Running just 1:38 this is the shortest song ever to hit #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. But “Stay” is exactly as long as it needs to be. It’s fast and grimy and irresistible, firing off hooks in all directions and then ending as soon as it started. Despite it’s brevity, it still tells a story and while Williams sang the first part of this song, the soaring falsetto that overtakes him was group member Shane Gaston. That section is a huge part of the song’s success and lends itself well to falsetto singers.
This was written by Williams in 1953 when he was 15 years old at his home in Lancaster, South Carolina. He had a beautiful 15-year-old girl over, but it was 10 O’clock at night, and he tried to convince her to stay. He lost the argument, but as he was to relate years later, “Like a flood, the words just came to me.” Her parents were very strict about her curfew, so Williams could only watch as her brother picked her up and drove off.
In 1960, the song was put on a demo by Williams and his band, the Zodiacs. Maurice Williams’ first experience with music was in the church, where his mother and sister both performed. By the time he was six, Williams was performing regularly there. With his childhood friend Earl Gainey, Williams formed the gospel group the Junior Harmonizers. As rock and roll and doo-wop became their primary interest, the Junior Harmonizers changed their name to the Royal Charms. Williams finished high school and while on the road with the band, their station wagon broke down in Bluefield, West Virginia. The band came across a British-built Ford car known as the Zodiac and changed their name. Shortly thereafter, Henry Gaston replaced Earl Gainey.
In the spring of 1959, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs performed at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. Around that time, the group split and reformed. The members were Williams, Gaston, Wiley Bennett, and Charles Thomas. Later, Little Willie Morrow and Albert Hill were added. One month later, in the early summer of 1959, the band recorded in a Quonset Hut on Shakespeare Road in Columbia. The recording engineer, Homer Fesperman, recorded several tracks that the band had hoped would fetch them a hit. One of the last tracks that they recorded that day was “Stay”.
The group barely dented the Billboard Hot 100 after “Stay”. Their only other entries were “Come Along” (#83) and “Here In My Heart” (#86), both in 1961. The only other hit for Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs was the Williams-written song “Little Darlin'” which was a #11 hit on the R&B chart in 1957, but did not break into the Billboard Hot 100‘s Top 40. However, when it was covered by the Canadian group the Diamonds, it moved up to #2. That recording also capitalized on a falsetto hook and a bass-spoken verse, an oft used feature of Doo-Wop at the time.
There have been numerous covers, including versions by The Four Seasons, Jackson Browne (a much longer version), and The Hollies. “Stay” was also featured in 1978 movie “Dirty Dancing”, which also increased the song’s popularity.
The Four Seasons version was first released on their June 1963 album “The 4 Seasons Sing Ain’t That a Shame and 11 Others”; it was later released as a single in December 1963. Vee Jay originally released it as the B-side of “Peanuts” in December, but when disc jockeys started to “turn the single over” to play “Stay” on the air, the record company superseded the single with a new one with “Stay” as the A-side and “Goodnight My Love” as the new B-side. It peaked at number 16 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in April.
In August 1963, the song was released by the Hollies on their debut album “Stay With The Hollies”, and then took it to number eight in the UK Singles Chart. Their version is slightly longer, adding a guitar solo, and wastes no time getting started.
A version of the song with revised lyrics is the last track on Jackson Browne’s 1977 album “Running on Empty”. The song, which follows on the heels of Browne’s “The Load-Out” begs the audience to stay for an encore and includes an extensive playout. It includes backing contributions from David Lindley and Rosemary Butler. Browne, Butler and Lindley each contribute a similar verse in turn in ascending vocal ranges. It was released as a single and reached number 20 in the U.S. as well as number 12 in the UK.
Maurice Williams continued recording, touring, and releasing music through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He is still active in the music industry, residing in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2010. He also made several performances for the PBS “Doo Wop 50” show series in 2001.