Ten Classic Songs About Friendship
Friendship is an innate need of humanity. It's a longing that, left unfulfilled, will result in loneliness, and the pursuit of filling that need in unhealthy ways. The things people do to fill the void only serve to widen and deepen it. Friendship is a precious and priceless treasure and worthy of our celebration.
The Billboard charts, since their inception, have celebrated countless songs of friendship. The choruses are often a bit saccharine, but we embrace them without reservation because, in a hard world, they give us comfort that anchors us to hope. Many of the songs we will look at have become standards in our culture and have been recorded times without number. They have become movie soundtracks, TV show theme songs, and sung at multitudes of tribute events. So put your arm around your pal and sway to the music of ten of America's most celebrated songs of friendship in alphabetical order.
# 1 Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Story Behind "Bridge Over Troubled Water
Music and lyrics by Paul Simon
Bridge Over Troubled Water, one of Simon and Garfunkel's most chart-topping hits, is an affecting ballad about a pledge to stand by a friend in their most dark and troubling times. Simon's poetic lyrics convey the message with poignancy. The friend makes an ardent expression of sacrificial love and selfless commitment.
According to legend, the bridge referred to in the song was Bickleigh Bridge in East Devon, England. In a 2003 BBC Radio Devon interview, however, Art Garfunkel dispelled that myth saying, "Bridge Over Troubled Water has nothing to do with Bickleigh Bridge in East Devon." In fact, Garfunkel went on to say Simon picked up the phrase from a Baptist hymn he found. The hymn, by Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones, was titled Mary Don't You Weep.
Art Garfunkel's vocals are haunting with its melodic cry. Interestingly, in a Rolling Stone interview Paul Simon revealed that he wrote the song for his partner; however Garfunkel was none too keen about being the lead vocalist on the song, feeling Simon's voice was more suited to it. I think most people can say, no one could sing it as beautifully as Art Garfunkel. Though he did not write it, he owned the song figuratively in his vocals.
Countless artists have recorded the song over the years, most notably Elvis Presley on his That's the Way It Is album in 1970, impressing many of his critics.
Bridge Over Troubled Water was the title tune of their last album and went gold in February 1970. It won five Grammy Awards in 1971 - Record of the Year, Best Contemporary Song, Best Engineered Record, Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists, and Song of the Year. The album won Album of the Year and won a BRIT award for Best International Album. Altogether they have won ten Grammy Awards, which include the Lifetime Achievement Award, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. They have had a number of reunion concerts.
# 2 Friends
The Story Behind "Friends"
Music by Michael W. Smith, lyrics by Deborah D. Smith
Friends is a Michael W. Smith classic which he performed on his 1983 debut album The Michael W. Smith Project. Even today it is one of his most enduring and endearing tunes. What many do not know is that the song lyrics were written by Smith's wife Deborah. It is unfortunate that she is not more recognized for her talent as a songwriter and her impressive list of songs. Deborah wrote the lyrics for all of the songs on Michael's first album.
The idea to write the song Friends was hers. Michael and Deborah were in a little Bible study and their friend Bill was moving away to begin a new ministry. Deborah suggested to Michael that they ought to write a song for Bill. Deborah wrote the lyrics and brought them to her husband, who promptly wrote the melody. They played it for Bill that very night.1
The lyrics are heart gripping, the melody wistful. Clearly, Deborah and Michael had a deep affection for their friend Bill. Friends wraps itself around the heart like a cloak. Tears often fall for listeners everywhere. One cannot hear the song without being deeply affected.
Friends speaks to the fact that although their friend is going away to start a new life, they will be friends forever because their bond is the Lord.
Michael W. Smith's accomplishments are impressive. He has won three Grammy Awards, forty-five Dove Awards, had six Platinum and sixteen Gold certified albums, thirty-three hit songs, career sales of over fifteen million and was named 50 of the Most Beautiful People by People magazine.
# 3 He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother
The Story Behind "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother"
Music by Bobby Scott, Lyrics by Bob Russell
You don't find this beautiful and moving song on friendship song lists very often. The story in the song is about a brother carrying his younger brother on his back on a very long journey. He endures because his love transcends his own discomfort and sense of obligation. His sacrifice is born of concern for the welfare of his brother before his own. Certainly, this is the same love we would give to a friend, and even to a stranger in need in some cases.
