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The Drifters

Save The Last Dance For Me

The earliest memories of Brooklyn-born Jerome Felder began when he was seven years old in 1932 when his parents sent him away to camp. One morning, Jerome woke up and couldn’t feel his legs. His parents met him at the Connecticut camp and returned home with Jerome in tow to their Brooklyn home. It was at a Brooklyn hospital where he was diagnosed with polio.

Reading books and listening to the radio now occupied days that were once reserved for running freely with friends and playing kickball in the streets. Instead, his way of life consisted of spinning the radio dial where he could connect with the outside world. There was classical music and pop featuring the stars of the day. But what really caught his attention were the Negro stations, as they were referred to at that time. The uninhibited variety held his attention and inspired him to become a part of the scene as he learned to play the alto sax.

After years of home schooling and a few years of classes at a nearby rehabilitation clinic, Jerome was enrolled in regular high school in 1939. The crutches and braces on his legs weren’t his only impediment, as he had to deal with the insensitivity of other students. The only class he enjoyed was music. He played alto sax in the band and learned to sight-read, compose harmonies and write lead sheets and arrangements.

Jerome and three other students from the band formed a group and played at a local dive called the Lincoln Cabaret. Paid in dollars and beers, the young Felder couldn’t believe his luck. It was about this time he made a life-changing discovery.

At a local record shop, Jerome heard a record by Big Joe Turner titled Piney Brown Blues. Turner’s effortless shouting of the lyrics convinced Jerome that this is the way a man should sound. He wanted to make that sound himself but as a sax player, he just wasn’t sure how to do it.

Fate took care of that. One winter afternoon with snow on the ground, Jerome was making his way home navigating the icy streets. Teenagers were hurling snowballs as one errant throw caught Jerome’s right hand and broke his fingers. When the cast was removed, he never regained feeling as the fractures didn’t heal correctly and nerve damage was present. The dream of a career as a sax player had ended.

It’s been said when one door of opportunity closes, another one opens. For Jerome, it happened one night while at a nightclub without money to even buy a beer. And so, the owner of the club comes up to him and says, “What are you doing here, kid?” And he says, “Oh, I'm a blues singer.” The club owner responded, “Yeah, you're blues singer so, let's sing some blues.” So, he gets up and the band that night is Frankie Newton, one of the great trumpet players in jazz. And suddenly, Doc has to sing the blues. (1) It was the audience response—not just the lukewarm applause but, the routine acceptance of somebody who belonged on the bandstand, as a legitimate performer, that flipped the switch in his mind. In the space of a couple of minutes, he’d suddenly become a blues singer. (2)

Jerome found his calling. That night had transformed him. When he stepped on the stage, he was a blues singer. It was time to give the singer a new identity. “Doc came from the fact that I really liked an old blues singer, Doctor Clayton. And Pomus - I don't know. It was just traveling in a subway with my cousin, Max, we kept fooling around with different sounds and it sounded right. So I became Doc Pomus,” Jerome, now Doc, recalled in the documentary AKA Doc Pomus.

Working gigs around the New York City area, Doc grew in stature and eventually recorded some 40-50 sides from the late 40’s through the mid-50’s for labels such as Chess, Apollo and others. By 1955, Doc couldn’t get his songs played on the radio. Among those songs was a side titled Heartlessly, a toned-down song to fit in the sound of times.

Alan Freed, the nation’s top DJ, loved the song and played it on his show Alan Freed’s Rock ‘n Roll Dance Party. Within a month, it was a jukebox hit. RCA bought the master from Dawn Records and it appeared as if Doc was poised for a breakout hit. Only nothing ever happened. “It could have been a hit. But then the record company that acquired this recording discovered that Doc was a 30-something-year-old, disabled, Jewish guy on crutches. And I think their hopes for him becoming a pop star dimmed and they didn't release the record,” stated Peter Miller, co-director of the film AKA Doc Pomus, in a NPR interview. (1)

Once again, Doc faced the fork in the road. Realistically, he realized that writing songs was all he could do. It’s not what he wanted to do, but it kept him connected to music. When Ray Charles recorded Lonely Avenue in May of 1956, a song Doc had written and it became a top ten hit on Billboard’s R&B chart, Doc knew which path that fork would take him. However, he would have company.

Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus in a 1959 publicity photo.

Photo courtesy of Felder Family Archive.

In the autumn of 1955, Doc’s cousin, Neysha met Mort Shuman through her boyfriend. Shuman sang in local doo-wop quartet though his real love was rhythm and blues. It was Neysha who set up the meeting with Doc and Mort at her mother’s apartment. Awkward because Doc was 30 and Mort was 18, they hit it off when Mort played some blues riffs on the family piano. They were also missing puzzle parts. For Mort, Doc epitomized the lifestyle Mort dreamed about; For Doc, Mort played the same rhythms coming out of jukeboxes around town. Doc didn’t grasp the appeal but understood the future. With Mort’s feel for the current direction of teenage music, wouldn’t he be the catalyst for Doc’s new direction?

This odd-couple arrangement worked as the hits kept coming. A Teenager In Love for Dion, Hushabye for The Mystics, This Magic Moment and Sweets For My Sweet for The Drifters, Can’t Get Used To Losing You for Andy Williams and a host of hits for Elvis Presley including Little Sister, Suspicion (a Top Ten hit for Terry Stafford in 1964), Surrender, (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame to name just a few, were written by the partnership of Pomus/Shuman. According To Pomus, “Shuman wrote about 75% of the melody and about 25% of the lyrics.” (3)

In the summer of 1956, Doc met his future wife, an aspiring actress/dancer named Willi Burke, at the Broadway Central hotel where they both lived. Blonde, blue-eyed, Catholic and 23-years old, Willie hailed from Westville, Illinois. It was another seemingly mismatched relationship that would play a large role in Pomus’ life.

Milli and Doc around 1960.

Photo courtesy of Felder Family Archive.

They married on Doc’s 41st birthday on June 27, 1957. The reception was held at Gluckstern’s Deli where, after the meal, tables were pushed to the side to make way for the post-nuptial dancing. When Willi was asked to dance, she refused saying “I only want to dance with the groom.” It was Doc who insisted she dance and not sit down for his sake.

Reluctantly, she walked out on the dance floor with Doc’s brother Raoul, who would become a prominent New York attorney. Doc could only admire her from his chair as he watched Willi dance with family and close friends. It was his cold reality knowing that he would always watch from the side wondering what she was thinking with another man’s arm around her waist while her right hand was clasped in his left hand.

Nearly three years later, Doc found a wedding invitation in a hatbox under a stack of postcards. The moment he remembered best about his wedding day was watching Willi dance with Raoul at Gluckstern’s in her white dress. Sitting up alone and smoking as night turned into morning, he wrote on the back of the invitation to a soaring Latin melody that Mort had played for him that afternoon. Matching the words to the melody, the song began with, You can dance every dance with the guy who gave you the eye, let him hold you tight. It was a love song but there was also the touch of insecurity as he continued, If he asks if you’re all alone, can he take you home, you must tell him no. With the verses complete, he titled the song Save The Last Dance For Me, left it on the coffee table and went to sleep. (2)

Formed in 1953, The Drifters had success with R&B hits like Money Honey, Such A Night and Honey Love. Lead singer Clyde McPhatter was drafted into the US Army and when discharged, decided to pursue a solo career. The group continued to record with six different lead singers through 1958 when manager, George Treadwell, owner of the Drifters name, fired the entire group due to a multitude of disagreements. Treadwell had a contract with New York’s Apollo Theater for two appearances annually of the Drifters so he hired a whole new group that was performing as the Five Crowns.

