221: The Drifters (Doc Pomus), ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’

Posted by jeff on Aug 21, 2015 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

This posting is dedicated to hedgehog exorcist par excellence, Marcie.

Doc Pomus's Wedding. In a moment, she'll get up to dance.

Doc Pomus’s wedding. In just a moment, she’ll be getting up to go dance with some other guy.

The Drifters – ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’

Oh, how much magic can be couched in 2’34” of a spindly 45 RPM!

Such was our youth: looking at girls, looking for girls, dreaming about girls; cars, hamburgers, baseball; but mostly listening to the Top 40, songs about cars, hamburgers and girls.

The Brill Building, circa 1960. Jewish kids writing sleazy, sweaty pop fodder for black groups. Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Doc Pomus? He don’t sound Jewish.

Doc PomusHe also didn’t act Jewish. In the late 1940s and early 1950s you could see him hanging out in black clubs, performing with the likes of  Milt Jackson, Mickey Baker and King Curtis, cutting a stack of ‘race records ‘ such as ‘Give It Up’ and ‘Love My Good Pott’ (oh, yeah, Doc, that second ‘t’ really is really convincing). By the mid-Sixties he was focusing his efforts on writing for the likes of Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown, and Big Joe Turner, scoring with one of Ray Charles’ first hits, ‘Lonely Avenue’.

Wind it back. Jerome Felder (1925-1991) was a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, severely crippled by polio as a child—short, rotund, on crutches. Still, he had enough juice to marry a hot blonde actress, Willi Burke (more about their wedding in a minute). On their honeymoon, he heard The Coasters singing ‘Young Blood’, a song he’d written and passed on to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They’d rewritten it, but gave Doc a royalty check of $1500, convincing him to leave blues shouting and turn to writing songs for the white kids.


Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus

But he was already 33, fine for a bluesman, but an old man in terms of the pop loop. So he grabbed a nice boy who was dating his cousin when he wasn’t playing piano, Mort Shuman, 11 years his junior. Together they had a string of pantheon hits including ‘A Teenager in Love’ (Dion), ‘Hushabye’ (The Mystics, later The Beach Boys), ‘This Magic Moment’ (The Drifters), ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ (The Drifters, later The Searchers), ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’ (Andy Williams); and ‘Little Sister’, ‘Suspicion’, ‘Surrender’ and ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’, all for Elvis.

In 1965, Mort Shuman moved to Paris. Doc spent the next ten years working as a professional gambler, then returned to music to collaborate with Dr. John and others. It’s all documented in the book “Lonely Avenue” and the film “AKA Doc Pomus”.

The Drifters (Ben E. King lower left)

The Drifters (Ben E. King lower left)

Mortie’s and Doc’s was a true collaborative effort. Doc would write 75% of the words, Mort 75% of the music. One afternoon, Mortie played a ‘soaring’ melody for Doc. That night, rummaging through a hatbox of memorabilia, Doc came across his wedding invitation and had a flash of his most vivid memory: he in his wheelchair watching his lawyer brother Raoul dancing with his new bride. He set to writing. By morning, he had finished ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’.

They gave it to their buddies Leiber and Stoller, who were having a string of successes with the Coasters at Atlantic studios. L&S had been given their first opportunity to produce another group – The Drifters, with lead singer Ben E. King – when owner Ahmet Ertegun and honcho Jerry Wexler were too busy. The song was originally slated to go to Jimmy Clanton. Thankfully, fate intervened. Doc and Mort wrote Jimmy ‘Go, Jimmy, Go’ as compensation.

drifters-savetThe resulting sessions were made under the tutelage of engineer Tom Dowd, who had installed at Atlantic studios one of the three eight-track boards in existence (the other two being owned by Les Paul and the Department of Defense). I recently rewatched this documentary about Dowd, and can’t recommend it highly enough. At 19 he was on the team that built the first A-bomb. Eric Clapton says that “Layla” was essentially Tom Dowd’s album. Go watch that film.

Those Drifters sessions included ‘There Goes My Baby’, the first commercial rock-and-roll recording to include a string orchestra (Leiber: “There were some string instruments lying around the studio from some other session”.) The subsequent sessions included ‘Mexican Divorce’ and ‘Please Stay’ (Bacharach-Hilliard); ‘When My Little Girl is Smiling’ and ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ (Goffin-King); and ‘I Count the Tears’, ‘Sweets for My Sweet’, ‘Nobody but Me’, ‘A Room Full of Tears’, and ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ (Pomus-Shuman).

