He tells her she can dance “every dance with the guy who gives you the eye.” She’s told to “go and have your fun.” Still he reminds her of certain limits. She’s told at evening’s end, she’ll be in his arms. He tells her not to forget who’s taking her home. The message is clear. Save the last dance for me.
The story of the lover’s plea unfolds beautifully in the Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman song, “Save The Last Dance For Me.” First recorded by The Drifters, a group that Pomus and Shuman had also written “This Magic Moment” for, the song retains its majesty and pathos 50 years later.
“Save The Last Dance For Me” was a huge hit for The Drifters. It climbed to the top of Billboard’s Pop and R&B charts in the fall of 1960. Lead singer Ben E. King, who would soon leave the group and launch a solo career with the graceful and majestic hits, “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me,” sensed how the song should be sung. He gave a stunning performance, swaying and soaring with the music Shuman had written.
The strumming of the Spanish guitar opening the song portends a bit of drama. Ben E. King understands the drama. He knows the story behind the song. It involves the real life yearnings of lyricist Doc Pomus. When King learned what inspired Pomus to write the lyrics, he knew he had to give the performance of a lifetime. He did.
According to Alex Halberstadt’s brilliant Lonely Avenue, The Unlikely Life And Times Of Doc Pomus, King learned Pomus had thought back to his wedding day. Stricken with polio as a child, Doc had lost the use of his legs, relying on steel braces and crutches to get around. Still he wanted his new bride, Willi, to dance at the wedding reception. His brother Raoul joined Willi on the dance floor. Watching the two dance was what Doc remembered best about his wedding day.
Nearly three years later, Doc found a wedding invitation. He again thought of his own wedding day. Halberstadt writes, “Sitting up alone and smoking as night turned into morning, he wrote on the back of the invitation words to a soaring Latin melody that Mort had played for him that afternoon. It reminded him of a troubadour’s song.”
Doc thought more of the melody and the arrangements. Then the words started to flow again. Halberstadt reports, “Doc was writing the second verse when something he remembered suddenly began to intrude. Under his pen, the simple declaration of love he set out to write wavered, giving way to vulnerability and fear. The words pleaded for faithfulness. If he asks if you’re all alone, can he take you home, you must tell him no. Doc finished the verses. He decided he’d sort it out in the morning with a clear head. He wrote the title — Save The Last Dance For Me — across the top, left the words on the coffee table, and went to bed.”
The respect Ben E. King felt for “Save The Last Dance For Me” was evident in the finished product. It was similar to the respect Pomus had gained in the music business, not just for his work, but for his life, in which he seemed to beat the odds more often than not.
Rock artist Darryl Rhoades, a fine lyricist as well, recalls his friendship with Doc Pomus and what he learned from him. “Doc was really great at painting the entire picture, he recognized the craft of writing songs, a craft that many have avoided in truly understanding,” says Rhoades.
Pomus was supportive of Rhoades’ work. Rhoades says, “I’d call Doc and run lyrics by him and he was always complimentary and made me feel like he was interested in whatever I was working on.” Such support went out to others as well. Rhoades points out that “Doc was interested in seeing new groups and learning about new writers.”
In Halberstadt’s biography, we learn that not only aspiring writers sought advice from Doc Pomus. One afternoon in the summer of ’86, Bob Dylan, accompanied by one of his sons, visited Doc to discuss songwriting. He was experiencing writer’s block. Halberstadt writes Dylan said “that when he was young he’d felt like a transmitter at times but now in the act of creation, he was self-conscious and his thoughts wandered. It all worked for a few minutes and then fizzled. He couldn’t remember what it felt like to write easily. Doc thought Dylan sounded spooked. He told him that even though he couldn’t be 20 again, his songs could still be thrilling and profound. All he had to do was believe in the deepest part of himself.”
In ’95, just four years after his death, a tribute album to Doc Pomus, Till The Night Is Gone was released. A highlight was Bob Dylan’s energetic rendition of “Boogie Woogie Country Girl,” a ’55 hit for Big Joe Turner written by Pomus and Reginald Ashby. Dylan sounds inspired in the recording, just as his own words would be in the coming years. In ’97, Dylan released Time Out Of Mind, his first album of all original material in seven years and surely his best effort since his talk with Doc. Again he was writing thrilling and profound songs.
The list of greats who have recorded the songs of Doc Pomus is lengthy and imposing. Along with the aforementioned Dylan, Turner, and The Drifters, the list includes Elvis Presley, The Coasters, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, Van Morrison, B.B. King and even The Beatles. However, their recording of “Save The Last Dance For Me,” included on the aborted “Get Back” album, was never released. Biographer Mark Hertsgaard in his book, A Day In The Life, The Music and Artistry of the Beatles, notes that the “astonishing flat singing” of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the track “was simply embarrassing.”
Of course The Beatles were big fans of Pomus. The flat singing was more about the tension within the group than their feelings about the song. In a few years, “Save The Last Dance For Me” would again receive attention from John Lennon.
On Pussy Cats, a Nilsson album Lennon produced in ’74, “Save The Last Dance For Me” is given a worthy if unique treatment. In Rolling Stone, reviewer Ken Barnes said the Nilsson/Lennon rendition is “performed much more deliberately than the original, deftly transforming the Drifters’ tolerant assurance into an almost desperate plea.” Barnes was on to something. Having ruptured a vocal cord during the sessions, Nilsson sounds as if he’s been up all night, smoking and possessed with his vulnerabilities and fears. Like Doc Pomus, he was working to beat the odds.
This article continues The Southern Song of the Day series.