Born Mortimer Shulman, 12 November 1938, Brooklyn, New York City
While either on his own, or teamed with songwriting partner Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman has authored some of the most lasting songs in pop music. Born to Jewish immigrant parents, Shuman studied at the New York Conservatory, but felt rejected and alienated by his peers in Brooklyn. Identifying with the Black Community in Harlem, Shuman's true musical education came within the area's raucous r&b clubs, where he soaked up the sounds of Ruth Brown and others.
In 1955 the songwriter met fellow white r&b devotee Doc Pomus and the two took up residence in a small Greenwich Village flat, forming what was to become a very successful songwriting partnership. Pomus was already an experienced song writer (and blues singer) then, but he needed someone to help him to write teenage songs. He showed Mort his songs and said he would take him as an apprentice. For the first six months of their partnership, that's just what Shuman was, an apprentice. He would sit with Doc while the latter worked and once in a while throw in a suggestion of his own.
Together the duo signed on as writers at the Brill Building, working in one of those legendary cubicles with a piano and two chairs. Unlike most other Brill Building writers, they were not contracted to Aldon Music (the publishing company of Don Kirshner and Al Nevins), but to Hill and Range. Their first Top 40 hits came early in 1959: "Plain Jane" by Bobby Darin and "I'm A Man" by Fabian. The latter song was also recorded by Shuman himself, during a visit to the UK, with Joe Brown on guitar ; it came out on Decca. The next song they penned for Fabian was their first Top 10 hit, "Turn Me Loose", soon followed by "A Teenager In Love" by Dion and the Belmonts, which went to # 5. During the next six years, their catalogue was estimated at over 500 songs, in a mixture of styles for a variety of artists. They included "Surrender", "Viva Las Vegas", "Little Sister" and "Kiss Me Quick" (Elvis Presley), "Save The Last Dance For Me", "Sweets For My Sweet" and "This Magic Moment" (the Drifters), "Can't Get Used To Losing You" (Andy Williams), "Suspicion" (Terry Stafford) , "Seven Day Weekend" (Gary "U.S."Bonds) and "Spanish Lace" (Gene McDaniels).
Those early '60s songs represented the zenith of Shuman's creative output ("Save the Last DanceFor Me" alone has been played across the airwaves over 4 million times). After breaking up with Pomus in 1965, Shuman collaborated with several other writers. These included John McFarland for Billy J. Kramer 's UK number 1, "Little Children", Clive Westlake for "Here I Go Again" (the Hollies), ex-pop star Kenny Lynch for "Sha La La La Lee" (Small Faces) and "Love's Just A Broken Heart" (Cilla Black), and producer Jerry Ragavoy for "Piece Of My Heart" (Erma Fanklin) and "Get It While You Can" (Janis Joplin). Subsequently, Shuman moved to Paris, where he occasionally performed his own one-man show, and issued solo albums such as "Amerika" and "Imagine ...", as well as writing several songs for Johnny Halliday. In 1968 Shuman began translating the French lyrics of Belgian composer Jacques Brel. These were recorded by many artists including Dusty Springfield, Scott Walker and Rod McKuen. Together with Eric Blau, he devised, adapted and wrote lyrics for the revue "Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris". Shuman also starred in the piece, which became a world-wide success. He also became a star in his own right in France (and several other European countries, like Holland) when several of his French-language songs became hits.
In October 1989, "Budgie", a musical set in London's Soho district, with Shuman's music and Don Black's lyrics, opened in the West End. It starred former pop star, turned actor and entrepreneur, Adam Faith, and UK soap opera actress, Anita Dobson. The show closed after only three months, losing more than £1,000,000. Shuman wrote several other shows, including "Amadeo, Or How To Get Rid Of It", based on an Ionesco play, a Hong Kong portrayal of Madame Butterfly and a reworking of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill 's opera "Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny". None has yet reached the commercial theatre. Shuman died at the age of 52 in a London hospital from complications due to a liver operation.
Further reading: Spencer Leigh, My room has got two windows : the songwriting genius of Doc Pomus. In four parts. Now Dig This 243-246 (June-September 2003).
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