Bob Dylan, Doc Pomus

Bob Dylan, Doc Pomus

According to Leiber, Ertegun and Wexler were constantly giving the producers flack for bringing in more and more instruments (strings, kettle drums and whatnot). Do you think that had any influence on a young guy hanging around the studio named Phil Spector? E&W still were furious a few months later when a solo session with Ben E. King ran an hour overtime. The session yielded ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘Stand By Me’.

In a rare blunder, Ertegun and Wexler released ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ as the ‘B’ side of the single headed by ‘Nobody But Me’. Thankfully, Dick Clark himself had the prescience to flip it over. The result was a #1 hit, #184 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

doc pomus 3Do I need to tell you how great the song is? How brilliant the arrangement and production? Noteworthy covers include (take a deep breath): Michael Bublé, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris (one of many country covers), Leonard Cohen (why, Lennie?), Nilsson (in dark half-time), The Righteous Brothers, Blake Mills with Derek Trucks  from Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival CD, and Aaron Neville from the tribute album “Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute Album to Doc Pomus”. Even The Beatles gave it a shot on the “Let It Be” sessions.  Jimmy Clanton would have done it better.

There’s only one cover that can hold a candle to the masterpiece that is the original– Ike and Tina Turner, produced by Phil Spector from the same session that gave us ‘River Deep, Mountain High’! But thankfully one magic moment doesn’t preclude another.

Just before the recording, Ahmet Ertegun told Ben E. King the song’s backstory, inspiring him to express so eloquently the maelstrom of emotion raging in the narrator – secure in the knowledge that she is now wearing his ring; but yet wheelchair-bound, jealous and vulnerable, watching her dance ‘with another guy’. All in 2’34”. Oh, that stack of 45s contained a world of wonders.

You can dance every dance with the guy who gave you the eye, let him hold you tight.

You can smile every smile for the man who held your hand ‘neath the pale moonlight.

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.


Oh I know that the music is fine like sparkling wine, go and have your fun.

Laugh and sing, but while we’re apart don’t give your heart to anyone.

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.


Baby don’t you know I love you so? Can’t you feel it when we touch?

I will never, never let you go, I love you oh so much.


You can dance, go and carry on till the night is gone and it’s time to go.

If he asks if you’re all alone, can he take you home, you must tell him no.

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.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)

034: Dionne Warwick, ‘Walk On By’ (Burt Bacharach)

220: Cilla Black, ‘Alfie’

117: Carole King, ‘It Might as Well Rain Until September’

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220: Cilla Black, ‘Alfie’

Posted by jeff on Aug 7, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week
Cilla Black, Burt Bacharach recording 'Alfie'

Cilla Black, Burt Bacharach recording ‘Alfie’

Cilla Black – ‘Alfie’

Starting in the eighth grade, peaking in my sophomore year in college, and schlepping into dodderdom, the eternal question: “How can you judge music? How can you say one song is better than another?”

I’ll tell you how. Listen to Cilla Black’s ‘Alfie’ Listen to a thousand other ladies singing it. Listen to 10,000 other pop hits from the same era. You’ll cease asking the question. It’s engraved in the sky. This is fine, fine music.

The story is as long and twisted as a bolt of Mexican spaghetti after a weekend in the Ankara bus station.

In 1966, Michael Caine was already a star (“The Ipcress File”), a new breed of sex symbol –bespectacled. My mother said I resembled him; but, alas, she was the only female to see that. He was cast as a serial womanizer in a British comedy-drama which presaged the current plague of Generation Y’ers: urban, disengaged, self-serving, sharp and witty, acutely cute.

Cilla Black

Cilla Black

The producers wanted a song as a tie-in to the movie. They convinced Brill Building masters Burt Bacharach and Hal David to try their hand at it, despite the pedestrian name (“Alfie’s a dog’s name.”) For a change, Hal wrote the lyrics first, working from a line in the script: “What’s it all about?” Here’s Burt describing the process and singing it (“my favorite song of ours.”)

B&D wanted their default chanteuse, Dionne Warwick, to sing the song, but the producers wanted a Britte, so when Sandy Shaw turned it down they turned to Liverpudlian Cilla Black, stablemate and childhood friend of Les Beatles under Brian Epstein’s management.

In SoTW 034 I expounded and expanded about Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Dionne Warwick, and their masterpiece ‘Walk On By’.

