‘The Jukebox. I lived beside Jukeboxes all through the Fifties … You want to hear a guy’s story, and if the guy’s really seen a few things, the story is quite interesting’ (Leonard Cohen)
‘Oh I know that the music’s fine,
Like sparkling wine go and have your fun,
Laugh and sing, but while we’re apart,
Don’t give your heart to anyone.’
(Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’)
Once in a very Blue Moon you turn on the radio and a song comes on that you know, know, from the first instant you hear it, is a song you will love for the rest of your life – however long that may be.
It’s a song you’ve never heard before yet at once you feel familiar with it.
Somehow, it seems you’ve been waiting for this song.
A song that you know, know, is true.
You know, know, this guy is telling you a story ripped from his heart.
You know, know, that this song really mattered to this guy and now it really matters to you.
This is a song that speaks to you.
A song that speaks to some essential human yearning.
Once in a very Blue Moon you hear a song like, ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’.
The Drifters glorious original recording from 1960, indelibly sung by Ben E King, shimmered then in the New York night skies and now it shimmers all over the globe.Embed from Getty Images
Shimmers anywhere a lover burns; oh Baby don’t you know I love you so – Can’t you feel it when we touch?
With every baion beat of your heart you vow I will never never let you go.
But, what if she lets you go?
For the one who caught your eye will surely be given the eye by other guys.
What if she is so intoxicated by the pale moonlight and the sparkling wine that she forgets who’s taking her home and in whose arms she should be when the night ends?
What if when he asks if she’s all alone and can he take her home she says Yes instead of No!
Ah, ah, there’s the rub!
For, however agonising it may be, Love only thrives in freedom.
You make a prisoner of Love and it sickens and dies.
So, sometimes, you have to paste on a smile as your Love enjoys the pale moonlight and the sparkling wine with another right before your very eyes.
You have to have Faith.
You have to have Trust.
The Drifters, led by Ben E King, with Dock Green (baritone), Elsbeary Hobbs (bass) and Charlie Thomas (tenor) soar as they bring all these emotional tensions to quick, quivering life scoring a permanent mark on your heart.
Ben E King had a wonderful gift for balancing strength and vulnerability in his vocals.Embed from Getty Images
There’s a special poignancy in a strong man confiding the intimate terrors and the torments hidden under the confident, life and soul of the party, smile.
It’s one of the reasons ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ is immortal.
Before you have a record you need the song.
And, for the song you need songwriters.
Save the Last Dance for Me was written by one of the greatest songwriting teams of the 20th Century – Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.
Think of, ‘A Teenager in Love’, ‘This Magic Moment’, ‘Little Sister’, ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’, and, ‘Sweets for My Sweet’ just for starters!Embed from Getty Images
Now, if there was ever a guy who had really seen a few things and knew how to tell a story that guy was Jerome Solon Felder, known to the world as Doc Pomus.
Doc Pomus, born in 1925, grew up in Brooklyn, a fiercely intelligent bookish boy who became obsessed by the sounds of Jazz, Blues and Rhythm and Blues you could listen to 24 hours a day on New York radio stations.
Doc was not the kind of guy who had casual interests.
No, when Doc took something up he dove in – head, neck and feet.
So it was with Doc and the Blues.
And, certainly his intimate understanding of the Blues grew in depth when in his youth he was stricken by Polio.
It didn’t stop him writing and singing the Blues.
It didn’t stop him heaving himself on crutches up on to the stages of Jazz and Blues clubs throughout the 1940s.
But, but, it did stop him from triumphantly sweeping his new bride round the dance floor at his wedding.
Instead, he had to smile as other men held her tight waiting for the night to end when, finally, they would share a last dance of their own.
Doc remembered those conflicting emotions when he wrote, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ on the back of one of the invitations to their wedding.
Doc’s lyric throbs with love and longing. With yearning and anxiety.
It’s a mixture that cuts deep into the listeners soul.
Doc’s writing partner, the urbane Mort Shuman, read the lyric and, inspired, devised a melody that has the glittering sheen of tears in the eyes.
So, now you have an emotionally complex and true lyric and a ‘you’ll never forget this once you’ve heard it the first time’ melody and a vocal group with a dynamite lead singer.
