Ben E. King recorded this shortly after leaving The Drifters in 1960. It gave him a solid reputation as a solo artist.
"Stand By Me" was the name of a gospel hymn written by the Philadelphia minister Charles Albert Tindley in 1905. His hymn became popular in churches throughout the American South and was recorded by various gospel acts in the 1950s. The most popular adaptation was by The Staple Singers, who recorded it in 1955. It was this version that Ben E. King heard; he pushed The Drifters to record it, but the group's manager rejected it.
After leaving The Drifters, King auditioned for the wildly successful songwriting/production team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, singing a few popular songs before doing what he had of "Stand By Me," which was just a few lines of lyrics with some humming to fill in the words. He agreed to collaborate on the song with Leiber and Stoller, who gave it a more contemporary sound and polished it into a hit. The bassline at the beginning was Stoller's idea.
The song was credited as being written by Leiber, Stoller and King. Charles Albert Tindley, who composed the original hymn, was left off the composer credits as his work had been sufficiently transformed. This wasn't the first time Tindley was omitted from the credits of a song he originated: he also wrote "I'll Overcome Someday," which eventually became "We Shall Overcome."
In an interview with the TV station WGBH, Jerry Leiber explained: "Ben E. is not a songwriter, he's a singer, he might have written two songs in his whole career. I would guess that this comes out of church. The whole 'stand by me' and the way the release takes out, it sounds like a gospel-type song."
This was used in the 1986 movie of the same name starring River Phoenix. The film was based on a short novel by Stephen King called The Body, but that title was a little to gruesome for a movie hoping to appeal to a wide audience.
Rob Reiner, who directed the film, met the song's co-writter Mike Stoller at a party, and convinced him to play some of his classic songs on a piano while Reiner sang along. Months later, Reiner got the idea to use "Stand By Me" as the title and incorporate it into the movie when he heard the song at his house. This played up the friendship of the young boys in the film and downplayed the role of the dead body they find, which was a good move at the box office. The movie was a hit and propelled the song back to the charts, introducing the track to a new generation.
When this was first released in 1960, it charted US #4 and UK #27. When it was re-released to coincide with the movie, it hit US #9 and UK #1. Now a hit with two generations, the song started showing up at weddings and other special occasions, becoming a timeless classic.
The movie Stand By Me is set in 1959 - a little before this song was released, but pretty close. When Rob Reiner asked to use the song, its composers Leiber and Stoller thought he would want to re-record it with a contemporary artist like Tina Turner, but Reiner wanted the original so it fit the era. It was surprising then when the song vaulted up the charts, since it was the exact same song released in 1961.
According to BMI, this was the fourth most-played track of the 20th Century on American radio and TV.