing what he said he did as a teenager: taking a song - or you could say a whole tradition - and making it his own: a personal statement which has proven itself over the years to be universal.

I didn't realise quite how personal until recently. I knew that the rage which Cooke is sitting on in A Change ... stemmed in part from an incident when he and some others were arrested in Shreveport, Louisiana, for "disturbing the peace" by trying to register at a white motel, but I 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.
So maybe I ought to tell my friend that its employment in a wedding ceremony is actually quite fitting.

Much of the above is a simplified version of an earlier post about Stand By Me which can be found here. But it still can't compete with the composer's own, characteristically self-effacing, summation of his work:
Straight out of church. And a few parts Harlem. Sweetened up with some plush Broadway strings.

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