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According to King, the title is derived from, and was inspired by, a spiritual written by Sam Cooke and J. W. Alexander called "Stand by Me Father," recorded by the Soul Stirrers with Johnnie Taylor singing lead. The third line of the second verse of the former work derives from Psalm 46:2c/3c.
It was featured on the soundtrack of the 1986 film Stand by Me, and a corresponding music video, featuring King along with actors River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton, was released to promote the film. It was also featured in a 1987 European commercial of Levi's 501 jeans, contributing to greater success in Europe. In 2012, the song's royalties was estimated to have topped $22.8 million (£17 million), making it the sixth highest-earning song as of its era. 50% of the royalties were paid to King. In 2014, King's original version was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", just under five weeks before his death. Later in the year, the 2015 line up of the Drifters recorded it in tribute.
There have been over 400 recorded versions of the song, performed by many artists, notably John Lennon, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), 4 the Cause, Tracy Chapman, musicians of the Playing for Change project, Florence and the Machine, and the Kingdom Choir. A-League club Melbourne Victory FC play this song before home matches, while fans raise their scarves above their heads and sing the lyrics.