I grew up with soul music.

I always assumed the name ‘soul music’ simply meant it had heart.

Around that time ‘soul’ was a popular expression for anything that was authentically part of black culture.

There was soul food, soul brothers and soul sisters.

A compliment might be “You got soul.”

So I thought soul music meant music with a lot of heart.

It wasn’t until years later I found out why it was called soul music.

It came from religious music.

It meant soul, as in save-your-soul.

Soul music was a secular version of gospel music.

Upbeat, uplifting music you could move and dance to.

In fact, gospel music was so good to sing and dance to, it found its way out of the Church.

But ordinary people wouldn’t sing religious songs.

So gospel songs had their lyrics changed to become popular songs.

Songs about how much you loved The Lord simply became songs about how much you loved a woman or a man.

One of the first of these was Ray Charles.

He took the gospel song “I’ve Got a Saviour, Way Across Jordan” and turned it into “I’ve Got a Woman, Way Across Town”.

Of course, to church members it was sacrilege.

Taking holy music and turning it into songs about sex.

But pretty soon most gospel singers began doing it: Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin.

A young singer named Ben E. King was looking for a song to record.

He had been singing an old gospel song on his guitar.

“When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.

When the wind is toppling like a ship on the sea,

Thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.”

So Ben E King just changed the words a little bit:

“When the night has come and the land is dark,

And the moon is the only light I see,

I won’t be afraid, as long as you stand by me.”

Songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller heard it and added a baseline.

No one thought anything much about it.

They thought it was a throwaway song, it might make a B side.

But it didn’t just make a B side.

‘Stand By Me’ made number 1 in the USA in 1961.

It made number 4 when it was re-released in 1986.

In the UK it made number 1 in 1987.

In fact it became one of the best-selling soul records of all time.

And no one knew it used to be a gospel song.

In 1975, John Lennon recorded it when he wanted to save his marriage to Yoko Ono.

He recorded it as a song asking her to forgive him and take him back.

Which is why Ben E King purposely kept the lyrics vague.

So they could be interpreted however anyone wanted.

“If the stars that we look upon should tumble and fall

And the sky should tumble into the sea.

I won’t be afraid, as long as you stand by me.”

And everyone heard what they wanted to hear.

Because he started people off and let their minds fill in the rest.

That’s the lesson from the greatest advertising.

Like a really good joke, it works better when we allow people to be part of the answer, to fill in the punchline.


When it all comes together in their minds.