POP / Riffs: James Johnston of Gallon Drunk on 'Stand By Me' by the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama

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The Independent Online
'THIS IS a standard gospel song of the utmost simplicity, but it's so powerful I laugh with pleasure every time I hear it. It has five main vocalists and rudimentary backing, with two different singers alternating the lead. It's church music but uplifting regardless of the sacred element - you get a great sense of communal uplift. The record is actually a bit tame compared with hearing it live. I went to see them and one of them was led into the audience under a spotlight, really hamming up his blindness. They had a strong sense of theatricality.

It consists of two verses, then a middle section of three or four words repeated by the backing singers, while the leads improvise over the top. This is when their voices go full steam ahead and they do the type of screaming James Brown became known for, which makes the song quite sexual. There are two chords throughout this long refrain, then another chord suddenly appears and he hammers in with a counter-melody in this amazingly strong falsetto. On the record the sound is bouncing off the walls, and even breaking up a bit . . . you can hear a little clicking, which sounds like someone's foot tapping or finger clicking.

It's also interesting because it's not about moaning about drudgery - like blues - but is music to uplift. It can't have been easy growing up blind, black and orphaned in Alabama during the first half of the century, but their incredible spirit seems to have come through.

It's only two-and-three-quarter minutes long, and ends with the chorus, quite suddenly, impeccably well rehearsed.'

'O Lord Stand By Me' is on 'O Lord Stand By Me / Marching Up to Zion' (ACE CD CHD341)