Song 114 – Save the Last Dance for Me

SONG: Save the Last Dance for Me

ARTIST: The Drifters

YEAR: 1960

Listen to it here: 


“Save the Last Dance for Me” was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and first recorded by the Drifters in 1960.  It spent 3 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard charts.  It has since been covered by a bajillion different artists since.  The story of the song (according to Lou Reed, who worked with Pomus) was that at their wedding, Pomus was confined to a wheelchair because of polio, told his new bride (a dancer) that she can dance with guests and whomever she liked but reminds her that she’s coming home with him at the end of the night.


The original Drifters were created in 1953 when Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun had tenor Clyde McPhatter arrange his own vocal group. At first McPhatter got some of his church choir together, but Ertegun didn’t like the lineup.  The second time around, the group was glued together from other doo wop and gospel groups.  This version of the Drifters had a hit with “Money Honey” released in 1953.  1954 saw more line up changes, this time with McPhatter himself leaving after being drafted and leaving the group’s management to George Treadwell who rotated through members and made sure they were not paid well.  The group’s next lead singer was McPhatter soundalike David Baughan, but record executives did not like working with him due to his erratic behaviour.  Through the last years or the 1950s the Drifters continued to be a revolving door of musicians, leading to one of the members getting into a fight with the master of ceremonies for the Apollo Theater, which ticked Treadwell off so much that he fired the entire group, hired a new group called the Five Crowns and renamed them The Drifters.  One of the original band members began touring as “The Original Drifters”, and continued the ongoing lineup changes but never saw big success.  Treadwell’s group, “The New Drifters” featured lead singer Benjamin Earl Nelson AKA Ben E. King but when they toured were met with hostile audiences due to not being the original members.  When it came time to record, Ertegun hired Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to produce because of their recent success with the Coasters.  This era saw the Drifters record their biggest hits including “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment”.  Tensions led to even more personnel changes and King left when he asked for a raise and royalties and was denied.  New lead singer Rudy Lewis lead the group to some more success with hits like “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway”.  They were supposed to head into the studio to record “Under the Boardwalk”, but Lewis died the night before the recording session and bandmate Johnny Moore took over.  The group never saw the same level of success but continued to rotate out band members and record.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.


There were a total of 60 members who rotated through the Drifters.

“Save the Last Dance for Me” was supposed to be a B side, but Dick Clark convinced producers that it was the stronger song.


As my boyfriend would say, this is a big chune!  I’ve heard this song about a billion times, this version and Michael Bublé’s recent hit cover.  Also, I was this many years old when I learned that Ben E. King was one of the Drifters…why didn’t I know this until now?  Anyway, let’s start with the band – they sound bored to death.  Like it might as well have been pre-programmed on a Casio keyboard.  No dynamics, no variations, no improvisation, just ‘ting ta ting’ on the triangle and muddy guitar.  Oh and also a string interlude, because why not?  That part is high key fromage.  Ben E. King sounds great – he has a really beautiful voice, although underused here.  The melody allows for a little bit of emotion, but I was thirsting for some really juicy singing from King.  The background singers, now that I listen more closely, seem like they need work.  The harmony is fine, but sometimes a bit out of tune, especially the baritone.  Actually, he’s the one I take most umbrage with – he’s not always as tight as the singers, definitely sloppier and sounds like he’s trying to steal attention but singing slightly louder than everyone else (we all knew one of THOSE singers).  Having said all that, somehow it all comes together and works?  I like the song!  I definitely like the later Drifter’s songs, but this one is still a hit.


This is such a song of a certain time! It seems to be on the cusp between two eras, which I guess is really true. The Drifters sound great, but somehow their background singing sounds almost comical (I don’t know if it’s the timbre of the bass voice, or the repeated “You can dance, you can dance, you can dance). And speaking of outdated, this song DOES NOT need that string section showing up! However, even with these oddities, I still don’t dislike this song. It sounds like a melody that can go in a bunch of different directions stylistically. The tango bass line and……triangles? Spoons? Whatever metal-on-metal percussion is going on is definitely a choice. The song itself I really like, but I almost wish The Drifters had leaned fully in one direction or another. The strings sound tame, and then insert one quasi-bluesy line. The singing is good/tame, but then the humming sounds like it’s hinting at something grittier. I kind of wish they had gone for mould-breaking grittiness. Still, this song is able to make you smile and sway along, and there’s something to be said for that. 

Average mark out of 10:

Holly: 7/10

Kelly: 7.5/10

Other notable versions of this song:

I love Dalida so you all have to listen to this Italian version:

Emmylou Harris blue grasses it up!

And of course local boy Michael Bublé:

Listen with us!

Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:

Published by Kelly

What I like: Music, travel, coffee, beer, makeup and photography! My gear: Canon EOS 60D and 18-200mm lens. Where call home: Vancouver, BC, Canada Photography Experience: Very amateurish.

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