Burt Bacharach & orchestra, 'Alfie' sessions at Abbey Road Studio One, 1965

Burt Bacharach & orchestra, ‘Alfie’ sessions at Abbey Road Studio One, 1965

Cilla had already had a Bacharach/David hit in the UK, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, a pale imitation of the stunning original Bacharach arrangement for Dionne. She was hesitant, insisting that Bacharach come to England to conduct and play piano, trying to quash the deal. He agreed, and a legendary session of 31 takes with a 48-piece orchestra took place in Studio One at Abbey Road under the direction of Bacharach and George Martin. This clip tells the fascinating story, and is well worth watching.

The single was released in January 1966, eight months prior to the opening of the film, essentially intended to promote interest in the upcoming film. It went nowhere in the US, but became a Top Ten hit in the UK.

The director objected to the B&D song being used in the film, feeling it would interfere with the Sonny Rollins jazz score. A compromise was reached in which the song would appear over the closing credits. But!—

Cher singing 'Alfie' on The Smothers Brothers Show

Cher singing ‘Alfie’ on The Smothers Brothers Show

The Suits decided to commission a new version–by young hottie Cher (here in a memorable shocking yellow mini-dress on The Smothers Brothers’ TV show), produced by hubby Sonny (Bono, not Rollins; and not that Bono, but the mayor of Palm Springs—oh, forget it!) which was released as a single in June, and made it up to #32.  Bacharach said laconically that Cher’s version was “different than how I had envisioned it.”

To coplimcate the matter even further—there were at least eight other versions recorded by the time of the movie’s release (August, 1966). I won’t even go into which version was included on which version of the movie soundtrack record.

But little Alfie (the shaggy dog—see the final scene from the movie) keeps going. B&D recorded Dionne singing the song as an afterthought at the end of a session in 1967, hitting #15.

Despite its messy release history, ‘Alfie’ has become one of the most iconic pop hits of the past half century, a song that can stand proudly with the best of the Great American Songbook. It’s been covered by everyone and the kitchen sink, including Stevie Wonder’s knockout harmonica hit version from 1968 (here live with Burt), a lovely version by Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston.

Paul and Cilla

Paul and Cilla

Somewhat more in my comfort zone, it gives us a rare chance to compare versions by my two favorite pianists: Bill Evans (here from an incredible film of a home performance in Finland, 1969 with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell, including a chat on the creative process) and Brad Mehldau (here from an outstanding 2003 bootleg, Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier).

Cilla Black died this week. Her small reputation in the US was as a cohort of The Beatles et al in the early days of The Cavern. There’s a quite charming, unpretentious British mini-series bio-pic “Cilla” from 2014 documenting those days quite realistically, recommended for fans of the era. But in the UK, she had 11 Top Ten hits from 1964-1971, including three written for her by Lennon and McCartney (‘Love of the Loved’, ‘Step Inside Love’, and ‘It’s For You’, three very evocative clips).

Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick

Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick

From the late 1960s, Cilla began a long career as a hostess of a variety of television shows, making her a major household face and name in the UK.

I’ve watched this clip about her recording ‘Alfie’ with Burt Bacharach and George Martin several times, enjoyed every time. (Here are Burt and Cilla, some years on, reminiscing about the session.) Treat yourselves. I don’t think you or anyone on this earth will disagree—‘Alfie’ is one heck of a good song.


What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?

And if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel;
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule?

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.

I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.



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035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)

Posted by jeff on Jul 31, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week

This week we’re going to make our first stop in a planned series (though not consecutive), following Miles Davis’ remarkable voyage through the 1950s.

Let’s take 1947 as our starting point, when the WWII swing bands were dropping like brontosauri (all the young folk who had frequented clubs were staying at home nights parenting us baby-boom babies). The music that was thriving on 52nd street was bebop–fast, frenetic, insolent, wild and witty, indulgent, brilliant, and not to be danced to! The Man was Charlie (Bird) Parker (b 1920), whose music and life were the epitome of freedom – loose, unconstrained abandon.

Miles Davis (b 1926) was raised in the very bourgeois home of a St Louis dentist. Much to his father’s chagrin, he took to jazz trumpet. A tender 18-year old in 1944, he joined the traveling Billy Eckstine big band in which Bird was playing alto sax. When they finally landed in New York, Charlie wanted to rebuild his old bebop quintet (here on film). But his old playmate Dizzy Gillespie refused to play with him any more because of Bird’s impossibly dissolute lifestyle, so Bird gave young Miles his big break.

