Ben E. King scored lasting hits with records like "Spanish Harlem" and the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk," but the recently-deceased New York native will always be best known for "Stand by Me," a Psalm-inspired ballad co-written with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Fifty-five years after its release, the song has become a modern standard, reinterpreted countless times across genre, era and culture. From Otis Redding and Muhammad Ali's early attempts to Stephen King and Miley Cyrus' later revisions, here are 20 interpretations worth standing by.
Chuck D once hosted an ESPN documentary that made the case for Ali's influence on hip-hop, but before the heavyweight champ claimed to have tussled with a whale, handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail, he recorded this Ben E. King cover. The track appeared toward the end of his modestly-titled 1963 LP I Am the Greatest! and nearly cracked the top 100.
Otis Redding cut "Stand By Me" in 1964, just three years after Ben E. King, so maybe that's why he doesn't treat the song like a sacred text. The bass line remains, but the overall attitude is lighter, even mischievous, thanks to a horn section that offers color rather than punctuation. Steve Cropper spins out winding, inventive riffs on his guitar, and then there's Otis, who sings with passion but pointedly avoids turning the lyrics into a desperate plea: He seems to be enjoying the groove as much as the rest of us.
Long before Kendrick Lamar's "i" sampled the guitar line from A side "Who's That Lady," the Isleys ripped Ben E. King's bass groove for B side "My Little Girl." Harmonies boom over the track, and the sweet, romantic arrangement gives it a gospel-gone-pop feel. An alternate take even speeds up the tempo.
The Kingsmen were just two years past "Louie Louie" when they cut "Stand by Me." In the Sixties, that was an eternity, but where other garage bands had gotten tougher, aiming to sound like the Yardbirds or Rolling Stones, the Kingsmen stayed true to their frat roots, layering cheapo organ over an insouciant crawl through the classic bass riff. It sounds like the obligatory slow number at a Saturday night dance where the band is anxious to return to the ravers.
It's not easy to find the funk in "Stand by Me," but leave it to Ike & Tina Turner to discover it in a place where nobody else was looking. Slowing the tempo down and adding thick washes of organ (plus Ike's chicken-scratch guitar), this groove is so heavy that it almost makes Tina's vocals seem beside the point. That's not to say she doesn't tear into them: Tina sings with so much passion that you have to wonder whether she needs somebody to stand by her at all.
Former Byrd Gene Clark recorded his version of "Stand by Me" during the sessions for 1971's White Light and while it lay in the vaults until 2002, it's a thing of beauty. Clark is faithful to the fragile sentiment of the song but he completely recasts composition, abandoning the signature bass line and gospel undertones as he turns it into a loping country-rock song for southern Californian canyons.
For many artists, "Stand by Me" has become something of a sacred text. Blowfly is not one of them. On his 1974 live album, the foul-mouthed R&B heel turned King's sentimental hit into a desperate plea directed at an overeager lover. The title reveals his earnest request, and he follows it by suggesting that this companion move around back and pay some attention to the place where the moon is the only light she'll see.
The Beatles rambled through a shambolic version of "Stand by Me" during the never-ending Get Back sessions, a bunch of old friends obliviously singing about friendship. Half a decade later, John Lennon and Paul McCartney brought this same vibe to an even looser rendition ultimately released on aptly-titled bootleg A Toot and a Snore in '74. Recorded during the Lennon-produced sessions for Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats, this was the last time John, Paul and Ringo were ever in the studio together, and a blitzed Lennon keeps haranguing the engineer about his headphone mix, eventually badgering the crew to adjust the levels so his vocals can't be heard at all.
He redeemed himself when he revived "Stand by Me" for his 1975 Rock 'n' Roll. Repeating some of the superstar jam excesses of A Toot and a Snore, the production is sharpened by Phil Spector, and Lennon's vocals tap into an inner anguish absent on his previous attempts. This time around, it feels like he's offering a plea for the friends he once took for granted.
John Travolta steps into a nightclub, walks over to a girl and asks her to dance. Three years earlier, the couple would have boogied to the Bee Gees, but here, in Urban Cowboy, they sway to Mickey Gilley's country cover of "Stand by Me" – painfully ironic because Travolta's Bud has pulled this maneuver in order to make Debra Winger's Sissy, posted up across the bar, feel jealous.
