The story goes that Mort Shuman had come up with a good Latin-sounding melody. He played it for his writing partner, Doc Pomus, and Doc had that melody in his mind as he worked at home that night. There was a wedding invitation somewhere … it had just come in the mail, or it was lying around, or … well, there are many stories about that invitation. Pomus looked at it, and thought back to his own wedding, to a Broadway dancer named Willi Burke. Pomus had polio as a boy, and had trouble getting around for his entire life after that. One of his fondest memories of his wedding was watching his new wife dancing with his brother. That memory came to him as he wrote the words to Shuman’s melody. At the end of the night, he wrote down the title: “Save the Last Dance for Me”.
Ben E. King was one of the “new Drifters” that were formed in 1958 after the group’s manager fired the previous members. With King, the Drifters had several memorable hits, most importantly “There Goes My Baby”. In 1960, King went solo, and was a successful artist on the R&B charts for many years, with “Stand by Me” being perhaps his most long-lasting song. When recording “Save the Last Dance for Me”, King was told the story about Pomus’ wedding by label boss Ahmet Ertegun, and he had that in mind as he sang.
The song begins with a lightly-strummed guitar and bass, with King jumping in quickly. “You can dance” he proclaims, singing alone for the moment, “Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight”. Strings rise quietly in the background as King sings, “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”.
The rest of the Drifters join in on the second verse. King needs their backing, because the man in the song is faltering a bit: “While we’re apart, don’t give your heart to anyone”. Eventually, a brief burst of strings breaks up the vocal for a moment, after which King returns to repeat to his woman, “save the last dance for me”.
There were many cover versions. Dolly Parton had an early-80s hit that sounded very much of its time, almost synth pop. Harry Nilsson included it on his mid-70s album Pussy Cats … he ruptured a vocal cord during the sessions, roughening the vocals, and the song was taken at a dirge-like pace, as if the singer might fall asleep while his beloved was on the dance floor. Even Bruce Willis gave it a try on the second of his two late-80s albums … a try, not a success.
“Save the Last Dance for Me” is an irresistible song to cover, but you aren’t just matching yourself to the beauty of the song, you’re matching yourself to Ben E. King. And you’ll always lose that one.
I can’t count the times I’ve posted a video here that features this recording. It comes from the finale of the first season of the American version of Queer As Folk. Justin is at his senior prom, with his BFF Daphne as his date, because his true love, the 30-year-old Brian, can’t commit to their relationship. Suddenly, at the prom, Brian shows up:
It’s still one of the most romantic scenes ever. And every time I’ve posted this, I’ve ended it here. But Doc Pomus and Willi Burke eventually got divorced. And that wasn’t the last scene of that first season of QAF.