Five incredible covers of the song “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King
Few songs have this truly magical intergenerational appeal than Ben E. King’s classic “Stand by Me” from 1961. Written by soul icon alongside today’s hit duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, credited with under the pseudonym Elmo Glick, the song is one of the best known.
Young, old, people of different faiths, races and genres all know the song, and all can find solace in its lyrics, and that is its true majesty. Apparently the track is derived from a witty written by two other soul giants, Sam Cooke and JW Alexander, called “Stand by Me Father,” which was first recorded by the forgotten band Soul Stirrers.
Also inspired in part by gospel music and various psalms, the song has a deeply religious or even spiritual feel, but that doesn’t detract from the character of the song. The way he speaks to the soul of the listener, like a bearded sage sitting under a tree, can be tuned to the religious messages he conveys. But, just like the golden rule of Christianity, it appeals to those who want to lead a good life rather than arouse interest in a religious doctrine.
Speaking of the innate human need for kindness and compassion, this is a song that has always brought light in the darkest times. Whether it’s the civil rights movement of the day, the lonely, the dying, the sad, the song touches a nerve that few others can claim to have made.
It’s not just the words that strike the nerve. Vocal melody, chord progression and structure also add to its iconic nature. It uses what is now called “1950s progression”, and slowly, in an almost doo-wop, heavily syncopated fashion, it gradually digs its way into our hearts. Also, who can forget the iconic intro?
No mention of the song would be complete without discussing the 1986 film of the same name. With River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Kiefer Sutherland, the emotional themes of the film embody those of the song. So much so that he managed to repopulate the track among emotionally jaded Gen Xers, and subsequently, their children.
Since the song is so beloved, it has been covered over 400 times by some of the best artists in the world. It also added to his everlasting legacy. The fact that so many of our favorite artists from all fields of music have undertaken performances of the song has breathed new life into it. This allowed the song to take many different forms while still carrying its central organic message.
For a song to be so universally understood, one could argue that it only ranks with John Lennon’s “Imagine” and David Bowie’s “Heroes” in terms of appeal. These are the types of songs we no longer hear, lost between technology and societal and cultural change. Again, this gives them ubiquitous stature – a portal to simpler times.
It got us thinking, what are the top five covers of “Stand By Me” out there? Having to reduce it by over 400 was no easy task. Join us as we list what we think are the top five. Fear not, you are about to find some familiar faces.
The 5 best covers of ‘Stand By Me’
From soul legend to soul legend we turn to Otis Redding, who covered the song for his 1964 debut album. Pain in my heart. A more languid and fiery affair than the original, Redding’s unmistakable voice is full of pain and tenderness, and his version explicitly touches on the thematic implications of the line: “So darling, darling / Stand by me”.
A highlight of this rework is undoubtedly the solemn, buzzing brass section that arrives at the one minute mark. Plus, there’s even an electric guitar coming in and out with almost country-western notes in the second verse, making it a surprising sonic delight.
Former Beatles singer John Lennon recorded his version for his sixth solo album, 1975’s Rock n roll. Lennon’s cover art even became a single three weeks after the album’s release, making it his last hit before he embarked on his famous five-year retirement from the industry.
He even recorded a performance for the iconic BBC show, The old gray whistle test later this year. With a sustained rhythm, musically, Lennon’s take is slightly more upbeat than the original. He showcases his classic, almost surreal production style and of course, his coarse vocals during the chorus.
In fact, the highlight of this entry is Klaus Voorman’s bass tone. Bold and modulated, it wraps you in a warm, sunny blanket that makes you want to repeat it over and over.
Plus, who can forget the George Harrison-style slide guitar solo at the end? John clearly never recovered from the Beatles.
It’s one of the most touching covers around, and it’s no surprise that it was delivered by one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of all time; Tracy Chapman.
A buzzing and fiery version of the original, it was actually recorded live in 2015 during Chapman’s appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman and was released as part of this year The biggest hits compilation.
Much like the Redding version, Chapman’s places a lot of emphasis on the lyrical motif of the song’s title, and all of its emotional implications. An autumn version, better to have the tissues handy.
From 1971 White light, the second solo album by former frontman of The Byrds, Gene Clark, is perhaps the best cover of all. A relaxed take on the original, it features congas, a heartfelt harmonica, and a busy acoustic guitar, which successfully take the 1961 original and firmly place it in 1971.
Clark’s solo career is one of the most underrated of the ’70s and here is one of the most concise examples. White light itself is a masterpiece that always deserves to be revisited, and “Stand By Me” is one of its most special strengths.
Clearly a band with a penchant for delivering a stellar cover, having helped establish some of the early hallmarks of what would become punk with the iconic 1963 cover of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie”, 1965 would see the Portland Kingsmen once again. at the height of their old towers.
This time, however, it was a much quieter affair, well, until the manic bridge caught you off guard just past the three-minute mark.
A painful and funky act, The Kingsmen’s version is like being on a very strong sedative. You can almost hear the dribbling slowly coming out of singer Mike Mitchell’s mouth. Featuring the ubiquitous and inexpensive organ of the time and unique Chuck Berry guitar work, this is the most refreshing version of the original that exists.
Plus, the change in tempo at the end is just awesome, and that says a lot about the band’s energetic “frat rock” spirit. This is the most glaring reflection that there was a lot more to The Kingsmen than the speech would have you believe.