Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Stand by Me" (1961 / 1986)

66. Ben E. King, "Stand by Me" (May 22, 1961, #4 / Nov. 1, 1986, #9)

One of those freaks of pop music history, a song that managed to chart on two separate occasions, in this case separated by more than 25 years, which might make it the record-holder ("The Twist" was by just two years and "Monster Mash" by 11). The second showing was largely the result of a movie of the same name, based on a Stephen King novel, directed by Rob Reiner, and featuring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, and Kiefer Sutherland—you can probably imagine how that would make a good platform for launching a hit. And it's not a bad show, worth seeing for any number of reasons, but probably the best thing you can say about it now is that it reminded everybody what a great song this is, spare and supple and swooningly beautiful, seething with understated power. It's one of the finest products to come out of the Brill Building era, in that "Up on the Roof"/"Under the Boardwalk" Drifters mode when the three-minute wizards were particularly fascinated with orchestral accompaniments. Written by the singer himself, Ben E. King, with Leiber and Stoller (oh yeah, them again), it actually was originally intended for those Drifters, but King got the honors when they turned it down. It's been widely covered (see) but surely we can all agree that King's original remains the best, as the 1986 resurgence incidentally argues convincingly as well for. In fact, it's hard to imagine any other voice leading the lovely charge here, just as it's hard to imagine any other arrangement. The simplicity of it is absolutely pristine. I think what I'm trying to say is that this is just about perfect the way it is, and I can't imagine how anyone ever could improve on it in even one single way.

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