John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Save The Last Dance For Me”

A masterpiece by Doc Pomus that transmuted his personal pain into great music.

By - Jul 25th, 2017 03:23 pm
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Doc Pomus

Doc Pomus

In my last column I told an imaginary ramble through the storied halls of the Brill Building in Manhattan, a collection of nooks and crannies where songwriters courted and, more often than not, won the hand of the muse. They also won the public’s favor, dominating the charts in the early 1960s and keeping the dying flame of Rock’n’Roll alive. There are books to read, full of fascinating details about artists, some still in their teens — I recommended a few in that article. The stories are endless, but one stays with me as example of how to draw from your life to create work of timeless beauty. That’s much harder than it sounds.

The path from experience to art is not clearly marked. It’s twisty and turn-y with lots of blind alleys and sudden drops from high places. You can have the most amazing story and no way to tell it. The opposite, having all the tools and little experience to talk about doesn’t really make for good songs either. To have lived and learned the things Doc Pomus did means paying a lot of dues. As the old song goes, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, nobody wants to die.”

Doc, stricken with polio as a youth, learned to sing the blues at an early age. Taking the stage on crutches, he emulated his idol, Big Joe Turner, and he released a batch of singles. Eventually, Big Joe wound up singing songs by Doc, who largely gave up performing and took up songwriting — a wise decision that eventually made him rich. Doc didn’t tear pages from from his diary to create songs, he was working long before the advent of the modern confessional. His life was music, specifically Rhythm & Blues, and he was qualified by experiences both professional and personal to write gems like “Lonely Avenue,” to this day, one of my favorite Ray Charles songs.

Save The Last Dance For Me,” by The Drifters, is textbook example of how experience transformed, through whatever creative alchemy it takes, into a song that reaches deeply into your soul. Success didn’t make Doc’s life a cakewalk. There would always be the crutches and later, the wheelchair. People didn’t use polite words like ‘disabled’ back then and the obstacle course that is New York was a tough environment. But Doc did find someone…. for a while. His future wife, Willi, was a dancer and would eventually leave him for the stage. He had to sit and watch as she danced with the young men at the wedding reception. Then the bed broke when they got back home. Doc weighed in at 300 pounds and adding a few more was probably too much. So, not exactly the happy honeymoon anyone dreams of and better forgotten than written about. Unless you’re Doc Pomus… and even with him it took time.

One drunken evening he scrawled the words “Save the last dance for me” on his wedding invitation and soon it was worked up into a song, with music by his brilliant partner Mort Shuman. And the cast for this story keeps getting better. The Drifters, with their rotating door at lead singer, featured the spectacular Ben E. King at the time. He brought a  pathos to the lyric that’s almost painful. Not many who listened to and bought this song really knew the back story, but it didn’t matter, by this point everyone can identify with the singer’s insecurity. Add the punctuation, pure gospel, by the trio behind him and you’re well on the way to a masterpiece.

Lieber & Stoller, two commanding giants of early rock, were producing. Latin music was the rage in New York at that time and they were among the first to bring it uptown, employing it on many of their sessions. The bass line of this song is typical in a Brazilian rhythm called the baion. This syncopation, more of a novelty at the time, put springs under the song, energizing its groove. It’s ubiquitous now and this song is one of the reasons.

The lyrics, since they came from Doc Pomus, are perfect:

You can dance-every dance with the guy
Who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight
You can smile-every smile for the man
Who held your hand neath the pale moonlight

But don’t forget who’s takin’ you home
And in whose arms you’re gonna be
So darlin’ save the last dance for me

Oh I know that the music’s fine
Like sparklin’ wine, go and have your fun
Laugh and sing, but while we’re apart
Don’t give your heart to anyone

But don’t forget who’s takin’ you home
And in whose arms you’re gonna be
So darlin’ save the last dance for me

Baby don’t you know I love you so
Can’t you feel it when we touch
I will never never let you go
I love you oh so much

You can dance, go and carry on
Till the night is gone and it’s time to go
If he asks if you’re all alone
Can he walk you home, you must tell him no

‘Cause don’t forget who’s taking you home
And in whose arms you’re gonna be
So darling, save the last dance for me

Oh I know that the music’s fine
Like sparklin’ wine, go and have your fun
Laugh and sing, but while we’re apart
Don’t give your heart to anyone

So don’t forget who’s taking you home
Or in whose arms you’re gonna be
So darling save the last dance for me

So don’t forget who’s taking you home
Or in whose’ arms you’re gonna be
So darling save the last dance for me

© Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman

Doc packed so much internal rhyme in that first verse (and throughout the song). The repetition “dance – every dance” and “smile – every smile?” That’s craftsmanship and part of his craftiness was hiding it so well. The writing is so tight, there’s nothing really to take out. He may have labored over it, but it sounds so natural you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a worried man’s thoughts.

I remember a songwriting student who was in one of my groups a while back. She was nursing some fresh wounds from a nasty breakup and presented something that was more poison-pen letter to her betrayer than song. Alchemy had not happened yet. You would laugh if you could see how I squirmed as I reached for the right words to talk about what we had just listened to. It was painful for everybody in the room and I’m sure, painful for her to sing. There was a song to be had, but time was needed and some tools she might not have possessed at the time.

Bad songs happen all the time. The road to great ones is littered with failed attempts. As much as you’d rather write something timeless, these attempts are an important part of the process. Every song that blows up on the launching pad teaches you something. The next time you might get further and, when all those lessons finally add up, you’re Doc Pomus, Sly Stone or Joni Mitchell, or anyone else you can think of that knows how to take us beyond the personal to the universal.

Probably countless songwriters wish they had thought up the line, “Save the last dance for me?” I’m glad Doc did and grateful he had such extraordinary talent (and an equally talented partner). The two of them were able to make it more than just a title. Doc Pomus felt a full measure of pain in his lifetime, but it must have brought infinite joy to hear The Drifters apply their talents to this hard-earned beauty.

4 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Save The Last Dance For Me””

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Artificial excitement (like that in bars every night of the week) and false romance as opposed to “don’t forget who’s taking you home/Or in whose arms you’re gonna be” – brilliant! He knows that the last dance is always his.

  2. Thomas says:

    Thanks, John, for the background on “Save the Last Dance … ” and for the observations on the personal and the universal in song. Your mention of Joni Mitchell as among those who make the personal universal reminded me of her “You Turn Me On; I’m a Radio.” That song hit me the first time I heard it on a car radio, and I have continued to enjoy it over many years. I wonder why I rarely hear it on nostalgia radio stations. Do you think that some of the details in that song are too Canada-centric for universal appeal in the U.S.A. or that some may think that song is too cute or too clever?

  3. Virginia says:

    Yes, thanks John, for mentioning the greatness of Joni Mitchell.

    A new list pegs her at 1 of the 150 greatest albums by women in the rock era for “Blue,” which was a massive cultural/artistic game changer.

    http://www.npr.org/2017/07/24/538307314/turning-the-tables-150-greatest-albums-made-by-women-page-15

  4. Robert Blondis says:

    The Drifters’ version of “Save the Last Dance For Me” is great. The song is so good that many other excellent singers, including some who write songs, have recorded their own versions. Aaron Neville and Harry Nilsson each add their touch without ruining the heart and soul of the song.

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