According to the documentary History of Rock 'n' Roll, Ben E. King had no intention of recording the song himself when he wrote it. King had written it for The Drifters, who passed on recording it. After the "Spanish Harlem" recording session, he had some studio time left over. The session's producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, asked if he had any more songs. King played "Stand by Me" on the piano for them. They liked it and called the studio musicians back in to record it.
Stoller recalls it differently:
I remember arriving at our office as Jerry and Ben were working on lyrics for a new song. King had the beginnings of a melody that he was singing a cappella. I went to the piano and worked up the harmonies, developing a bass pattern that became the signature of the song. Ben and Jerry quickly finished the lyrics ... .
The personnel on the song included Romeo Penque on sax, Ernie Hayes on piano, Al Caiola and Charles McCracken on guitars, Lloyd Trotman on bass, Phil Kraus on percussion, and Gary Chester on drums. Songwriting credits on the single were shown as King and Elmo Glick—a pseudonym used by Leiber and Stoller.
King's record went to No. 1 on the R&B charts and was a Top Ten hit on the U.S. charts twice—in its original release in 1961, when it peaked at No. 4, and a 1986 re-release coinciding with its use as the theme song for the movie of the same name following its appearance in the film, when it peaked at No. 9, and also in an advertisement for Levi Jeans. It also reached No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart in 1987 after its re-release, mostly because of the jeans spot, originally reaching No. 27 on its first release.
The song was not released on an album until it had been out as a single for two years. The song appeared on King's Don't Play That Song! album.
On March 27, 2012, the Songwriters Hall of Fame announced that "Stand by Me" would receive its 2012 Towering Song Award and that King would be honored with the 2012 Towering Performance Award for his recording of it.
John Lennon recorded his version of the song for his 1975 album Rock 'n' Roll. Lennon's cover was his last hit prior to his five-year retirement from the music industry. This version had a more rock sound than R&B. The B-side of the single was "Move Over Ms. L," a rare and raucous track also covered by The Who drummer Keith Moon.
Maurice White. White's remake peaked at number 6, 11 and 50 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks, Adult Contemporary and Billboard Hot 100 charts, respectively.
Prince Royce recorded a bachata version of the song as his debut single, changing parts of the lyrics into Spanish. This version peaked No. 8 on Hot Latin Tracks and No. 1 on Tropical Airplay. At the Latin Grammy Awards of 2010, Royce performed a live version of the song along with Ben E. King. Royce's cover received a Lo Nuestro award for "Tropical Song of the Year".
A version of the song released by American R&B group 4 the Cause in 1998 was a #1 hit in Switzerland, reached No. 2 of the Austrian and German singles charts and number three in New Zealand, and was a top-ten hit in several other countries.