“Save The Last Dance For Me” is a secret ode to obsessive love
Doc Pomus (Photo: William P. Gottlieb courtesy of the Library Of Congress)
Doc Pomus (Photo: William P. Gottlieb courtesy of the Library Of Congress)

“Save The Last Dance For Me” is a secret ode to obsessive love

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

When Rolling Stone compiled the votes of nearly 200 music-industry heavyweights to create its 2004 list of the “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time,” The Drifters’ 1960 R&B ballad “Save The Last Dance For Me” secured spot #182. In the accompanying commentary, the magazine asserted the song “made the end of the party sound like the essence of true romance.”

When it comes to true romance, however, there is a fine line between affection and possession, and this composition—despite the catchy cha-cha beat and the cheerful major key—dances right up to that line.  

The song was written by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, a duo that churned out many iconic songs that extol love’s various ups and downs: “A Teenager In Love,” (Dion & The Belmonts, 1959), “This Magic Moment,” (also The Drifters, 1960), and “Can’t Get Used To Losing You,” (Andy Williams, 1963).

An early urban legend posited that the narrator of “Save The Last Dance For Me” was injured in battle and therefore physically unable to dance with his lady, and the true genesis of the song’s theme is but a mild degree away. Stricken with polio as a child, Pomus reportedly had the idea for the song’s lyrics at his 1957 wedding, as he watched his bride (Broadway actress Willi Burke) trip the light fantastic with everyone but him.  

“You can dance (cha-cha-cha) / Every dance with the guy / Who gave you the eye / Let him hold you tight,” the song begins. The narrator appears breezy and carefree, and more than happy to lend his love to others on the dance floor. Moments later, however, the tone becomes more domineering: “But don’t forget who’s taking you home / And in whose arms you’re gonna be / So darling, save the last dance for me.” This repeated line, which features the familiar title, has shades of jealousy implicit in the suggestion that the song’s object could quickly “forget” who she arrived with at the dance in the first place.

As lead vocalist Ben E. King sings Shuman’s and Pomus’ words in a voice as smooth as velvet, there is no hint of anything but affection. But the words themselves take an almost menacing turn as the song progresses: “If he asks / If you’re all alone / Can he take you home / You must tell him no,” the final verse instructs. The use of the word “must” here is unnecessarily abrasive, bordering on controlling.

The bridge argues that the woman is loved “oh so much” by the song’s protagonist, yet she doesn’t receive the slightest bit of credit. Rather, she’s suspected to be the type to disregard a beau after a few twirls around the dance floor. King delivers the song as a man deeply in love and anticipating some one-on-one time. But taken at face value, the lyrics become jealous barbs indicative of a romantic entanglement lacking in trust. 

“Save The Last Dance” is one more (although perhaps more subtle) in a string of songs that dealt with the subject of keeping one’s woman in line. The Beatles provided two more of these in 1964 and 1965, respectively, with “You Can’t Do That” and “Run For Your Life.” The first merely chides the song’s object for the “sin” of talking to other men, while the second resorts to outright threats: “Catch you with another man / That’s the end (ahh), little girl.”

In 1965, The Zombies instructed would-be suitors to “Tell Her No,” should their lady-friend attempt to flirt with others. The next year, The Rolling Stones bragged that they had their formerly wild partner under control, or rather, “Under My Thumb.” At least John Lennon, Rod Argent, and Mick Jagger/Keith Richards were overt in their hopes for control, versus hiding beneath the guise of supposed “romance.”

It is perhaps no surprise that this lyrical trend toward uncomfortably dominant themes accelerated in the early ’60s, just as the women’s liberation movement was also gaining momentum. The percentage of women in the workforce jumped from 32.3 percent to 40.8 percent during the decade, the birth control pill was introduced, and the National Organization For Women took root. Farewell, Betty Draper. Hello, Betty Friedan.  And amid the aforementioned anthems of patriarchal control, Lesley Gore of “It’s My Party” fame released the pointedly titled “You Don’t Own Me” in late 1963:  “You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys / You don’t own me, don’t say I can’t go with other boys.”              

The theme of obsessive love remained in music even decades later. The 1983 ballad “Every Breath You Take”—the most commercially successful single for The Police—is, like “Save The Last Dance For Me,” frequently thought to be romantic in connotation. But Sting himself acknowledges the malevolent subtext. It’s not about a man who is so in love he can’t take his eyes off his object of affection; it’s about a stalker who can’t move on.  In both songs, perhaps the narrator loves his significant other the best way he knows how, but more than that, he hates the thought of her giving attention to anyone else. 

“Save The Last Dance For Me” was the only number-one hit for The Drifters—even “Under The Boardwalk” only reached number four—and to this day, it’s a mainstay on wedding playlists. But in the harsh reality of life off the dance floor, lyricist Pomus and his dancing bride Burke divorced about five years after “Save the Last Dance For Me” sashayed to the top of the charts. Perhaps they should have seen it coming.

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