You can dance every dance with the guy
Who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight;
. . .
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.
— Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, “Save the Last Dance for Me”
CBS Sunday Morning recently featured a story about divorce attorney Raoul Felder, which surprisingly revealed a touching story about the co-writer of the song, “Save the Last Dance for Me.” The song became a number one recording by The Drifters with Ben E. King on October 17, 1960. Later, it would be covered by others, including Michael Bublé and Dolly Parton.
Raoul Felder’s brother was Jerome Solon Felder, who became better known as a songwriter under the name Doc Pomus. Pomus, who was born in 1925, developed polio when he was 7 years old so had to walk on crutches and later rely on a wheelchair. Starting in the 1950s, Pomus wrote several hit songs with pianist Mort Shuman.
Pomus wrote the lyrics to “Save the Last Dance for Me” as he looked back on the day he married Broadway actress and dancer Willi Burke in 1957. The song recounts a memory from their wedding reception at the Waldorf Astoria.
The wheelchair-bound Pomus wrote the from the bittersweet perspective of a man who cannot dance with his new bride, so he can only look on as she dances with other men. But he reminds her that they are going home together at the end of the night.
Someone today may try to say the song sounds a little sexist. But the story behind the song gives it a deeper context. Also, some different sources disagree slightly on whether Pomus wrote “Save the Last Dance” on the wedding day, looking back on that day, or after another dance. But the most reliable ones connect it to the wedding reception. And all agree that the song was influenced by a real event as Pomus watched other men dance with the woman he loved.
Ben E. King’s Emotional Recording
A related story may explain the great vocal by Ben E. King on the song. As The Drifters prepared to record “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Atlantic owner Ahmet Ertegun told King how Pomus came to write the song.
After hearing the story, King fought back tears as he prepared to lay down his vocals on the song. And then he gave one of his most moving performances that captures the joy and sadness in the lyrics. (Hear an interview with King about the song on WNYC.)
Below is the wonderful recording of “Save the Last Dance for Me” by Ben E. King and The Drifters.
Life After “Save the Last Dance for Me”
Pomus and Shuman wrote several other classics, although it is hard to imagine one as personal as “Save the Last Dance for Me.” The team’s hits include “A Teenager in Love,” “This Magic Moment,” “Turn Me Loose,” “Little Sister,” “Surrender,” “Viva, Las Vegas,” and “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame.”
Pomus also wrote songs with Phil Spector, Dr. John, Willy DeVille, and others. Others, like Bob Dylan and Pomus’s friend Lou Reed, wanted to write with Pomus.
I could not find any details, but it appears it was not true that the singer in the song “Never, never” let the dancer go. Unfortunately, Pomus’s marriage to Burke did not last. Although it is too bad for them, the rest of us got a great song from the relationship.
Pomus died of cancer in 1991. In 1992, Pomus was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And that is the story behind the song.
What is your favorite Doc Pomus song? Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)