Song 245: The Drifters, “Save the Last Dance for Me” (1960)

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“Save the Last Dance for Me” has one of my favorite melodies in all of pop music. I’ve said this about other songs, but I can’t think of a better word for it: it’s so symmetrical. Not literally, of course—it’s not a musical palindrome—but it seems to begin and end exactly where it should, as if it follows a perfectly even arc.

Legend has it that one of the song’s co-writers, the wheelchair-bound Doc Pomus, came up with the idea behind “Save the Last Dance for Me” on his wedding day, after watching his bride dance with other guys. In a pop universe filled with romantic angst and melodrama, the song must have been a breath of fresh air, a story about security and confidence instead of mistrust and despair. Ben E. King, of course, can sing the hell out of anything, but he didn’t need to sell this one too hard to make it land. He just had to sing it.

“Save the Last Dance for Me” was just one of the Drifters’ many hits, which include “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway” and “This Magic Moment.” Though the group’s songs were steeped in sweet memories, their history had anything but: their Wikipedia page details legal dealings, infighting and other kinds of acrimony. Listening to Ben E. King tell his loved one that everything’s always going to be just right, you’d never know it.

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