AARON NEVILE / “Stand By Me”
The link between R&B and gospel is indisputable. The black church is the training ground for most of the most revered soul singers. Also old news is how some songs start off in one genre and then move to the other as the singers move back and forth across a line that today is almost invisible—today it’s often to tell what kind of music you’re listening to, sometimes even the words don’t help. While the general situation is often referenced, let’s take a moment and look at a specific song: “Stand By Me.” Ben E. King is the king of this particular song. His secular version is the standard to which all others are inevitably compared even though the song existed long before brother Ben changed the lyrics and the rhythms. Ben even put an interesting twist on the song by using a modified Latin rhythm as opposed to a heavy Black back-beat. Ben’s cha-cha is elegant and totally unlike most R&B of its era; that’s a major part of the genius of what Ben did. He didn’t just take the song out of the church, by including strings and a soft choral bed, he took it out of “straight” R&B. Ben's semi-hoarse vocal lead is obviously out of the church, nevertheless the song is both a classic and atypical of its time. Now, listen to Ms. Mavis Staples give us an idea of how the song sounds with just the voice. Mavis accompanies herself as if she had a doppelganger standing next to her in the big house as she toiled at her daily chores. Mavis’ beautiful version is an utterly convincing testimony. Although it may only faintly resemble what Ben E. King produced, this is in fact the origin of the song. Indeed, Mavis’ version is much closer to the source than Ben’s radical alteration. Next let’s consider the two streams of gospel. The Mighty Clouds of Joy represent the first stream, which is the preacher in the pulpit getting down as only a black preacher can. This represents the moment when the oratory becomes what the old folks used to call talk-singing, that unique melding of forms into one transcendent form. The Violinaires follow, working the choral tradition. As mighty and moving as the Mighty Clouds are, they are but a drop in the ocean of black music compared to the Violinaires’ storm of voices—the thunder of the hollering lead voice and the lightening of the backing falsetto, while the backing voices line out the harmony. If you’ve never experience this type of singing in person, you have no idea how it can affect the human nervous system, make you jump up and fall out for dead. Ike and Tina Turner give us a taste of an unadulterated crossover from gospel to hard, hard R&B. Listen to Ike’s guitar strumming. Listen to the Ikettes providing a sweet background. Catch that pounding backbeat. (I’m pointing these elements out because Tina’s screaming lead vocal very nearly overshadows everything else.) This is archetypal Deep South soul music. Mr. Bunny Rugs out of Jamaica gives us a hint of how influential the R&B tradition was on the development of reggae. Indeed, rather than a smooth roots reggae version, this one has a distinct dancehall vibe including the computerized drum beats. Considering that Ben E. King used a Caribbean beat for his hit version, this dancehall recasting of King’s version seems entirely authentic, even if it is in no way reflective of the song’s gospel origins. Saxophonist Hank Crawford manages to bring both the church and the Caribbean elements together. His keening alto sax sound is definitely out of the church and the rhythm arrangement of this version with pounding tom-toms is an obvious Latin twist. This cut features an all-star line-up that includes Richard Tee on keyboards, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Wilbur Bascomb on bass, and the mighty, mighty Bernard Purdie on drums. On Bring It On Home, New Orleans’ own, Aaron Neville gives us a 2006 rendition of the song that invests Ben E. King’s version with the spiritual subtext that the other secular versions don’t feature. Aaron is an Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) angel—by which I mean, he is in the tradition of songsters who have spent time in prison and who use their musical talents to survive and thrive whereas they might otherwise be completely lost. If you didn’t know he was Aaron Neville, when you first met him, you might blink and cross the street as this tattooed, hulk of man steps toward you, and you certainly would not expect such a beautiful voice to emanate from a body such as his. And yet, this is precisely the contradiction we are exploring, this crossover of spiritual music into secular forms AND the spiritualizing of secular music by artists whose appearances (at least by mainstream standards) belie the beauty of their humanness. Aaron's version is more than simply an interesting cover. Aaron gifts us with a total transformation, a transformation that emphasizes beauty rather than pleasure, spirit rather than flesh even though it is a secular version. One song: “Stand By Me.” Eight versions—ranging from the raucous and raunchy, to all-out gospel shouting, to a truly beatific reading, what more can we ask for? —Kalamu ya Salaam Having some context Now that's a good write-up, Baba. I listened to these different versions of "Stand By Me" well before I read the write-up. Some I thought were OK, others I didn't like at all. But I didn't have any idea of what made them unique or interesting. They just sounded like a bunch of covers...and not particularly distinguishable. But after reading about the sacred history of the song, and about how it became secularized, yet retained much of its original meaning and impact, I started to hear the versions differently. The other subtext was deep too. The whole thing about the R&B sound vs. the gospel sound vs. the Latin & Caribbean feel. Interesting stuff. Like I said, initially, I wasn't realy feeling any of these tracks. Now, having some context to work with, I like them all more than I did, but I'm really hearing the Hank Crawford reggae/boogie/jazz version and the sublime Aaron Neville spiritual. Good stuff. —Mtume ya Salaam
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