"One Monday evening about three years ago a very big New Yorker came to my house, made his way towards the piano and sat down to play and sing a song he had just finished. It was called “I Want My Own Life” and the man’s name was Mort Shuman.
As he played, my daughter and one of my sons lingered in the doorway to listen. Mort Shuman didn’t know, but they did: this was a big moment in their father’s life. Shuman wrote the songs I listened to as I came of age. He put to music my emotional development. In the immediate pre-Beatles era he and Doc Pomus, his first co-writer, composed some of the best songs of the early Sixties. There was “His Latest Flame”, “Suspicion” and “A Mess of Blues” for Elvis Presley, “Cant Get Used To Losing You” for Andy Williams, and, best of all, “Save The Last Dance For Me” for the Drifters. There were also about 5,000 others: “Sweets for My Sweet”, “A Teenager in Love”, “Little Children” – numerous hits.
There is no currency quite like the successful popular song. At its best it is immediate in the emotions it touches, timeless in its appeal and universal in its acceptance. Wherever Mort Shuman went in the world he was certain to hear one of his songs – on the radio, in lifts, in bars and on aeroplanes. Almost everyone reading this page today will know at least some of his music.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1938, the son of Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, and, although classically trained (“I think my mother must have seen Carmen at least 35 times”), began writing pop songs while still at school. In his late teens he was introduced to Doc Pomus, who was in a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, and for the next six years they wrote songs for the best of that generation of American performers Pomus writing the lyrics and Shuman composing the melodies.
In the early sixties Mort Shuman always saw beyond the 12 bar blues riff which was being turned into rock and roll all around him. He liked melody and was fascinated by the Latin American rhythms which he would hear in dance halls in the Spanish-speaking quarters of Manhattan. The influence of South American rhythms can be heard in much of the music of the time.
In the mix-Sixties he moved to England and adapted his style to suit the new British acts who followed in the Beatles wake, but his career changed again in 1968, following a holiday in France, he and the poet, Eric Blau adapted 30 songs by Jacques Brel to create the off-Broadway musical, JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS.
It was during the London run of the show that I met him for the first time. He was a vastly larger-than-life character. He was my hero then, as Jacques Brel was his. “I think you could say that I’m really just the midwife to Brel’s music” he told me. The delivery was successful, and produced more hits: MATHILDE and JACKIE for SCOTT WALKER. “IF WE ONLY HAVE LOVE” for DIONNE WARWICK.
By now he was in love with France and moved there to begin a third career, composing 15 French films scores and writing and performing songs in French. In France everyone knows his name.
A few years ago, wanting a career writing musicals, he returned to London and wrote BUDGIE, from a book by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. But it was not a success; meanwhile, the show he and I planned never got off the ground, and after about a year working together we went our separate ways.
Las November, after a short illness, he died of cancer. Doc Pomus, whom you used to regularly carry up the stairs of the Brill Building in New York when they were working there together, had died earlier in the year.
So why is Mort Shuman my hero? It could be, but it isn’t, just for the songs he gave us. There was something more than that. Morty actually had a feel-good quality. No one ever left him not feeling better for the world. He never whinged. He enjoyed life, being a total enthusiast and optimist, and he loved his work. “Lets face it, we ain’t exactly making noive gas here” he would say of his songs, exaggerating a Brooklyn accent.
Morty always had a good time, wanting and getting the best of everything. He could recommend the best restaurants and bars in every capital city of Europe. He loved Europe, speaking French with only the slightest trace of an accent, and also German, Spanish and Italian. He knew so much about art, music, theatre, history and football.
He may have enjoyed life too much. He was once a drinker, but in his last few years was strictly under doctor’s orders; he took pleasure in buying expensive wines for his guests so that they could enjoy what he was forbidden. “It’s good isn’t it?” he would say, having spent an eternity perusing the wine list. “Enjoy it for me”.
He died a comparatively young man, of an illness he had kept secret, leaving three daughters. “He had a wonderful life” his widow told me recently. “He was rich in himself”. To get the most out of everything without hurting anyone else is no bad life."
HEROES AND VILLAINS
The writer RAY CONNOLLY looks back over the rich career of the late Mort Shuman, a songwriter and singer of heroic proportions. Independent Magazine 30 May 1992