If the Levi’s Jeans advertisers counted as a single artist they would have six Number Ones – more than Bowie or Britney, as many as Queen, Rod or Slade. Their biggest successes came as tastemakers picking new music hits in the mid-90s, but prior to that they’d helped push the late 80s soul revival out into the casual singles market, and Ben E King was the biggest beneficiary. In the US the Rob Reiner movie was the main driver of “Stand By Me”‘s revival, but in Britain the jeans ad was the deal-maker.
Music of the 50s and 60s appealed to advertisers looking to hit notes of authenticity, integrity, and timelessness – valuable coin in an era of self-conscious new wealth. But the conmercials erased the music’s historical context and development: for someone like me, only beginning to discover old music, they made soul seem hollow and predictable, pre-chewed by the admen. It was another decade before I really dug into soul music, and before I understood anything about its timelines and tensions and where these old songs fitted in.
Not that “Stand By Me” itself really needs a lot of context. The song is resolutely self-contained, a sealed bubble of togetherness, one built to withstand the end of everything if it has to. The unfussy strings, the zizz of the guiro, and King’s rich but measured voice come together as a monument to steadiness and trust, just as the song intends. And the swells of orchestration and the occasional breaks in King’s delivery are all that hint at the effort and strength that kind of steadiness requires.