When the Five Crowns changed their name to the Drifters, lead singer Benjamin Nelson also changed his name to Ben E. King. Under the direction of producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, this lineup of the Drifters scored a #2 hit on the pop charts with their first effort, There Goes My Baby, a song penned in part by King, Leiber and Stoller. The song debuted on the Billboard Pop chart on June 1, 1959, staying on the chart for 19 weeks. (5) The song is considered to be the first rock and roll single to have a full orchestral backing. (6)

With the Drifters a hot ticket for the Brill Building teams of songwriters, Leiber and Stoller had no shortage of talent from which to choose. The duo of Pomus/Shuman supplied two hits with (If You Cry) True, True Love in 1959 and This Magic Moment in early 1960.

With these two Top 40 songs under their collective belts, the Drifters were presented with the song that would become the biggest-seller in Atlantic Records history—Save The Last Dance For Me. On May 19, 1960, the Drifters stepped into the New York studios of Atlantic Records and recorded four songs—Sometimes I Wonder, Nobody But Me, I Count The Tears, and Save The Last Dance For Me. The session was also the last for lead singer, King, as a member of the group.

When Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun told King the back story of the Pomus/Shuman effort, the lead singer, touched by the story of a man crippled by polio watching his bride dance with others at their wedding, had to fight back his emotions as he delivered the performance of his career.

The Drifters in 1959. L-R: Charlie Thomas, Ben E. King, Dock Green and Elsbeary Hobbs.

Photo courtesy of the Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

For a reason lost to history, the song and the performance failed to impress Atlantic owners Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. They relegated the song to the B-side of Nobody But Me, another Pomus/Shuman song.

Disappointed, Doc took the song to a New Orleans based singer on tour in New York by the name of Jimmy Clanton. They rehearsed the song and were ready to record it when Dick Clark turned the 45 over and heard the B-Side. Clark played Save The last Dance For Me on American Bandstand and the song shot up the Billboard Pop chart. Released on September 5, 1960, it placed at #1 on October 23rd. It dropped to #2 for a week and then returned #1 on November 6th where it remained for two weeks. (5)

In a footnote, Doc made it up to Jimmy Clanton. When Doc and Mort’s song Go, Bobby, Go was met with a half-hearted effort on the part of teen idol Bobby Rydell, Doc took the song to Clanton, changed the title to Go, Jimmy, Go and watched as the kid rode the song to #5 in early 1960. (7)

All things change in rock and roll. Ben E. King, tired of earning $200 a week for the Drifters, proceeded with a solo career in May of 1960 that earned him three Top Ten hits from 1960-1986. He passed away in April of 2015.

The team of Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus lasted through 1965. Shuman moved to Paris in 1966 where he continued to collaborate with other composers. He was a co-writer of The Hollies hit Here I Go Again and Little Children by Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. He died of cancer in November of 1991.

Doc collaborated with Phil Spector, Leiber and Stoller as well as Dr. John after 1965. For ten years after the breakup, Doc made his living as a gambler as the demand for his work dried up when artists who wrote their own songs such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan, arrived the rock and roll horizon. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992. He died on March 14, 1991 of lung cancer.

Numerous artists have recorded Save The Last Dance For Me. Dolly Parton released her version in 1984 reaching both the country and pop charts. Michael Bublé had an Adult Contemporary hit with the song in 2005. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song at #182 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.

This YouTube video includes a pictorial tribute to The Drifters.

This interview with Doc Pomus was recorded in April of 1990, less than a year before he passed.

A.K.A Doc Pomus - Official Movie Trailer 2012

1) NPR Music, The Life Of Doc Pomus, Songwriter To The Stars, October 24, 2013. Link

2) Halberstadt, Alex, Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times Of Doc Pomus, 2007, Page 21.

3) AKA Doc Pomus, Interview, 2012. Link.

4) Halberstadt, Alex, Pages 94-95.

5) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 209.

6) Bronson, Fred, The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, Page 77.

7) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 132.

Doc Pomus in 1947.

Photo courtesy of William P.Gottlieb/Library of Congress.

© 2018 Jerry Reuss

Copyright  2009