Written by Doc Pomus, The Drifters turned this song about love, trust and frustration into a Number One single that remains a paean to true romance
AKA Doc Pomus, a film about the songwriter who would have clinched immortality if he’d done nothing else but come up with the lyrics of “Save The Last Dance for Me,” ends with a bunch of the documentary’s talking heads—friends, family, colleagues—taking a vocal crack at a few lines from that tune.
It’s a song everyone knows, and the list of professional music people who have done it is so long that someone could do an entire film about its life since the first, definitive version by The Drifters, lead vocal by Ben E. King. (He’s among those talking heads, as are the record’s producers, Mike Stoller and the late Jerry Leiber; seeing them sing it is only one of the movie’s heart-tugging moments). The record was cut at King’s final session as the group’s singer, on May 19, 1960, and was released as a single on Atlantic Records in August, 60 years ago this summer, becoming a #1 single on both the pop and R&B charts.
The song’s genesis is an often-told story. Stricken with polio as a kid, Pomus couldn’t walk without crutches, and certainly was unable to dance, so at his wedding, in 1957, he encouraged his bride to dance with the other guests while he stayed at the table and watched her. On the back of one of the wedding invitations, he sketched out a few lyric ideas for what would become “Save The Last Dance for Me”. It’s a song about love, trust and frustration. But on the record all you hear is the swirling romance in Stan Applebaum’s arrangement, Mort Shuman’s seductive Latin-influenced melody, and King’s passionate vocal that hints at the ache behind the gesture of “go and have your fun ’til the night is done and it’s time to go.” There are a lot of perfect Drifters records, and a bunch of them were written by Pomus & Shuman—“This Magic Moment,” “I Count the Tears,” “Sweets for My Sweet,” “(If You Cry) True Love, True Love,” “Spanish Lace”—but there’s something that pierces the soul in “Save The Last Dance For Me,” and when Doc’s ex-wife starts tearing up remembering the circumstances behind the song, it’ll get to you.
The song has resignation and resolve: the singer might be addressing the woman he loves as she whirls around the floor with another man, or it might be an inner monologue. Please, he could be thinking, don’t get swept away. The chorus begins with the words “don’t forget.” This is sung as a limited permission slip. Because the music sounds uplifting and romantic, it implies a happy ending. “Don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be,” and there’s a certainty in that “gonna.” But what if that’s not the case? What if, after the last dance, she goes off and leaves him alone? Because even if you don’t know the song’s origin story, you know how much is at stake, how the pull of the music, like the “sparkling wine” it’s compared to, can be irresistibly seductive. The meaning of “the last dance” isn’t that it represents the end of a lovely evening, but a pause, an embrace on the dance floor that leads to the rest of the night, to, at the very least, a goodnight kiss. If it isn’t quite a promise, it’s an opportunity (as Donna Summer sang, “last dance, last chance for romance tonight”).
There was a like-titled song in the 1930s, performed by Russ Colombo and Al Bowly, among others, in which the singer asks the girl to “give me one chance before we part.” In 1958, for his album Come Dance with Me!, Frank Sinatra recorded Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “The Last Dance” with a Billy May arrangement; the couple here wants to suspend that moment, to keep clinging to each other even though the orchestra wants to pack up and split. The Cure has a “Last Dance” song, and Craig David has “One Last Dance.” But the Pomus-Shuman song is the one that has stuck around, for six decades now. Some post-Drifters versions stand out: Emmylou Harris, Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, the Mavericks, and Eric Church are among the country-leaning artists who have claimed it, and Jerry Lee Lewis cut it near the end of his tenure at Sun Records. Tom Jones did it on his ’80s TV show, and Willy DeVille, who wore his admiration for Pomus and for Ben E. King on his sleeve, used to slay it live. It was groovily adapted as a reggae tune by the Heptones. And it was a perfect fit for Aaron Neville on Till the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus, with a Wardell Quezergue string arrangement and Steve Cropper on guitar.
There are nice-enough tries by Dion (on his first solo album), The Righteous Brothers, Petula Clark (“Garde La Derniere Danse Pour Moi”), the live ones by Bruce Springsteen, who goes for a soulful twang but sounds strained. And then there are the misfires: Phil Spector’s baroque bombast with Ike & Tina Turner, clueless attempts by Neil Diamond, Paul Anka, and Michael Bublé (and Bruce Willis!), stumbles by U.K. groups The Troggs and The Swinging Blue Jeans and, it must be said, The Beatles, who took a brief, hesitant shot at it during the Get Back sessions and wisely decided to abandon all hope and put it aside (Lennon went on to produce it with Nilsson for Pussy Cats). It also inspired a hit “answer record” by Damita Jo (“I’ll Save the Last Dance for You”) and, misguidedly, a defiant counter-punch by a group called the Townsmen (and by the U.K.’s Billy Fury), “You’re Having the Last Dance with Me,” where another guy steps in and tells the girl “it’s up to you,” and she shouldn’t be beholden to the gentleman who is being so generous and understanding.
Leonard Cohen was doing “Save the Last Dance for Me” for a while in concert, as a closing number, a bookend to his own “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Cohen had a lot of songs that were natural set-enders. “Closing Time,” of course. “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Take This Waltz,” “Bird on a Wire.” What was it about his songs that so many sound like parting words, like after any one of them he could have bowed and shuffled off into the wings? “Tower of Song,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” (with its literal signature, “Sincerely, L. Cohen”).” “Hallelujah,” too obviously. When he died a day before Election Day 2016, I was out at another artist’s arena show, and became wrapped up in all that spectacle and emotion, but when I came home, I had to put on Leonard Cohen’s music, even though I was tired, and played his Live in Dublin album, recorded in September 2013, the one that ends with “Save the Last Dance for Me.” It was the last song he ever sang live, a few months later, in December in New Zealand.
VIDEO: Leonard Cohen performs “Save The Last Dance For Me” live in Dublin, 2013
Maybe if this is, as seems possible, America’s last dance, we know we need people to count on and to cling to. I think of Cohen, gracefully leaving the stage before he got to see the calamity that a number of his songs predicted, before the new sheriff in town came in to break up the dance. The audience (and the angelic-voiced Webb Sisters) sings “Save the Last Dance for Me” along with him, because everybody knows it, everyone has felt its rapturous tug.
No matter what happens in the meantime, the song says, hold on tight to the person in whose arms you’re meant to be. At the end of the night, that’s all you have.