“My name is Roger Ridley and I’m in the joy business, I come out here to be with the people…”
Roger Ridley performing "Stand By Me" at the Santa Monica Promenade.
These were the words I heard in my first interview with Roger Ridley before he sat down to perform “Stand By Me” for the small crowd on the Santa Monica promenade back in 2004. Neither one us could have imagined or even dreamed that this particular performance would be the catalyst to so many people seeing the world in a new and brighter way. It was, of course, our first ever attempt at creating a Song Around The World—a song created by us traveling with a mobile studio and cameras to record and film each musician in their natural environment as they each add a new layer to the track. We had no expectations but just a strong will to see if music can unite the world.
10 years later, after witnessing over 100 million people watch “Stand By Me” on YouTube across about 195 countries, I reflect on this performance with Roger and 25 other musicians performing together around the world. A great song, soul, and talent have proven to be one of the great unifiers in this divided world and I believe this is something Roger Ridley knew every day of his life. He didn’t just come out on the streets to be with the people; he came out there to connect them in a deeper way, with a song, as his heroes had done before him.
Grandpa Elliott performing in New Orleans
I also reflect on Roger’s soul brother, Grandpa Elliott, who was the second singer on “Stand By Me” around the world. I remember him as this beautiful character with a red shirt, blue overalls, and the Santa Claus beard. When I met him he had been performing on the streets of New Orleans for over 50 years!! Roger and Grandpa share a powerful musical quality in the conviction of what they do. The audience doesn’t just hear the song; they feel it in their soul.
The journey creating “Stand By Me” was full of searching for soul around the world and we found it everywhere we went. A friend introduced me through email to Bhakani Memela in Umlazi, South Africa who was the musical director for a vocal group named Sinamuva. I had first heard this type of singing with their local legends, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
When the crew and I arrived in the township to work with Sinamuva we heard these amazing voices coming from a small shack in the dark behind Bhakani’s house. They were singing the choruses of “Stand By Me” in their native Zulu Language and it blew us all away!! The group was about 10 singers in total and their voices merged into a sound so full of love and power that I knew at that moment we were discovering something special with this attempt at a Song Around The World.
Clarence Bekker performing in Barcelona
The final singer on “Stand By Me” is the great Clarence Bekker from the Netherlands. We met him in Barcelona after asking around the city for the best soul singer in town. He agreed to perform on the Song Around The World and added his powerful voice for the second verse,
"If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall,
Or the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me."
It’s amazing to look back at his performance and realize he is singing as if the sky is tumbling and the mountains are crumbling and somehow some way we are going to make it as a human race. We will stand by each other no matter what!! That’s what I feel when I hear him sing and I imagine many others around the world feel the same way. No matter how many things in life divide us they will never be as strong as the power of music to bring us back together. This is one of the lessons I learned traveling the world recording and filming “Stand By Me.”
Mark Johnson with kids in South Africa
The one group we are all a part of is humanity and the music will always be there to re-connect our hearts and our souls. Everyone out there, this is YOUR SONG, it was made just for you. Thanks for sharing in this journey with Playing For Change and thanks to all the musicians who made it possible!