Les Double Six–‘Boplicity‘ (here’s a whole post on their music)

Mark Murphy–‘Boplicity

Miles Davis Nonet–‘Move

Miles Davis Nonet–‘Jeru

Miles Davis Nonet–‘Israel

Miles was never the greatest trumpeter around. He had very limited technique, so he stuck to playing select notes in the middle register of his trumpet simply because he couldn’t play as fast or as high as many of his contemporaries. Bird apparently didn’t mind, and Miles was happy to be in the company of the most renowned jazz musician of the era. Throughout the two years he played with Bird, Miles stayed clear of drugs and booze (though not of women). But Bird’s penchant for damaging himself and those around him was as great as his genius as a musician, and Miles left him in 1949.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Claude Thornhill was a dinosaur in the post-WWII years, maintaining a Swing-era style dance band whose distinguishing style was slow, dreamy ballads. Gil Evans (b 1912), wanted to write an arrangement of a Bird song for Thornhill, (here’s Bird’s version of “Anthropology”, here’s Gil Evans’ arrangement) and approached Miles to get some help with the charts. So began a legendary partnership.

In 1948, Miles was hanging out with a group of young musicians at Gil Evans’ apartment behind a Chinese laundry. They exchanged ideas and played together informally. Evans was the guru, Miles was the driving force, but the music was a group effort according to the many accounts. They played a couple of gigs opening for Count Basie, and recorded 12 sides. They were so insignificant commercially that they had no real name (The Miles Davis Group, The Miles Davis Nonet, The Miles Davis Tuba Band). But over the years this effort became a legend, known as The Birth of the Cool.

The 12 cuts recorded in 3 sessions in 1949 were originally released as 78 RPM singles; 8 of them were released on a 10″ record in 1954, 11 of them on a 12″ LP in 1957 under name “Birth of the Cool”. Numerous versions have been released since. In 1998 they were released together with the (inferior) live performances, called “The Complete Birth of the Cool”. In recent years, Gerry Mulligan created a “The Rebirth of the Cool” group; the reconstructed scores were released in book form; and bands and combos all over the world play the charts regularly.

Miles Davis was an angry young man. He fought with police and the white music business establishment. In the early 1950s he displayed angry Black Pride almost a generation before that mindset gained wide currency. And yet, paradoxically, his great music from the 1950s was sweet, poignant, romantic, a monumental marriage of the black jazz tradition with white European music.

I don’t know how to explain that. Critics don’t address the subject very much. But the music, all agree, is heavenly. It’s also commonly called ‘pivotal’ and ‘seminal’, because it pretty much single-handedly established Cool Jazz–the predominant mindset of modern jazz.

Miles (and Evans) used a nonet for these recordings–trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto sax, baritone sax, piano, bass and drums. (as opposed to the typical bebop quintet or swing band of at least 16 musicians). The use of French horn and a tuba for tonal breadth was unique in jazz, the latter employed for the first time not as a bass/rhythm instrument, but as a melodic one. In reaction to both bebop and swing, the sound they created displayed a light, vibratoless tonality, subtle rhythm, pure tone, legato phrasing. They stressed the seamless integration of scored sections with improvised elements.

The song we’ve chosen from the collection is “Boplicity”, written by Miles (under his mother’s maiden name, Cleo Henry) and Evans (uncredited), arranged by Evans. Solos are (in order) by Mulligan (baritone sax), Miles, and John Lewis (piano).

The influence of these recordings cannot be overstated. Gerry Mulligan soon split for California (a la Jack Kerouac), forming there a pianoless quartet with young Chet Baker and starting the first school of white jazz, West Coast cool. John Lewis formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lee Konitz, the only musician participating in all three recording sessions, has had a magnificently varied career, and is still going strong at 82. (He’s one of my favorite musicians, and you’ll surely be hearing a lot more of him.) Miles had already begun dabbling in heroin at this time, and would soon sink into a 3-year abyss. But he would go cold turkey on his father’s horse farm and return to form his first quintet (with young John Coltrane), and record 2 masterpieces in collaboration with Gil Evans (‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Sketches of Spain’) and one of the great albums of modern music, ‘Kind of Blue’–all before the decade was out.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just pause for a moment here and treat ourselves to 2’58” of heaven.

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219: Woody Guthrie, ‘Red River Valley’

Posted by jeff on Jul 24, 2015 in Other, Song Of the week

99d5fec500bbed0ab7157cc02058fe5cWoody Guthrie, ‘Red River Valley’

I understand very little of the world today. I was so much smarter when I was a baby-boomed tyke, and there was a whole lot less to know. The world was simpler, clearer, black and white.

