Still saving: When Buck Owens gave a rock 'n' roll classic a twirl

Nov. 4—Ramblin' Round touched last week on bluegrass bands that recorded bluegrass versions of rock songs — just another of the many examples of the cross-pollination that occurs within musical genres.

Numerous other examples abound. I'm not talking about those artists, whether bands or solo singers, who occasionally dip their feet into another musical style simply to add an album track. When that happens, it's often obvious by either a relatively heartless performance or by a rendition that sounds like it's missed the heart of the matter, as Don Henley stated in one of his solo hits.

Nope, I'm talking about those musical artists who go full-bore, who sound as if they're ready to grab that song and shake it up — whether it's a tender ballad or an uptempo stomper, who sound as if they're putting their soul and heart into their performance, whether on a recording, a concert stage or a smaller stage.

Some of my favorites among these cross-pollinations of genres is when a country music-based artist makes one of those heartfelt excursions into the soul and rhythm and blues formats. Again, I'm not talking about those country artists who simply cover a soul or R&B song as if it's only album filler. I'm talking about those who are ready to dive deep — and by that I definitely don't mean someone who simply tries to mimic the vocal sounds of a soul or R&B artist, but someone who treats those songs with the feeling they deserve.

I can think of several offhand that have become such favorites of mine that they've endured on my perennial playlist.

Sometimes years might pass before I hear one of them, but when I do, I'm right back there, felling like I'm going home again, despite Thomas Wolfe's opinions to the contrary.

One of my go-to songs when it comes to country music artists tackling a rhythm and blues song is the version of "Save the Last Dance for Me" by Buck Owens and The Buckaroos. Buck and the boys were flying high when he decided to include the R&B chestnut by the Drifters on his "Together Again" / "My Heart Skips a Beat" album.

A couple of years earlier, the Drifters, with the great Ben E. King on lead vocals, took the song to #1 on both the R&B charts and the Billboard Hot 100.

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos recorded for Capitol Records in Hollywood, far from the then-more restrictive environs of Nashville, Tennessee, where — with the exception oh Johnny Cash — country music artists were not allowed to use their road bands when making studio recordings. It's hard to imagine what Cash's early recordings would have sounded like without the "boom-chicka-boom" sound of lead guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, later augmented by drummer W.S. Holland.

Cash's first record labels, Sun Records and especially Columbia, must have wisely concluded those even those ace Nashville studio musicians might have a challenge replicating the earthy sound Cash and his band created, even if those Nashville cats played all the same notes.

Still, Cash proved an exception. Even Lefty Frizzell had to contend with having his later Nashville recordings awash with background choruses Nashville producers were so fond of at the time.

Willie and Waylon and the boys would have a big hand in changing that Nashville bias toward musician's road bands in the mid-1970s, when they fought for and won the right to record with their regular touring bands, but at the time Buck recorded "Save the Last Dance for Me," likely the only reason he got to record with his band was because he recorded the song at Capitol studios in California.

But what a difference it made. The Buckaroos were nearly as identifiable on Buck's biggest recordings as Buck himself. With Don Rich on lead guitar, harmony vocals and the occasional fiddle, along with steel guitarist Tom Brumley, bassist Doyle Holly and drummer Willie Cantu, the Buckaroos were a formidable musical force, whether on the road or in the studio.

When recording their version of "Save the Last Dance for Me," they opened with Buck and Don Rich sining the first two lines of the song in unison, with Rich's high tenor bringing an extra warmth to the vocals when they sang "You can dance every dance with the guy, who gives you the eye let him hold you tight."

They go on to sing in that tight, Everly Brothers-type harmony: "And you can smile, every smile for the man, who held your hand beneath the pale moonlight." But Buck goes on to sing the song's third line alone, which only adds to its pathos: "But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're gonna be," doing a vocal run on "home" to make it a three- syllable word, before Rich slides in to join him on "So darling, save the last dance for me."

Throughout, The Buckaroos wrap their version of the song in Brumley's steel guitar lines to great effect.

Ironically, in the original version of "Save the Last Dance For Me" by the Drifters, lead vocalist Ben. E King had already left the group by the time of the recording's release, scoring solo hits with other great songs from the early 1960s such as "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem."

In another twist, the rock 'n' roll songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced the Drifter's hit version of "Save the Last Dance for Me" — but the song was written by another great songwriting team, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.

Leiber and Stoller were writing songs for another vocal group at the time, the Coasters, who were hitting with songs such as "Poison Ivy," "Charlie Brown," "Young Blood," "Searchin'," and "Along Came Jones."

Presumably, Leiber and Stoller wanted to save all of their best songs for the Coasters, and so asked Pomus and Shuman to write for the Drifters.

Incidentally, there's a bittersweet backstory to the writing of "Save the Last Dance For Me." Doc Pomus, who had polio, used crutches and wheelchair to get around. He's spoken of how at his wedding to actress Willi Burke, he sat and watched as she danced with other men, including his brother, Raoul, at their wedding reception.

Years later, during a sleepless night, Pomus came across one of their old wedding invitations and began writing the lyrics to "Save the Last Dance for Me" on the back of it.

Supposedly, Ben E. King had learned the story of how the song came to be written when he recorded the Drifters 'version of the song, which is imbued with King's emotion-hued vocal stylings.

I first came across the version recorded by Buck Owens and The Buckaroos while looking through my aunt Deanna's record collection as a kid when my family and I were visiting her in Carlsbad, New Mexico. I still remember marveling at how well Buck Owens and his band pulled off their take on the great rock 'n' roll classic. Every other track on the album "Together Again / My Heart Skips a Beat" was 100% country.

Buck and the Buckaroos weren't the only ones to tackle "Save the Last Dance for Me." "The DeFrancoFamily had a hit with it in the 1970s. Country music songstress Emmylou Harris hit with it in 1978 and Dolly Parton recorded "Save the Last Dance for Me" in the mid-1980s.

Michael Bublé released his big band version in 2005 and has continued to perform it as recently as during his 2021 tour — which goes to show that a great song will endure through a myriad of musical changes.

Each of the artists gave their recording of the song their own personal touch, but if I'm going to give "Save the Last Dance for Me" a twirl, my go-to guys are the Drifters along with Buck and the Buckaroos.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.