It is said the title is based on a drawing Father Flanagan of Boys Town fame found of a boy carrying a younger boy on his back with the words "He ain't heavy, Mr., he's my brother.2. Father Flanagan had a statue of the drawing made and it became the logo for Boys Town along with the inscription "He ain't heavy, Mr., he's my brother." To him, the image and phrase captured the heart and essence of Boys Town. This appears to be true, but the phrase dates back even farther to 1884 where Scotsman James Wells told a story in his book, A Parable of Jesus, where a little girl carrying a little boy on her back was asked if she was tired. She said, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother." 3
The song was written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell. It was their first and only songwriting collaboration. Russell was dying of cancer when he wrote the lyrics. He died two months after The Hollies released it.4 Fast forward to the late 60s and Tony Hicks of the Hollies found the song, previously recorded by Kelly Gordon. The Hollies recorded it and it became a hit around the globe. It was # 3 in the UK and came in at # 7 in the US.
Neil Diamond also recorded the song for his Taproot Manuscript album and made # 20 on the Billboard Top 100 Hits in 1970. The Osmond Brothers covered it on their Osmonds album. Bill Medley also covered it for the movie Rambo lll in 1988.
He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother - Neil Diamond
# 4 Lean on Me
The Story Behind "Lean on Me"
Music and lyrics by Bill Withers
Having grown up in rural West Virginia, Bill Withers wrote the lyrics for Lean on Me from the perspective of his upbringing and environment where people helped one another when times were hard. This as opposed to life in the big city, like Los Angeles, where he had just moved to at the time he wrote the song. In a Song Facts interview with Carl Wiser, Withers explained, "My socialization was, it was very likely and very practical to expect a lean on me circumstance to exist. My experience was trying to adjust to a world where that circumstance was not the rule rather than the exception." Undoubtedly, this was a song from the heart of a man who knew what friendship was about - a soul singer indeed.
Lean on Me was Withers' first single on his album Still Bill and topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart at # 1, as well as the Hot R&B category. Rolling Stone rated Lean on Me at # 208 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Lean on Me has been recorded by numerous artists in various versions and interpretations - artists such as Al Jarreau, DC Talk, Michael Bolton, The Temptations, Bonnie Tyler and Ann Murray. Versions were included in movies such as Lean on Me, Snow Buddies, and Dead is Dead.
Although Lean on Me was Withers' only # 1 hit single, his litany of illustrious hits is outstanding. Who doesn't remember his soulful debut song, Ain't No Sunshine, which made # 3 on the U.S Billboard chart. Other notable hits were Just the Two of Us, Use Me, and Grandma's Hands. His second album on which his single Lean on Me was featured, was # 4 album on U.S Billboard and number one on R&B. In fact, the album went gold.
Withers won four Grammy Awards, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Heritage award, and Lean on Me was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2009, a documentary of Withers' life by the name of his second album Still Bill made it's debut and was well received.
# 5 Stand By Me
The Story Behind "Stand by Me"
By Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Ben E. King
Stand by Me is a classic American anthem heralding the value of faithful friendship. The song is universal to all age groups. When we hear that signature bass intro, with the rhythmic maracas, our spirits are quickened, our hearts warmed, and the foot-tapping commences.
Stand By Me is based on Charles Albert Tindley's hymn by a similar title, Lord, Stand By Me, in 1905. Elvis Presley and The Staples (the best version I think), and a few other singing groups, recorded it (the original hymn). King was inspired by the hymn and wanted to do something contemporary with it. He collaborated with songwriter's Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with a few lyrics and the starting of a tune.5 They went to work and a classic was born.
Stand By Me put King on the map as a standout solo artist. When the song came out it rated # 4 on the Billboard charts, and # 1 on the R&B charts. In 1986, Director Rob Reiner used the song in a movie by the same name - in fact, he got the title of the movie from the song. The coming of age film was based on the Stephen King novel, The Body. In the plot, a group of boys goes on a journey to find the dead body of a local boy. According to Songfacts, Reiner felt the title helped put the focus of the plot more on the friendship between the boys and not on the body, which would likely draw a wider audience. 6
The lyrics capture the essence of the friendship between the four twelve-year-old boys on their journey, facing new experiences and fears. But as they stand together, they overcome and learn the lessons of friendship. When the film was released, the song soared the charts once again, making it to the top ten.
A plethora of other artists have performed and recorded the song (four hundred and counting). Hands down John Lennon nailed it best; some say better than King. Lennon's version featured on his 1975 album Rock and Roll and made a single, did well on the charts, coming in at # 25. And here's a bit of trivia most people don't know: Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius Clay) recorded the song on his album I Am the Greatest, in 1963. It didn't do much until the next year when he defeated Liston for the championship and it came out as a single.
