Few songs have that truly magical inter-generational appeal that Ben E. King’s 1961 classic ‘Stand by Me’ has. Written by the soul icon alongside the day’s premier hit-making duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who are credited under the pseudonym Elmo Glick, the song is one of the most well known in existence.
Young, old, people of different creeds, races and genders all know the song, and all can find solace in its words, and that is its true majesty. Allegedly, the title is derived from a spiritual written by two other giants of soul, Sam Cooke and J. W. Alexander, called ‘Stand by Me Father’, which was first recorded by the forgotten group the Soul Stirrers.
Also inspired in part by gospel music and various psalms, the song has a deeply religious or even spiritual feel, but this doesn’t impede the song’s character. The way it speaks to the listener’s soul, as a wise bearded man sat under a tree would, can be afforded to the religious messages it carries. But, just like Christianity’s golden rule, it appeals to one wanting to lead a good life rather than sparking interest in any religious doctrine.
Talking to the innate human need for kindness and compassion, it’s a song that has always provided light in the darkest of times. Whether that be the day’s civil rights movement, the lonely, the dying, the sad, the song touches a nerve not many others can claim to have done.
It isn’t just the lyrics that touch the nerve. The vocal melody, chord progression and structure also add to its iconic nature. It utilises what is now called the ‘1950s Progression’, and slowly, in an almost doo-wop, heavily syncopated mode, 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. Starring River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Kiefer Sutherland, the movie’s emotional themes embody that of the song’s. So much so, it managed to re-popularise the track amongst the emotionally jaded Generation X, and subsequently, their kids.
Given that the song is so well-loved, it has been covered over a whopping 400 times by some of the best artists around. This has also added to its everlasting legacy. The fact that so many of our favourite artists from across music’s different realms have undertaken renditions of the song, has instilled new life into it. This has allowed the song to take on many various forms while still carrying its organic central message.
For a song to be so universally understood, one would argue that it ranks only with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and David Bowie‘s ‘Heroes’ in terms of appeal. These are the types of songs that we don’t get anymore, lost amongst technology and the societal and cultural shift. Again, this affords them an omnipresent stature – a portal back to simpler times.
This got us thinking, what are the five best covers of ‘Stand By Me’ in existence? Having to whittle it down from over 400 was no easy task. Join us as we list what we feel are the five best. Do not fear, you’re about to be reunited with some familiar faces.
The 5 best covers of ‘Stand By Me’
From one soul legend to another, we turn to Otis Redding, who covered the song for his 1964 debut album Pain in My Heart. A more languid, yearning affair than the original, Redding’s unmistakable vocals are full of pain and tenderness, and his version explicitly touches on the thematic implications of the line: “So darling, darling/ Stand by me”.
A high point of this redux is undoubtedly the solemn, droning brass section that comes in at the one-minute mark. Furthermore, there’s even an electric guitar that drops in and out with some almost country-western sounding licks in the second verse, making this a surprising sonic delight.
The ex-Beatles frontman, John Lennon, recorded his version for his sixth solo album, 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Lennon’s cover even became a single three weeks after the album’s release, which made it his last hit before he embarked on his famous five-year retirement from the industry.
He even recorded a performance for the BBC’S iconic show, The Old Grey Whistle Test later that year. Featuring a plodding rhythm, musically, Lennon’s take is slightly more upbeat than the original. It features 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. Fat and modulated, it wraps you up in a warm, sunny blanket that makes you want to repeat it over and over again.
Additionally, who can forget the George Harrison-esque slide guitar solo at the end? John clearly never got over The Beatles.
This is one of the most touching cover versions in existence, and it comes as no surprise that it was delivered by one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of all time; Tracy Chapman.
A droning, yearning take on 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 that year’s Greatest Hits compilation.
Just like the Redding version, Chapman’s places a great deal of emphasis on the lyrical motif of the song’s title, and all its emotive implications. An autumnal version, you best have the tissues at the ready.
Taken from 1971’s White Light, the second solo album by Gene Clark, the former frontman of The Byrds, this is possibly the best cover of them all. A relaxed take on the original, it features congas, a heartfelt harmonica and a busy acoustic guitar, that successfully take the original out of 1961, and place it firmly in 1971.
Clark’s solo career is one of the most severely underrated of the ’70s and here is one of the most concise examples. White Light itself is a masterpiece that is always worth a revisit, and ‘Stand By Me’, is one of its most peculiar highlights.
Clearly a band with a penchant for delivering a stellar cover, after helping to establish some of the earliest hallmarks of what would become punk with 1963’s iconic cover of Richard Berry’s ‘Louie Louie‘, 1965 would see Portland’s The Kingsmen up to their old tricks again.
This time, though, it was a much less raucous affair, well, until the manic bridge catches you by surprise just after the three-minute mark.
A trudging, funky number, The Kingsmen’s version is like being on a very strong sedative. You can almost hear the dribble slowly drooping out of vocalist Mike Mitchell’s mouth. Featuring the era’s ubiquitous, cheap-sounding organ and some clean Chuck Berry-esque guitar work, this is the most refreshing take on the original in existence.
Furthermore, the tempo change at the end is just plain genius, and it speaks volumes of the band’s energetic “frat rock” spirit. This is the most glaring reflection that there was much more to The Kingsmen than discourse would have you believe.