The Poignant Origins Of ”Save The Last Dance For Me”
“Save The Last Dance For Me” was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and was first recorded and popularized in 1960 by Ben E. King with The Drifters.
In the song, the narrator tells his lover she is free to dance and even flirt with men throughout the evening.
You can dance
Ev’ry dance with the guy
Who gives you the eye
Let him hold you tight
You can smile
Ev’ry smile for the man who held your hand
‘Neath the pale moonlight
He goes on, however, to insist that she save him the final dance at the end of the night.
But don’t forget who’s taking you home
And in whose arms you’re gonna be
So darlin’, save the last dance for me
This excerpt from the New York Times1 describes how Doc Pomus, who had contracted polio as a child and spent the rest of his life on crutches or confined to a wheelchair, came to pen the lyrics to “Save The Last Dance For Me:”
The crowning achievement was the Drifters’ sublime “Save The Last Dance For Me.” In a story straight out of Hollywood, Pomus actually wrote the lyrics on the back of an invitation to his own wedding, remembering how it felt to watch his bride dance with his brother, knowing that he himself was unable to navigate a dance floor. “Under his pen,” Halberstadt writes, “the simple declaration of love he set out to write wavered, giving way to vulnerability and fear.”2
Willi Burke, the woman who married Doc Pomus, was a Broadway actress and dancer.
The Other Possible Cohen Connection
In addition to being a colleague of Lou Reed, who worked with and was a close friend of Pomus and told the story of how Pomus wrote the lyrics (see footnote #2), Leonard Cohen was also associated with at least one other individual linked to the song - Phil Spector.
Spector, who worked together with Cohen to produce the Death Of A Ladies’ Man album, was an apprentice of sorts with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at the same time they produced “Save The Last Dance For Me.” While it is unknown if Spector had any input on the production of this single, Wikipedia notes that “many Spector fans have noticed similarities between this record and other music he would eventually produce on his own.” And, in 1966, Spector did revise the song, producing the Ike and Tina Turner version of the hit.3
Why Leonard Cohen Covers “Save The Last Dance For Me”
It’s tempting to speculate that “Save The Last Dance For Me” holds special significance for Leonard Cohen because Lou Reed told him about how Doc Pomus came to write the song or because he has some meaningful memory trace of Phil Spector playing the tune in those days of drugs, alcohol, and guns that eventuated in Death Of A Ladies’ Man album or because of some other undocumented connection between the Canadian singer-songwriter and the Drifters’ hit.
But statistically, it is more likely that Leonard Cohen likes “Save The Last Dance For Me” for the same reason he thinks Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” is “one of the greatest songs in history”4 – it was a the kind of hit that would be on a good jukebox. Asked the “biggest influence on [his] music,” Cohen reported
The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. … I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.5
Or, more to the point in this case.
You want to hear a guy’s story, and if the guy’s really seen a few things, the story is quite interesting.6
Doc Pomus had, after all, seen a few things.
In that earlier post, I speculated on possible connections between Leonard Cohen and Doc Pomus:
In addition to being a colleague of Lou Reed, who worked with and was a close friend of Pomus and told the story of how Pomus wrote the lyrics, Leonard Cohen was also associated with at least one other individual linked to the song – Phil Spector.
Spector, who worked together with Cohen to produce the Death Of A Ladies’ Man album, was an apprentice of sorts with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at the same time they produced “Save The Last Dance For Me.” While it is unknown if Spector had any input on the production of this single, Wikipedia notes that “many Spector fans have noticed similarities between this record and other music he would eventually produce on his own.” And, in 1966, Spector did revise the song, producing the Ike and Tina Turner version of the hit.7
Update 22 October 2012: 1977 – Phil Spector, Doc Pomus, & Leonard Cohen Hang Out In Los Angeles
Reading “I’m Your Man,” the biography of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons, sometime after publishing this post, I came across two references to Doc Pomus.
One was a quote by Hal Wilner, who reported that he, then an intern at CBS, and Doc Pomus “loved that record ["Death Of A Ladies' Man," the Phil Spector - Leonard Cohen collaboration] …; we used to listen to it all the time.”
The other alluded to Doc Pomus, “Spector’s friend,” visiting Spector’s home while he and Cohen were working on “Death Of A Ladies’ Man.” A bit of research turned up this more extensive description from He’s a Rebel: Phil Spector, Rock and Roll’s Legendary Producer by Mark Ribowsky (Da Capo Press, January 9, 2007): click on scan to enlarge
That Doc Pomus spent a month at Spector’s home in 1977 when Spector and Cohen were engaged in creating “Death Of A Ladies’ Man,” an album Doc Pomus loved and to which he and a young Hal Wilner often listened does not, of course, necessarily mean that the interactions that then took place between the Canadian singer-songwriter and one of the writers of “Save The Last Dance For Me” ((It appears there was at least one other set of contacts between the two men. From The Untold Story of Pomus & Shuman: “We also hear about Doc’s philanthropic side; he regularly held writers’ workshops for budding musicians in his apartment, which attracted guests like Lou Reed, Robert Plant, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.” [emphasis mine] )) somehow led to Leonard Cohen covering that song during the 2012 Tour.
But it would seem to improve the odds that a personal liaison between the two men influenced Leonard Cohen’s choice to add “Save The Last Dance For Me” to his standard concert set list.
Leonard Cohen – Save The Last Dance For Me (Ghent – Aug 14, 2012)
Video by its211me2
Credit Due Department: I was alerted to the back story of this song by a comment left by Jugurtha Harchaoui on my Facebook link to a video of Cohen covering “Save The Last Dance For Me.”_____________________
- This Magic Moment by Alan Light. New York Times, March 25, 2007 [↩]
- Unsurprisingly, there are several versions of this story. During an interview on Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle, Lou Reed, who worked with Pomus, said the song was written on the day of Pomus’ wedding while the wheelchair-bound groom watched his bride dancing with their guests. In his biography of Pomus, Alex Halberstadt reports that some time after the wedding, Pomus found the wedding invitation in a hatbox, which brought back his most vivid memory from his wedding: watching his brother Raoul dance with his new wife while Doc, who had polio, sat in his wheelchair. Inspired, he stayed up all night writing the words to this song on the back of the invitation. [↩]
- Source: Best Phil Spector Productions [↩]
- Leonard Cohen Gave Me 200 Franc by Martin Oestergaard. Euroman, Denmark, September 2001 [↩]
- Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994 [↩]
- Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician, July 1988 [↩]
- Source: Best Phil Spector Productions [↩]