You’ve got the song. You’ve got the singers.
What more do you need?
Well, what you need is savvy Record Producers, songwriters themselves, who know from bitter experience, that a great song does not guarantee a great record.
What you need in New York in 1960 is Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.Embed from Getty Images
They will bring in superb musicians like Bucky Pizzarelli, Allen Hanlon, Gary Chester and Lloyd Trotman and frame their expertise in an arrangement that will ensure the great song and the great singers make a great Record.
They’ll make the record start like a beating heart.
They’ll have subtle latin rhythms seducing the ear throughout.
They’ll not shy away from bringing in the sweeping strings when they’re demanded.
They’ll balance the urgent lead vocal with tender echoes from the rest of the vocal group.
They’ll listen and listen again and polish and polish and polish until they’ve made a Record that nothing less than a masterpiece of American Popular Music.
Together, Songwriters, Singers and Producers will make a Record which will never fade for true stories are always true and always recognised as such by open hearts.
An open heart like that of Leonard Cohen.
Leonard will likely have heard, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ on a Jukebox in a cafe in Montreal habituated by fellow Poets and Writers searching for inspiration, recognition and the redemptive fires of love.
Leonard, a Ladies Man if there ever was one, confided that in those days he was no student of music – though he was certainly a student of cafes and waitresses.
But, once he heard a song that really told a guy’s story in a way that he could believe he remembered the number of that song on The Jukebox and punched it in again and again.
And, when he came to have a Jukebox of his own he filled it with Records that told interesting stories.
Records like, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’.
Leonard was a Gentleman and a Scholar of the dance of Love and the dance of Life and knew as a Poet how emotionally powerful precisely chosen words, of the right weight and rhythm, were once set to music.
So, embarking on a career as a Songwriter and performer in the late 1960s he brought all his considerable gifts to his new vocation.
Over the next half century he created a body of work that stands with any in the history of Popular Music.
Deep currents run through Leonard Cohen songs.
Songs about every aspect of the love between men and women and between human kind and God.
Beautiful Songs that illuminate our search for Love without disguising the frequent ugly betrayals we are heir to all our lives.
Leonard knew that Life was so serious that often the only proper response was laughter – sometimes ironic sometimes wholehearted.
Leonard understood the steps and missteps in the Dance of Life.
He knew that we all want someone to dance with very tenderly and long.
He knew that we all want someone to dance with through the panic till we’re safely gathered in.
We all want someone to dance with to the end of love.
As the end of his life approached Leonard reached back to those Jukebox days and began to sing, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ in concert.
It was, in fact, the last song he ever sang in public (though the version featured here is from Ghent some years earlier).
Leonard knew, as Doc Pomus knew, that in dance we stretch out our hands and our bodies and make a connection which can sustain us through the panics and perils of life.
Leonard Cohen and Doc Pomus, each in their own way, danced, danced, danced to the end of love.
Listen to The Drifters and canny old Leonard and make a promise that you’ll save the last dance for the one you love.
For there is one Dance we all do alone as we journey through life to death.
Until that day stretch out your hand.
Take your partner in your arms and dance!
Save the last dance.
The very last dance.
There’s a fine biography of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt ‘Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus’
The film documentary ‘AKA Doc Pomus’ by Peter Miller and William Hechter is a must watch.
I highly recommend Allan Showalter’s Blog cohencentric.com for all things related to Leonard Cohen.
Oh, wow. The memories come flooding back, Thom. My son and I are constantly disagreeing about which is more important – lyrics or music. They have to his symbiotic if relationship here. I’ll forever be kicking myself for choosing Bob Dylan over a Leonard Cohen concert. The latter was a lot more giving.
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Thanks very much. More LC latter. Regards Thom.
A sweet yet strong telling! Thanks… you’ve shared something about one of my heroes… again!
We were blessed to see him… just once! A never forgotten experience… burned into our psyche…
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Thanks AJ. Yes, LC had an aura that lingers. Thom.
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Great post! I never knew the history of some of these familiar songs. Cohen singing “The Last Dance” is new to me. May you continue to dance even in the rain!
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Thanks a lot. More LC later. Regards Thom.