How a little jam went global
'Stand by Me' YouTube hit started a cascade of interviews, a CD – and next month, a tour.
No explanation is sufficient as to why a cover of a Ben E. King chestnut from 1961, sung by a band of unknown street performers and indigenous musicians from all across the globe, would ever, in the remotest way possible, become a Top Ten hit.Skip to next paragraph
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But this is the free-for-all era of digital media, where your mother or your neighbor could become stars if struck with the right idea or confidence to reveal an undiscovered talent. Viral distribution is why "Stand By Me," sung by a group called Playing for Change, became a YouTube hit earlier this year, resulting in a bestselling album, a PBS special, several national television appearances, and, starting in late October, a national tour.
The phenomenon fell into place organically and with ease; however, getting to this point took Mark Johnson, a recording engineer in Los Angeles, four years of travel over 15 countries. Between stints working the studio console for stars such as Paul Simon and Jackson Browne, Mr. Johnson designed Playing for Change as a pet project he hoped would "show all different cultures and races and political points of view coming together to do something positive."
Johnson visited South Africa, Ghana, India, Nepal, the Middle East, Russia, Brazil, and Ireland, among many other regions, with mobile recording equipment to capture instrumentalists, vocalists, choral groups, youth choirs, and subway performers, each contributing individual parts to familiar songs by Bob Marley, Sam Cooke, Peter Gabriel, and others.
Supported by private investors, the project was meant for eyes, as well as ears. An accompanying DVD to the album, "Songs Around the World" (Playing For Change Records/Concord Music Group), features videos that deliver Johnson's vision with striking clarity: a cellist in Moscow accompanied by native American drummers in New Mexico; a steel guitarist in New Orleans backed by a South African choir; the rock star Bono of U2 trading vocals with the Ghana reggae star Rocky Dawuni.
The effect is less a multicultural collision and more an artful collage, as Johnson's editing creates generous space among the performers, which, in turn, allows the songs to gradually build and gives them their emotional sway.
The trial run was "Stand By Me," which Johnson released last November. It ended up receiving over 13 million hits. Johnson credits "the power of transcendence" for the response. "Everyone in the world wants to be part of something bigger than themselves," he says.
Regarding the out-of-nowhere factor, there is a precedent. The Buena Vista Social Club, a group of unknown Cuban singers and musicians, and Down From the Mountain, featuring singers performing Appalachian music and bluegrass, both resulted from hit movies and generated Grammy-winning albums, tours and star turns for little-known performers who languished for years with scant exposure.