Epic songs are always in the air. Unless you're keenly aware of those songs, you probably aren't even aware of how many times you hear them. For example, Stand By Me—written by Ben E. King, Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber—is the third most-played BMI song on the radio and TV since the organization's founding in 1940. After writing my profile of Mike for the Wall Street Journal (go here), I, of course, became more keenly aware of the song. [Pictured clockwise above, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Ben E. King]
A few weeks ago, the song was playing on the jukebox when I walked into Pizzeria Regina on Thatcher St. in Boston. Then last week, I was taking the subway downtown in New York. As I walked from the Times Square Shuttle at Grand Central to the Lexington Ave. line, there was a woman with a karaoke box and a mike soulfully singing Stand By Me. When I told her I'd tell the song's composer about her version, she nearly passed out.
In Part 3 of my transcribed conversation with Mike Stoller for the Wall Street Journal, the fabled R&B-rock songwriter talks about the making of Stand By Me and what makes the song so irresistible:
Marc Myers: Are you and Ben E. King excited about the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s "Towering Song Award" for Stand By Me?
Mike Stoller: Yes. It’s funny, I just got off the phone with Ben E. King. He had called me last week, and I called him back this morning. We talked about how cool it was that we were getting the awards. We speak a few times a year. Sometimes I call him if there’s a request for the use of the song and want to get his OK.
MM: You, Jerry Leiber and Ben E. King are credited with writing Stand By Me—yet the label on the 45-rpm says “King-Glick.” Who was Glick?
MS: [Laughs] Jerry thought that three names would be too long on the label, so we created a joint pseudonym: “Elmo Glick.” Elmo was for blues slide-guitarist Elmore James and Glick was for Sammy Glick from Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? I helped Jerry make up the name. We thought it was funny.
MM: How did the co-writing work?
MS: Ben E. had the beginings of a song—both words and music. He worked on the lyrics together with Jerry, and I added elements to the music, particularly the bass line. To some degree, it’s based on a gospel song called Lord Stand By Me. I have a feeling that Jerry and Ben E. were inspired by it. Ben, of course, had a strong background in church music. He’s a 50% writer on the song, and Jerry and I are 25% each.
MM: Where was your office in the summer of 1960?
MS: For three years—between 1957 and 1960—when we moved back to New York from California, our office was wherever we were. It could be Jerry’s place, my place, Hill & Range’s offices, Atlantic Records’ offices and so on. When our publishing deal expired with Hill & Range in 1960, we started a publishing company of our own. So we took a place at 40 W. 57th St., which is now a tall office tower. At that time it was a five-story building with a corset shop on the ground floor.
MM: What floor were you on?
MS: The top floor—the fifth. It had a skylight.
MM: What happened when you arrived late that day?
MS: When I walked in, Jerry and Ben E. were working on the lyrics to a song. They were at an old oak desk we had in the office. Jerry was sitting behind it, and Benny was sitting on the top. They looked up and said they were writing a song. I said, “Let me hear it.”
MM: How did they audition it for you?
MS: Ben began to sing the song a cappella. I went over to the upright piano and found the chord changes behind the melody he was singing. It was in the key of A. Then I created a bass line. Jerry said, “Man that’s it!” We used my bass pattern for a starting point and, later, we used it as the basis for the string arrangement created by Stanley Applebaum.
MM: How long did it take for Stand By Me to come together?
MS: Not very long. I don’t know how long Jerry and Ben E. had been working on it before I arrived, but we had the music and words in place that day. I suspect it was a couple of hours. I also suspect Ben E. may have had some ideas about it when he came in and met with Jerry. The bass line just grew out of running down the song.
MM: When did you add the guiro—the percussion instrument that sounds like a match striking?
MS: When Stanley Applebaum and I began to write an orchestration for the song. The vision for the orchestration was mine, but the full arrangement was his. It was all based on my bass pattern. Jerry and I were into the Latin stuff, particularly the baion beat. We had the guiro play on every second beat and a triangle on every fourth. It just seemed to work beautifully, particularly with the strings.
MM: Supporting the strings is that bass line.
MS: We enhanced it by having an electric guitar play what the bass was playing—but an octave higher—to accentuate the pattern and give it a brighter feel, particularly behind the strings.
MM: You and Leiber had first used strings on There Goes My Baby with the Drifters a year earlier in 1959.
MS: Yes, I was playing this line that sounded like a Russian take on Middle Eastern music. I described it then as sounding “a little Caucasian” [laughs]. With that in mind, on Stand By Me, I told Stanley Applebaum to write some Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov. Stanley wound up writing a beautiful invention in two parts for the song.
MM: The strings keep rising, hymn-like.
MS: That’s largely the string parts that Stanley arranged. When they first come in on the first refrain, they’re low. On the second refrain they’re higher, and they rise higher and higher along the way. But they’re playing the bass pattern, in effect.
MM: Why is King’s vocal so special?
MS: Among all the kids singing back then, Ben was the most mature-sounding young man. His delivery and the timbre of his voice was advanced beyond his years. Most of the young kids singing back then sounded like, well, kids. Ben had a style that was akin to Arthur Prysock or Billy Eckstine. His sound was settled. It wasn’t in a hurry. That was a wonderful characteristic about Ben.
MM: Why is the bass pattern so powerful?
MS: That’s for writers and historians like you to say. Musically, I think it’s because the line adds to Ben’s sincerity. It’s also insistent, I suppose. Even though there are chords all the way through, Ben is really singing against that bass pattern. It’s the same chord progression for the verse and the chorus.
MM: What else is going on in there that most people don’t realize?
MS: There’s a male choir very low on the second verse. We also had an electric guitar playing the blangs—the chords that ring we called "the blangs." In fact, we had lots of guitars at our sessions, maybe three or four.
MM: What about on Stand By Me?
MS: On there, we had five. On the session, we used our usual four and, to keep Phil Spector in pocket change, we used him as the fifth. We had hired him in 1960 and put him on the session.
Tomorrow, Mike talks about his and Jerry Leiber's production style in the recording studio that most influenced Phil Spector and his "Wall of Sound" in the early 1960s.
JazzWax clips: Here's Ben E. King singing Stand By Me...
And here's Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber on What's My Line in 1957. They were so obscure and so thoroughly unknown that no blindfolds were needed. And dig Dorothy Kilgallen's snide cracks about rock 'n' roll when their identities are revealed...