Stand By Me is rated # 122 on Rolling Stone's The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, won the prestigious BMI Towering Song Award in 2012, a Grammy Hall of Fame award, and RIAA's Song of the Century.
Before becoming a solo recording artist, King was the lead singer of The Drifters who had several chart-topping hits. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Drifter. Three other of his songs have made it on the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and four made it into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Stand by Me - Ben E King
# 6 Thank You For Being a Friend
The Story Behind "Thank You For Being a Friend"
Music and lyrics by Andrew Gold
Regardless of who is singing it, the image we get when we hear that catchy piano intro followed by the words, "Thank you for being a friend," is of Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), Rose Nylund (Betty White), Blanch Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), and Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) in the opening credits of the TV show The Golden Girls. Whether you liked the show or not, you have to concede, it's a catchy, bouncy, and gleeful tune.
Andrew Gold wrote and recorded the song on his album All This and Heaven Too in 1978. It came in at # 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It wasn't until seven years later that it became the theme song for The Golden Girls, sung with gusto by Cynthia Fee for the sitcom.
Thank You For Being A Friend is unique from the more common friendship songs that speak of being there if and when you need me; rather, as the singer says in the chorus, he is giving thanks to the friend for being a stellar friend.
Elaine Paige and Dionne Warwick performed the song on Paige's Elaine Paige and Friends album. In 2009, Thank You for Being a Friend was dedicated to Casey Kasem during his final appearance of America's Top 40. An interesting use of the song was when Betty White donned a ski mask and belted out the tune ala death metal on Saturday Night Live while hosting. Now that's just cool.
# 7 That's What Friends Are For
The Story Behind "That's What Friends Are For"
by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager
Like many songs about friendship, the chorus of That's What Friends Are For is rather trite and cliché. But that is the way we like our friendship songs, is it not? Warm, fuzzy, and predictably sentimental. That's What Friends Are For as a whole, however, is written with a lot more flair and depth than the chorus would seem to indicate.
The song was originally written for the movie, Night Shift and sung by Rod Stewart. The lyrics are much too poetic and romantic for such a movie, which is rather raunchy. Bacharach and Sager couldn't do raunchy if they tried. Their song needed a more respectable vehicle to showcase its beauty. Thank goodness Dionne Warwick came along three years later and made it a chart-topping success.
But Warwick did much more for the song than just making it a hit; she made it a clarion call for compassion while the world was in the throes of a new epidemic with a terrible stigma - AIDS. She recorded the song with fellow crème de la crème songsters, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Gladys Knight, dubbing it Dionne and Friends. They put it out as a single to raise funds for AIDS research and awareness. They sought to educate the public by dispelling the myths and hopefully end the stigma. It was their intention by doing so to spark the world to compassion, not hysteria and judgment. Said Warwick, "It was kind of given to the problem itself to raise funds and awareness. Those who felt they didn't want to be involved with it - to be seen giving money or being heard talking about the crisis - that song was an avenue to reach out without any stigma." It is heartwarming to know we've come a long way since then.
Warwick and her friends gave the song the class it deserved and their version won the Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal, and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards.
The songwriting team of Bacharach and Sager produced a golden ray of hits during the 1980s. Their work was a brilliant contribution to the world.
#8 Wind Beneath My Wings
The Story Behind "Wind Beneath My Wings"
by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley
What can be more romantic and poetic than "You are the wind beneath my wings?" Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley thought so and created a song with the phrase as the title and theme. It was the birth of an enduring, extraordinary classic. In an interview by Dale Kawashima of SONGWRITERUNIVERSITY Magazine, Jeff Silbar said the stunning melody and lyrics were written in one day.
The lyrics tell the gripping story of one friend who's been in the limelight, getting all the attention for some great accomplishment, all the while the other friend has remained in the shadows, bearing the pain with quiet grace. With strength of character, she carries on as a faithful friend, without demanding her due. Then there is the tender chorus that chokes us up every time. It declares the friend in the shadows to be the real hero. Pass the handkerchief, please.
There has been a profusion of artists who have recorded and performed this timeless standard; but Bette Midler's phenomenal performance of it in the movie Beaches and the subsequent soundtrack recording, sent it soaring to # 1 on the charts. Her performance of it in the movie helped listeners put the song into a more tangible context. Midler plays a famous celebrity singer. Barbara Hershey, who plays her best friend, is a successful attorney who came from an advantaged family. Midler's character demanded and sopped up all the attention while Hershey's character always took a backseat. Midler ends the movie in a moving performance of Wind Beneath My Wings on stage as a tribute to her friend who died.
