[Leonard Cohen] doesn’t do many covers,
but his set-closing rendition of “Save the Last Dance for Me”
almost makes you forget the Drifters version even exists.1
The Poignant Origins Of “Save The Last Dance For Me”
“Save The Last Dance For Me,” a song Leonard Cohen regularly covered in concerts since the 2012 Ghent shows, was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and was first recorded and popularized in 1960 by Ben E. King with The Drifters. In the lyrics, the narrator tells his lover she is free to dance and even flirt with another man throughout the evening.
You can dance
Ev’ry dance with the guy
Who gives you the eye
Let him hold you tight
You can smile
Ev’ry smile for the man who held your hand
‘Neath the pale moonlight
He goes on, however, to insist that she save him the final dance at the end of the night.
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
This excerpt from the New York Times2 describes how Doc Pomus, who had contracted polio as a child and spent the rest of his life on crutches or confined to a wheelchair, came to pen the lyrics to “Save The Last Dance For Me:”
The crowning achievement was the Drifters’ sublime “Save The Last Dance For Me.” In a story straight out of Hollywood, Pomus actually wrote the lyrics on the back of an invitation to his own wedding, remembering how it felt to watch his bride [Willi Burke, the woman who married Doc Pomus, was a Broadway actress and dancer] dance with his brother, knowing that he himself was unable to navigate a dance floor. “Under his pen,” Halberstadt writes, “the simple declaration of love he set out to write wavered, giving way to vulnerability and fear.”
Unsurprisingly, there are several variations of this story. During an interview on Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle, Lou Reed, who worked with Pomus, said the song was written on the day of Pomus’s wedding while the wheelchair-bound groom watched his bride dancing with their guests. In his biography of Pomus, Alex Halberstadt reports that some time after the wedding, Pomus found the wedding invitation in a hatbox, which brought back his most vivid memory from his wedding: watching his brother Raoul dance with his new wife while Doc, who had polio, sat in his wheelchair. Inspired, he stayed up all night writing the words to this song on the back of the invitation.
Possible Cohen Connections
Leonard Cohen was, of course, a colleague of Lou Reed, who was close to and worked with Pomus and was largely responsible for popularizing at least one version of the story of how Pomus wrote the lyrics.
Cohen was, however, also associated with at another individual linked to the song – Phil Spector. Spector, who worked together with Cohen to produce the Death Of A Ladies’ Man album, was an apprentice of sorts with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at the same time they produced “Save The Last Dance For Me.” While it is unknown if Spector had any input on the production of this single, Wikipedia notes that “many Spector fans have noticed similarities between this record and other music he would eventually produce on his own.” And, in 1966, Spector did revise the song, producing the Ike and Tina Turner version of the hit.3
Update: “I’m Your Man,” the biography of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons, offers two references to Doc Pomus.
One was a quote by Hal Willner, who reported that he (then an intern at CBS) and Doc Pomus “loved that record [“Death Of A Ladies’ Man,” the Phil Spector – Leonard Cohen collaboration] … we used to listen to it all the time.”
The other alluded to Doc Pomus, “Spector’s friend,” visiting Spector’s home during the time Spector and Cohen were working on Death Of A Ladies’ Man. A bit of research turned up this more extensive description from He’s a Rebel: Phil Spector, Rock and Roll’s Legendary Producer by Mark Ribowsky (Da Capo Press, January 9, 2007):
That Doc Pomus spent a month at Spector’s home in 1977 when Spector and Cohen were engaged in creating “Death Of A Ladies’ Man,” an album Doc Pomus loved and to which he and a young Hal Willner often listened does not, of course, necessarily indicate that the interactions that then took place between the Canadian singer-songwriter and one of the writers of “Save The Last Dance For Me”4 somehow led to Leonard Cohen covering that song 35 years later.
But it would seem to improve the odds that a personal liaison between the two men influenced, at least indirectly, Leonard Cohen’s choice to add “Save The Last Dance For Me” to his standard concert set list.
Update: In a comment to the original post, Jugurtha Harchaoui wrote
At Goldstar Studios, Doc Pomus took Leonard Cohen aside & exhorted him not to work with Spector – Doc Pomus couldn’t have been more explicit — I haven’t seen this fact mentioned too often in the various accounts because it doesn’t fit into the we’re-all-a-big-family fiction that people like to hear — people always prefer unrealistic fiction?
Why Leonard Cohen Covered “Save The Last Dance For Me”
It’s tempting to speculate that “Save The Last Dance For Me” holds special significance for Leonard Cohen because Lou Reed told him about how Doc Pomus came to write the song or because he has some meaningful memory trace of Phil Spector playing the tune in those days of drugs, alcohol, and guns that eventuated in Death Of A Ladies’ Man album or because of the connection between the Canadian singer-songwriter and Pomus himself.
But, statistically, it is more likely that Leonard Cohen liked “Save The Last Dance For Me” for the same reason he thought Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” was “one of the greatest songs in history”5 – it’s the sort of record that would be on a good jukebox. Asked the “biggest influence on [his] music,” Cohen reported
The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. … I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.6
Or, more to the point in this case.
You want to hear a guy’s story, and if the guy’s really seen a few things, the story is quite interesting.7
Doc Pomus had, after all, seen a few things.
Update: It turns out my speculation was correct. I know I guessed right because after the Oct 31, 2012 Austin Concert, when I asked Leonard Cohen why he covered “Save The Last Dance For Me,” he responded
“I always liked that song.”
Leonard Cohen – Save The Last Dance For Me
Ghent: Aug 12, 2012
Video by MaartenLC
Credit Due Department: Special thanks go to Jugurtha Harchaoui, who first made me aware of the back story of this song. Photo atop this post taken by Gottlieb, William P. – Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikipedia
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Oct 21, 2012 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. Some material has been updated.
- 50 Greatest Live Acts Right Now by Jo Lopez. Rolling Stone: July 31, 2013 [↩]
- This Magic Moment by Alan Light. New York Times, March 25, 2007 [↩]
- Source: Best Phil Spector Productions [↩]
- It appears there was at least one other set of contacts between the two men. From The Untold Story of Pomus & Shuman: “We also hear about Doc’s philanthropic side; he regularly held writers’ workshops for budding musicians in his apartment, which attracted guests like Lou Reed, Robert Plant, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.” [emphasis mine] [↩]
- Leonard Cohen Gave Me 200 Franc by Martin Oestergaard. Euroman, Denmark, September 2001 [↩]
- Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994 [↩]
- Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician, July 1988 [↩]