THE GREATEST OF ALL TUNES (G.O.A.T.) is a series of posts, producing my 100 favorite songs of all time. The master list is here, and I update it about every two weeks or when I have another 10 songs or so.
The song so powerful, it inspired a movie title. The song so powerful, it inspired a movie title. King wrote the song for his band The Drifters, but decided to record it as a solo act when producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller started working with him. Those two certainly knew the smell of a hit. There are differing stories of its origins, but the common legend is that King heard the Soul Stirrers’ “Stand by Me Father” and was inspired to write his own gospel-influenced pop song. The song was a#1 hit in two different decades—once in 1961 and then again in 1986, when the Rob Reiner movie came out. Part of the reason you know this is one of the Greatest Of All Tunes is how versatile it is. There have been cover versions of the song that actually charted (many at #1 or in the top 10) in all genres: Classic rock (John Lennon), country (Mickey Gilley), traditional soul/R&B covers (Otis Redding), oldies rock (The Searchers), bachata (Prince Royce), and even Asian and European pop (George Lam and Anita Mui, 4 The Cause).
As a member of the Drifters, King had quite a few R&B hits—but the band’s manager was kind of a dick and King split with the band in 1960—just as he was writing this mega-hit. He was replaced by Charlie Thomas, who would lip sync over King’s voice on TV appearances. King had a bunch of hits, but none have been as indelible as this one.
Further listening: With the Drifters: There Goes My Baby, This Magic Moment, Save the Last Dance for Me. Solo: Spanish Harlem, Here Comes the Night, Into the Mystic (Van Morrison cover).
Covers: There are literally hundreds, so it was hard to narrow it down…I tried to provide examples of the range of the song across decades and genres. If you know of a great one I missed, drop me a comment!