The song “Stand By Me” is a declaration. It offers assurance. The intended recipient of the song’s message could be a friend or perhaps a lover. That distinction matters little. What really matters is the sense of commitment that’s rock-solid. There’s a sense of emotional peril shared by the comforter and the recipient. Deep dark loneliness is hovering. But the message of support and devotion prevails. The words from the last verse “whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you stand by me” reflect heartfelt determination, and provide security to the recipient. The words are an offering and a plea. These simple words are powerful. They become more so when sung by the likes of Ben E. King and John Lennon.
Ben E. King came into the world September 23, 1938 as Ben Edward Nelson in Henderson, North Carolina. By the late ’50s, he had achieved success as a lead singer for The Drifters. But that success, despite such hit singles as “This Magic Moment” and “Save The Last Dance For Me,” was not bringing in the money Ben Edward Nelson counted on. He was still on a weekly salary and there were disagreements about royalties he believed were his. A solo career seemed a viable option.
October 27, 1960 proved a productive day for Ben. Assuming the name Ben E. King, he recorded his first hit single, “Spanish Harlem.” Three more songs were eventually recorded that day, including one King was still working on as the musicians were leaving the studio. Some time in the studio remained. King’s producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, quickly helped him finish the song. The musicians were brought back in, and Ben E. King recorded what would be his biggest hit ever. “Stand By Me” peaked at number 4 on the pop charts in the Summer of ’61. King’s version would again hit the charts more than 15 years later, going all the way to number one on the UK charts. In the ’80s, artists as diverse as Mickey Gilley and Maurice White had their own hits with the song. Thankfully, Leiber and Stoller decided not to let the October 27, 1960 session end without King getting “Stand By Me” on tape. Perhaps they saw the extra work as simply getting one more song in the can. As it turned out, they helped create a standard.
King’s recording of “Stand By Me” is one for the ages. Rock critic Dave Marsh called it “as timeless as a basic black dress.” Leiber and Stoller’s production is elegant but not overstated. King’s rich baritone rises as if on command by the lyrics of the song. His singing is warm and powerful. The strings in the instrumental break underscore the song’s beauty. This is a recording thoroughly delivered. It has made future renditions challenging for the most accomplished artists. Gilley and White experienced chart success with their versions, yet they were hardly memorable. A live performance of the song by Bono and Bruce Springsteen was eventful but short of the standard set by King. The song he might have never recorded, except for his producers’ insistence, became Ben E. King’s most outstanding performance in a long and brilliant career.
John Lennon was not inclined to avoid a challenge, particularly if it meant covering a beloved song. The original versions of “Twist And Shout,” “Rock And Roll Music” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” were one of a kind recordings but that did not stop Lennon from adding the songs to The Beatles’ repertoire. It also didn’t keep him from putting his own special stamp on the songs. Adding his own flair to favorites was a way of paying the songs special tribute. So it was when he recorded “Stand By Me” on his 1975 album of oldies, Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The Lennon version of “Stand By Me” is not as dramatic and visually compelling as Ben E. King’s. Lennon’s rendition, however, does convey strength and faithfulness. His performance is captivating and memorable. One can hear the joy he felt in singing it. That wasn’t the case on all the oldies he recorded on Rock ‘n’ Roll. Obviously there were some he felt more deeply about. That comes through with the rocking spirit he grants “Stand By Me.” The song becomes his proclamation as well.
When John Lennon recorded “Stand By Me,” he was experiencing his own days of trouble. There were nettlesome lawsuits, a continuing battle over his U.S. residency, hard living and a separation from his wife, Yoko Ono. Lennon naturally understood the desires expressed in the song. Perhaps his own yearning led him to offer listeners a feeling of comfort for the ages.
John Lennon’s Gravitas . . . Less than five months before Rock ‘n’ Roll made its way into shops, Lennon’s Walls and Bridges album was released. Considering the range in styles and the strength of his eleven original songs, Walls and Bridges is Lennon’s most thoroughly-arrived album. Critics approved as did the buying public. The album went to number one on the charts as did its first single, “Whatever Gets You Through The Night.”
The most thoughtful and riveting song from the album is “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out).” Lennon applies a bluesy treatment to the engaging melody. The song’s pacing is precise, so its lament hits home. The lyrics recall those of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” a Beatles song written by Lennon during what he called his “fat Elvis period.” However,the situations presented are of various degrees. On the earlier song, Lennon’s words are those of one distraught and shaken by love’s whimsical nature. With “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out),” the sense of betrayal cuts deeper. There’s disappointment in the actions of lovers, friends and business associates. In this song, Lennon cannot depend on a helping soul, like the one in “Stand By Me” who pleads “Whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you stand by me……”
A Message to the Chairman of the Board . . . John Lennon could be his own toughest critic, but he was pleased with “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out).” In an interview with David Sheff in Fall ’80, he said he always imagined Frank Sinatra covering the song.
“He could do a perfect job with it. Ya listenin’ Frank? You need a song that isn’t a piece of nothing. Here’s one for you. The horn arrangement –everything’s made for you. But don’t ask me to produce it!”
Lennon’s points about Sinatra and the song were well-founded. Earlier that year Sinatra had a big hit with his rendition of “New York, New York.” It was obvious the singer referred to as “The Voice” still had the pipes. Since Frank Sinatra often called himself a “saloon singer, “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down And Out)” would have been perfect for his repertoire. It would have moved his audiences, whether in the ritzy saloons of Manhattan or the hardscrabble joints of his birthplace, Hoboken, New Jersey. Being down and out is a universal condition.
Author’s Notes: “Old Dirt Road,” another fine song on the album, was co-written by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. The 12th track on the original issue of “Walls and Bridges,” “Ya Ya,” was written by Lee Dorsey, M. Robinson and C. L. Lewis. “Ya Ya” features John on piano and son Julian on drums.
Ben E. King sings “Stand by Me:”
John Lennon sings “Stand by Me:”