Midler's version of Wind Beneath My Wings won Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Other legendary artists have recorded it as well, such people as Lou Rawls, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patty LaBelle, Kenny Rogers, Judy Collins, Sheena Easton, Willie Nelson, Lee Greenwood, Celine Dion, and Steven Houghton. Country singer Garry Morris's version won Song of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association.
# 9 You've Got a Friend
The Story Behind "You've Got a Friend"
Music and lyrics by Carole King
What a gift Carole King and James Taylor gave to us with this melodious, warm, blanket of comfort, reassurance, and tenderness. You've Got a Friend is a universal friendship song. Everyone knows it, and everyone loves it. It connects with our need to hope and trust that someone we hold dear, holds us dear, and will always be there.
Carole King wrote and recorded this song for her illustrious, ground-breaking album, Tapestry. James Taylor played the guitar on it. Taylor, a close friend of King's, recorded it simultaneously for his Mud Slide Slim album and put it out as a single. Taylor's version became a number one hit on the Billboard Top 100. Both King and Taylor enjoyed its success and the subsequent accolades - Grammy Award Song of the Year (for King), and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (for Taylor).
James Taylor's vocals are fluid, mellow, and tender; whereas King's has more grain. It's nice to have the two contrasting vocals to enjoy. Today, when they perform it either together or solo, the audiences always smile and sing along; it's an old, familiar friend who's come to visit.
It seems the song immediately became the most sought-after tune for other recording artists. It was a highly marketable song because of its endearing qualities. The year King and Taylor recorded and released the song on their 1971 albums, a whole score of other acclaimed artists followed suit and recorded it for their albums. Barbara Streisand, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, and Anne Murray all featured it on their 1971 albums. The following year Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and Trini Lopez recorded it. It hasn't lost its luster. Today it is still a favorite standard for many artists.
King and Taylor still perform the song in their solo concerts as well as at their reunion concerts. King says, "It's a moment that brings people together. If people have had a fight before the performance - I've heard this - they forget it for the moments of that song and they come together, and maybe at the end they forget the fight, let's hope."
You've Got a Friend - James Taylor
# 10 You've Got a Friend in Me
The Story Behind "You've Got a Friend In Me"
Music and lyrics by Randy Newman
You've Got a Friend in Me begins with an enchanting, whimsical intro of piano and woodwinds. Composer and songwriter Randy Newman wrote and recorded the song expressly for the movie Toy Story. As the movie opens, a little boy, Andy, is playing with his favorite toy - a limber, floppy, pull-stringed, cowboy doll named Woody, while Newman's throaty voice sings assurances that Andy will always be Woody's friend.
Toy Story was the first computer animated film ever and produced by Pixar, who has gone on to produce many more such films. In the film, Woody is the numero uno toy of Andy's. He also comes alive when Andy is out and rules the toy box. Then Andy has a birthday - enter Buzz Lightyear, a really cool space traveler toy who doesn't realize he's a toy. Woody is now number two on the totem pole and the feud begins. By the end of the movie, they have become friends. That is when the song is played again, but this time Lyle Lovitt has joined in and both toys are represented in the song.
The song was so endearing and popular it was used in both Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. You've Got a Friend In Me was not on a billboard chart but was nominated for an Oscar as Best Original Song in the 1996 Academy Awards and for a Golden Globe in the same year and same category.
There have been many artists who have recorded it as well - George Jones, Dick Van Dyke, Kenny Loggins, Donny Osmond, and Brian Wilson to name a few.
Randy Newman has composed thirty film scores. He has been nominated for Oscar awards twenty times, winning in 2002 for Best Original Song, If I Didn't Have You from Monsters, Inc. Then again with We Belong Together as Best Original Song in 2011 from Toy Story 3. Newman was also nominated for Six Golden Globes, and fifteen Grammys, winning six of them; and three Emmys, winning all three. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002.
Which is your favorite song about friends?
1 Mary Paradee and David Sisson.."Michael W. Smith: Two Decades as God's Instrument Interview." The 700 Club. CBN.com http://www.cbn.com/cbnmusic/interviews/700club_mwsmith_100903.aspx?mobile=false&u=1
2 The Hollies. "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." Songfacts.http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1905
3James Wells. "The Parable of Jesus." https://books.google.com/books?id=41kHAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA163#v=onepage&q&f=false
4Mayflower Chorus, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." http://www.mayflowerchorus.org/page74.html
5 Ben E. King. "Stand By Me." Songfacts. http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=670
6 Ben E. King. "Stand By Me." Songfacts. http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=670
© 2014 Lori Colbo