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From last March, when Sam Smith debuted his heartbroken hymn on SNL, to its standing ovation at last week’s VMAs, “Stay With Me” has become a phenomenon—anchoring thousands of lovelorn playlists and inspiring endless interpretations on YouTube and in karaoke bars around the world. So, while everyone is embracing Smith’s soulful plea, we want to use this as an excuse to turn you on to another song called “Stay With Me”— one that deserves, hell, demands, just as much attention.
Lorraine Ellison’s heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, hurricane of hurt is one of those songs that lives in legend, with an origin story as good as the song itself. In 1966, it seems Frank Sinatra caught a cold, cancelled a recording session, and left his 46-piece orchestra idling in the studio. Producer/songwriter Jerry Ragavoy (a favorite of Janis Joplin, whose Greatest Hits album includes covers of four Ragavoy songs, including “Cry Baby” and “Piece Of My Heart”) got a call from the label to see if he had a use for Sinatra’s big band and, of course, Ragavoy jumped at the chance. With a new song—and singer—in hand, Ragavoy commissioned a rafter-rattling arrangement that only a singer with Ellison’s power could stand up to. All you need to know at this point is what you’ll hear when you press play. That build. That voice. That plea. Oh, and one more thing: She nailed it in a single take. You might forget the story, but you’ll never forget the song.
“Stay With Me” almost made the R&B Top 10 but barely grazed the Pop charts. Still, those who have heard it won’t let it go, resulting in cover versions by (of course) Janis Joplin, Bette Midler, and Duffy, among others. The song’s most powerful revival came just a few years ago at the Grammys, when Mary J. Blige — a singer who can certainly bring Ellison’s holy vocal fire herself — made “Stay With Me” the explosive finale of what was already a rapturous performance of her hit “Be Without You.”
It may be mere coincidence, but Mary J. recently joined Sam Smith for a duet of his “Stay With Me,” which has already chalked up over 6 million views on YouTube. We’re waiting for the inevitable medley of the two songs. It’d make one hell of a #GRAMMYmoment.