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This song tells the story of a couple at a dance. He tells his wife that she is free to dance and socialize with other men throughout the evening, but she should not forget that she is going home with him. Inspiration for the song came from a very personal experience.
The songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote this song. In Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus
, Alex Halberstadt explains that one night, Pomus found a wedding invitation in a hatbox, and back came 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. Shuman had played him a soaring Latin melody that afternoon, and he wanted the words to sound like a poem translated into English - something along the lines of Pablo Neruda. By the second verse, a hint of jealousy and vulnerability creeps in with the lyrics, "If he asks if you're all alone, can he take you home, you must tell him no." Pomus ended his night of songwriting by writing down the words that would become the title: "Save The Last Dance For Me."
Pomus and Shuman were writers for Atlantic Records, where they worked with the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who produced this song. Leiber and Stoller were great with Latin rhythms, which is what they used here and what Pomus had in mind with the flow of the lyrics. Leiber and Stoller were using The Coasters to record most of their songs at the time, and had asked Pomus and Shuman to write songs for The Drifters.
The Drifters lead singer for this song was Ben E. King, who a few months later started scoring solo hits with "Spanish Harlem
" and "Stand By Me
." When they were recording the song Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun told King how the song was inspired by Pomus watching his wife dance with another man at his wedding, and King drew on that story to wring out the emotion in his vocals.
In a rare bonehead move by Atlantic Records honchos Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, they relegated this song to the B-side of another Pomus/Shuman composition called "Nobody But Me." It was Dick Clark who broke the song when he flipped the single and played "Save The Last Dance" on his show American Bandstand. The song gave The Drifters their only #1 hit.
It was three years after his wedding to Willi Burke that Doc Pomus wrote this song. Willi was a tall and beautiful actress - quite a contrast to the rotund Pomus. They had a daughter together, prompting Pomus to focus on songwriting, which was much more stable and lucrative than singing. Their marriage fell apart in the mid-'60s, when they separated.
For a while, Lou Reed lived in the same neighborhood as Doc Pomus, and they became close friends. Reed has said that Pomus' daughter gave him the wedding invitation containing the words Doc started writing for this song.
Emmylou Harris in 1979 and Dolly Parton in 1984 have had Country hits with this song, and Michael Bublé reached #99 in the US with his version. Later in 1960, the Texas soul singer Damita Jo released an answer song called "I'll Save The Last Dance For You," which hit #22 in the US.
A 1974 version by The DeFranco Family, who had a big hit the year earlier with "Heartbeat - It's a Love Beat
," hit #18 in the US, and was their last hit.
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