One of my favorite albums is Willie Nelson’s Across the Borderline, which includes his wonderful version of the title track. Recently, I ran across this gem of Willy DeVille covering the song.
Jim Dickinson, John Hiatt, and Ry Cooder wrote “Across the Borderline.” That’s a pretty good pedigree. And it helps explain why brilliant artists like Nelson and DeVille have covered it.
So, for today, check out “Across the Borderline” by the late Willy DeVille, who passed away in 2009.
Although most people recognize DeVille’s voice from the theme to The Princess Bride (which he co-wrote with Mark Knopfler), he had a long and diverse career as a solo artist and leading the band Mink DeVille.
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.”
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.
On August 31, 2011, the B.B. King Blues Club in New York is hosting “Spirit of Mink DeVille”: The 2nd Annual Willy DeVille Memorial Concert. Willy DeVille — who passed away two years ago this month and was born in 1950 this Thursday, August 25 — had a long career as a musician, singer, and songwriter. He formed the band Mink DeVille in 1974, and it lasted until 1986. He recorded in a number of styles, ranging from punk rock to New Orleans R&B to an Academy-Award-nominated ballad. Later in his career, he became interested in Spanish-American music and began exploring his Native American background. At various times he was more popular in Europe than in his home country of the U.S., but he continued to create music throughout his life.
DeVille struggled for success throughout his career, and he battled a heroin addiction. After getting off heroin in 2000, his second wife, Lisa Leggett, committed suicide in 2001. Then, in 2009, he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and during treatment, doctors discovered pancreatic cancer. He died three months later in August 2009.
For those who have never heard of Willy DeVille, you most likely know one of his songs, “Storybook Love.” The song is from The Princess Bride and was nominated for an Academy Award. DeVille wrote the song with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame. It is DeVille’s voice you hear at the end of the movie, and it is a perfect song for a perfect movie. Check out this 2002 live performance of the song (available on his Live in Berlin CD).
To get a sense of DeVille’s range over the course of his career, compare “Storybook Love” to this Mink DeVille recording of “Spanish Stroll.”
Overall, it is a pretty impressive career for someone whose name is unfamiliar to many people. Thanks to Mike for introducing me to these compelling performances by DeVille.
What is your favorite Willy DeVille song? Leave a comment.