Well, mostly white, at least at Lowell Elementary School in Lima, Ohio (I jest not). There were two black kids (Joey Rowe and Charley Thomas—jeez, the things you remember; where are my car keys, now?), and  a (very pretty) black teacher in the fourth grade, which shocked my Kentuckian wife, whose elementary school was just being integrated around that time.

10811C058But other than those two black kids  and the one Hebrew, it was a good, pure, Christian American class. No immigrants. No Commies. No sexual deviants. And do you know why? Because we sang together.

Now we got rainbows and diversity. Playlists and sampling and hip-hop and Heavens to Murgatroyd who knows what else. Today if you go into an American classroom and ask them to sing the same song, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. If they speak English at all.

Every week Mrs. Weadock or Mrs. McGillicutty (okay, I’m making those names up) would hand out 30 copies of the same songbook, and we would sit upright in our 30 desks, warped and woofed, open to the same page and sing the same song. Without any of that newfangled harmony, just the melody line, all 30 of us. A good old Amircan song! Like the great cowboy love song ‘Red River Valley’.

751588_525_350_wThere was a prolifery such songbooks. I remember oh-so-well ‘The Fireside Book of Folksongs’ (Simon and Schuster, 1948), more or less my first exposure to singing.  For some reason, I have on my shelf ‘The Golden Book of Favorite Songs’ (Hall & McCreary, 1915). The multi-editioned ‘The American Songbag’ is the granddad of them all, published by poet Carl Sandburg in 1927. He “bestowed a powerful dignity on what the ’20s called the ‘American scene’ in a book he called a ‘ragbag of stripes and streaks of color from nearly all ends of the earth … rich with the diversity of the United States.’” It was young Pete Seeger’s introduction to the American musical legacy.

It’s available on-line. I guess today you could get all the neighborhood kids together (if you could drag them away from their playstations), take them to a nearby forest (if you could avoid arrest for molestation), build a campfire (if the fire department ordinance permitted), seat them in a circle (‘Isn’t there an app for this?’) and lead a singalong (“Click on ‘Go to page 130’”, if there’s wifi available).

It wouldn’t be the same.

tumblr_mao4io3GFM1rbvbqyo1_500I do believe in tribalism. I’m partial to societies based on commonality and community, involvement and engagement. That’s really the reason that I chose to live in this little corner of the world, and the reason I go to prayer meetin’ regularly. But I realize the world has changed and that I’m speaking Relic. Well, tough.

One of the best conversations I’ve ever had was in 2008 in Västerås, Sweden, with an 18-year old Brazilian and a young professional Swedish singer. We talked about community singing in our various countries. Sweden still has a very strong folk and church repertoire shared by the vast majority of the population, similar to what I remembered as a kid from Hicksville. Brazil lacks that shared traditional songbook, but does have the archetypical bossa nova repertoire to draw from. Israel is so new that even the young folk remember the old songs, both naturally and by the conscious choice of musicians choosing to delve into that tradition (discussed in SoTW 184, Arik Einstein’s ‘Ruach Stav’).

All three of us agreed that it’s a better world when people, especially young ones, sing together. If they have a common well of traditional songs to draw from, they can do so with great joy.

DSC_0009Do kids today sit together to sing Kate Perry, Taylor Swift and Eminem? I doubt it. And if they do, I’ll betcha they don’t know all the words to all the verses, like we did to ‘Blue-Tailed Fly’ and ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

Did singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ keep me from going out at night and stealing hubcaps? No, it didn’t. But at least it probably made me feel bad about it.

What’s the moral of this yarn? Well, there is none. I’ll just sit here on the front porch in my rocker, chew on a piece of hay, sip corn likker from a Mason jar and mutter about how the world’s gone to the dogs.

But I will have my laptop, with a 50 Mb broadband wifi connection.

So I’m gonna click ri’chere and sing along with good old Woody Guthrie singing ‘Red River Valley’. The earliest known written manuscripts of the lyrics bear the notations “Nemaha 1879” and “Harlan 1885,” which are the names of both counties in Nebraska and of towns in Iowa, but there’s speculation that the song was composed at the time of the Wolseley Expedition to the northern Red River Valley of 1870 in Manitoba.

Here’s Carl Sandburg’s version of the song. Sing along, friends and neighbors, Facebook acquaintances and strangers. Click here and turn to 130, so we’ll all be on the same page.

24-07-2015 10-54-28

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