Meat Loaf cut one of the weirdest versions of "Stand by Me" song during the sessions for The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. It sat in the vault for another decade, and maybe for good reason: Loaf gives the elegant original an ornate reggae reinvention filled with over-the-top accents: the overheated backing vocals, a liquid fretless bass that mimics a French horn and a saxophone ripped from Aladdin Sane. Just when you think things can't get any more ridiculous, his voice gets phased through a tremolo, the desperation palpable from every angle.
Maurice White's "Stand by Me" – a Top 10 R&B hit in 1985 – is full of surprises. The track opens with smooth Lionel Richie synths, but much like Lionel himself, it can't slow down: A small drop introduces a new dance rhythm, then White adds an extra verse to the original lyrics. "Lets keep on believin'/you give me a reason," he sings before jumping into that Earth, Wind and Fire falsetto. "A reason to smile!"
After Bono broke his shoulder on U2's Joshua Tree tour, he began inviting fans to come onstage and play guitar. When he made this offer to Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, one Bruce Springsteen took him up on it, joining the band for a performance of "Stand by Me." "I guess you guys know him," Bono quipped. "Is he a local boy or something?"
Recorded for the Bam on the Roof compilation in 1992, Junior Murvin's "Stand by Me" is a rare rendition that strips away the trademark bass line, a move that forces attention elsewhere. Here, the focus is on a tight rhythm anchored by a drum machine and an insistent single-note guitar riff, a spare bed that gives Murvin plenty of room to roam. He doesn't plead, he seduces: There's never a doubt that his intended won't stand by him, at least for the night.
The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa helped bring "Stand by Me" to a new generation of young cartoon-watchers. In a music video that preceded theatrical showings of 1995's Tom and Huck, the inseparable meerkat-warthog combo traverse Pride Rock while Timon sings King's tune. Along the way, Pumbaa is struck by lightning, shot from a cannon and trampled by a stampede, but that doesn't stop him from sticking close to – standing by, if you will – his best friend.
In 1998, Don't Quit Your Day Job Records released a covers compilation recorded by a collection of writers and rock critics. Alongside Ben Fong-Torres' parody of "Rainy Day Women" (titled "Rainy Day Bookstores") and Maya Angelou's "Right, Said Fred," Stephen King does "Stand by Me" Lou Reed-style, adding some spoken word over Warren Zevon keys.
Will someone please stand by Sean Kingston? On "Beautiful Girls," the then 17-year-old used Ben E. King's riddim to express his high school self-pity, warning a possible girlfriend that her good looks will make him want to kill himself if they break-up. Teenage angst paid off well, though: The song went to Number One on three continents.
Skate videos have exposed generations of flanneled teens to mind-blowing music that would have otherwise passed them by – classic punk, rap and even the Moody Blues. So it's funny to imagine how many young slackers first heard "Stand by Me" when Lemmy Kilmister (with Slayer's Dave Lombardo on drums) covered it for the soundtrack to Flip's Extremely Sorry. The Motörhead singer's cracked voice does the song justice – and apparently goes well with kickflips.
Most singers direct "Stand by Me" to a friend or a lover. Not Ronnie Milsap. When the self-identified Stand by My Woman Man covered the song in 2009, he sang for Jesus – a reasonable interpretation considering the song's themes of faith and love. Milsap's version rolls easy, carrying light reggae accents in the rhythm and slathering on a shimmering electric piano that recalls his early-Eighties crossover hits. But it's the casual delivery that sells the performance: Ronnie doesn't push the religious overtones, so they feel sincere.
Baby-faced New York bachatero Prince Royce scored his first hit with a swooning, bi-lingual take on King's classic. "I wanted to do it in bachata because we've seen covers by John Lennon, Lady Gaga, Usher, but I'd never heard the song in Spanish with that tropical feeling," he explained. A few Number Ones later, he would sing it in arenas across the country when he opened for Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias. After Royce left the tour, Iglesias began covering the song himself, and upon reaching the final chorus, he would be curl up in a ball at the front of the stage.