The songwriter of such immortal classics as “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Mort Shuman was fluent in the current musical trends and all musical genres, as well as several languages. With songwriting partner Doc Pomus, he wrote hits for Elvis, the Drifters and more.
Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus were in the upper tier of songwriting duos during rock and roll era of the Fifties and Sixties.
Something of an odd couple—Shuman was eleven years younger and more free-spirited than the earthy Pomus—their improbable chemistry yielded a formidable procession of hits. Their collaboration ran from 1956 to 1966, yielding such indelible classics as the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love.”
They were also—along with Otis Blackwell and the duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller—a frequent source of material for Elvis Presley. Together, Pomus and Shuman wrote fifteen songs cut by Presley, including “Little Sister,” “Suspicion,” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Surrender,” a Number One hit. Shuman wrote “You’ll Think of Me,” also recorded by Presley, by himself.
The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Shuman was born in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, where he attended the same high school as songwriter Neil Sedaka. He took piano lessons, learned guitar, studied music and attended New York’s City College. Doc Pomus, who was scouting for a partner, gave Shuman an informal education in rhythm and blues and urged him to try his hand at songwriting. After tutoring with Pomus for a few years, Shuman became his songwriting partner. It was, in Pomus’s words, “a true collaboration.” Pomus wrote most of the words and Shuman much of the music, but each made contributions to the other’s area of expertise as well. To the relationship Shuman brought a feel for the musical likes of the burgeoning teen market at a time when rhythm and blues began yielding commercial ground to rock and roll. “He had a great ear for what was going on with young kids,” noted Pomus.
Pomus and Shuman’s first modest success was “Kiss and Make Up,” a regional hit for the Crowns (members of whom would later join the Drifters). With a recommendation from Otis Blackwell, Pomus and Shuman got signed to Hill and Range Music. They set about writing hit songs at Hill and Range’s offices at 1650 Broadway and, later, 1619 Broadway (a.k.a. “the Brill Building). Their first major successes came with teen idol Fabian, for whom they wrote “Turn Me Loose,” “I’m a Man” and “Hound Dog Man.” Fellow Philadelphia teen idols Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell also recorded some Pomus-Shuman songs, as did budding star Bobby Darin. While those songs may not have been the cream of their catalog, they gave the duo their first significant exposure in the music business. Soon came the songs that cemented their reputation as top-drawer tunesmiths: “A Teenager in Love” (about which the street-savvy Dion was initially skeptical) and the Mystics’ “Hushabye,” a sublime streetcorner-soul paean to teen romance. Andy Williams had a Number Two hit with Pomus-Shuman’s “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”
Dion DiMucci was impressed by Mort Shuman’s worldliness and versatility. “He was an amazingly talented guy,” said Dion. “He had a photographic memory, spoke more than fifteen languages and sang in even more. He’d take a guitar and suddenly become a flamenco virtuoso or sit down at the piano and transform himself into a Mississippi blues master.”
Pomus and Shuman’s next step forward was writing for the Drifters, at the behest of Leiber and Stoller. Their hits with the Drifters included “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment,” both of them sublime odes to romantic love in which words and music blended with an almost definitive grace. On a musical level, Shuman occasionally worked mambo and other Latin influences—of which he was a great aficionado—into Drifters songs, notably “Sweets for My Sweet.”
The most successful year for Pomus and Shuman was 1961, when thirteen of their songs made the pop charts. Having apprenticed at writing Presley-type songs with teen idol Fabian, the duo began placing songs with Presley himself after his return from the Army. The quality of their material helped Presley compete in the altered landscape of the British Invasion and Motown. They were also some of the best songs Presley cut during his checkered movie-soundtrack years.
The musical landscape changed in 1964 with the success of the Beatles and other British Invasion bands. Pomus and Shuman briefly moved to London to write for British acts. Shuman had some success, co-writing the Small Faces’ “Sha-La-La-La-Lee,” the Hollies’ “Here I Go Again” and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas’ “Bad to Me” with other collaborators. Back in New York, a fall down a flight of stairs left Pomus, who walked on crutches due to polio, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. A subsequent fall from his wheelchair into the street sent Pomus to the hospital. During Pomus' hospital stay, Shuman announced his intention to end the partnership, and he moved to Paris a year later. The last copyrighted Pomus-Shuman song, “Double Trouble,” was cut by Elvis Presley in 1966.
The mercurial, multilingual Shuman wrote songs for French singers Johnny Hallyday and Mike Brant. He also cut records of his own, including the chart-topping French hit “Le Lac Majeur.” Shuman became a devotee of the French singer and composer Jacque Brel. As Shuman told a friend, his discovery of Brel “closed the book on writing rock ‘n’ roll music.” Shuman was struck by Brel’s forthright way of inserting real-world concerns—war, hunger, misery and anguish—into popular song. Shuman befriended Brel and translated many of his lyrics, with collaborator Eric Brau, into English. Shuman and Brel wrote the musical Jacque Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which had a highly successful seven-year run at a Greenwich Village club. Shuman, in fact, played Brel in the production.
Shuman lived in Paris for fifteen years, where he raised a family and became a revered recording artist (with six gold albums) and prolific composer of film scores. He moved to London in order to crack the English-language market as a recording artist. In 1991, Atlantic Records—the label for which he had co-written so many rock and roll and rhythm & blues hits decades earlier—released his album Distant Drum. That same year, Shuman died of cancer in a London hospital just shy of his 55th birthday. In 1992 he was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Inductee: Mort Shuman (songwriting, piano, guitar, vocals; born November 12, 1936, died November 3, 1991)