One of the most illustrious permanent residents of Cimetière des Pins Francs , in the Caudéran district of Bordeaux, is none other than t...

New York - London - Paris - Caudéran: the life of the legendary songwriter and singer Mort Shuman

One of the most illustrious permanent residents of Cimetière des Pins Francs, in the Caudéran district of Bordeaux, is none other than the legendary songwriter, pianist, singer and sometime actor Mort Shuman, the man who penned the melodies of some of the most famous songs of the 20th century.

Mortimer Shuman was born in Brooklyn in 1938, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. The young Mort began studying philosophy at the New York City College but was expelled after a year because he spent too much time playing rhythm and blues piano in local bars, putting to productive use the piano tuition previously dispensed to him by the Julliard School of Music. He switched academic paths and went on to study music at the New York Conservatory, and began writing songs at the age of 18.

Shortly afterwards, he was introduced to fellow songwriter Jerome Solon Felder, known as Doc Pomus and some 13 years his senior. The two went on to form a songwriting partnership under contract for the publishers Hill & Range from 1957 onwards, their base being the famous Brill Building in New York, where they had been allocated a tiny room with nothing other than an upright piano and an ashtray for company (after unsuccessfully trying out a far more spacious and luxurious office!).

Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus.
Over the subsequent years the pair wrote no less than 500 songs together, with the split generally being that Shuman composed the music, Pomus the lyrics. It’s safe to say that many of their songs went on to become timeless classics which we have all sung along to in the past: Save The Last Dance For Me and Sweets for my Sweet, as principally made famous by The Drifters; Can’t Get Used to Losing You, the Andy Williams hit which the singer notoriously hated; as well as around 20 songs recorded by Elvis Presley, including Suspicion and Viva Las Vegas. (Surprisingly, Shuman never got to meet Presley.) Many of the songs were also given new leases of life by other artists, with renowned cover versions by artists such as Bruce Springsteen and ZZ Top.

By the mid-1960s, the Pomus/Shuman partnership had run its course and the songwriters went their separate ways; their paths rarely crossed again (their last meeting was at an awards ceremony in 1984). Inspired by the British “invasion” of bands kick-started by the Beatles, Shuman was now spending a great deal of time in swinging London, where the hits continued with other fellow songwriters. These include Cilla Black’s Love’s Just a Broken Heart and Sha-La-La-La-Lee, performed by The Small Faces. Back in the US, he also penned songs for R&B singer Howard Tate, notably Get It While You Can, which later became one of Janis Joplin’s standout tracks.

How many Mort Shuman songs do YOU know? Watch this video and find out!

With Brel, source L'Express/AFP.
In 1966, Shuman was holidaying in Saint-Tropez in southern France and discovered the work of Jacques Brel. This was a defining moment for Shuman, who then set about translating a number of Brel’s songs, before creating the review Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which ran for many years in New York before being turned into a film, released in 1974. Shuman's English-language texts became the definitive articles, and featured in recordings such as David Bowie’s 1973 take on Port of Amsterdam. Shuman became a self-confessed disciple of Brel, and was profoundly affected by the Belgian singer-songwriter’s death in 1978.

In 1969, Shuman released his first album as an artist in his own right, My Death, shortly before the artist’s French connection moved up a gear. Indeed, many of Shuman’s songs had already been translated into French and performed by artists including Frank Alamo and Eddy Mitchell, and during his regular trips to Paris, Shuman had felt distinctly at home. He therefore moved to the French capital in 1971, living in an apartment which looked out onto the Eiffel Tower.

Mid-1970s promo shot
And then, in a surprising twist to this backroom boy’s career path, Mort Shuman himself became a massive easy listening music star in France throughout much of the 1970s, writing with collaborators including Etienne Roda-Gil and releasing a string of French-language hit singles including Le Lac Majeur (which, despite clocking in at over 5 minutes, was one of the biggest-selling songs of 1972), Allo Papa Charly and Un été de porcelaine. He also penned the autobiographical My Name is Mortimer with his first French wife Elisabeth Moreau.

During those years as an unlikely star in his own right, Shuman's notable projects included soundtrack music for À nous les petites anglaises, regular TV appearances alongside contemporaries such as Johnny Hallyday, Michel Sardou and his friend Eddy Mitchell, an acting role alongside Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, a number of summertime concert tours, and a fully-blown musical entitled Ma Ville which was, in effect, a collection of love songs for Shuman’s adopted home city, Paris. Although released as an album, the musical failed to gain much-needed support and backing, and was never performed live. This left Shuman disappointed and frustrated.

Distant Drum, Mort Shuman's
1991 swan song.
Although he continued to develop a number of projects in France, in 1986 Shuman and his family – second wife Maria-Pia with whom he now had three daughters, Barbara, Maria-Pia and Eva-Maria – relocated to London, where Shuman focused on music for TV and on writing a production put on in London's West End, Budgie – The Musical, starring Adam Faith and Anita Dobson and based on a 1970s TV show. Throughout this period, the Shumans regularly stayed in France… at a house they owned in the Caudéran district of Bordeaux. Although little information is readily available, it would appear that the family of his wife Maria-Pia was from the area.

In 1990, Shuman recorded another English-language album, Distant Drum, which was released the following year, around about the time that Shuman’s former writing partner Doc Pomus died from lung cancer. Sadly though, within weeks Shuman too was fighting his own battle with liver cancer, and after a failed last-chance attempted transplant he passed away in London on November 2nd 1991, a few days short of his 53rd birthday. His first resting place was in Golders Green Jewish Cemetery in the London Borough of Barnet. Among the small group of acquaintances to attend the short burial ceremony were Johnny Hallyday and Eddy Mitchell. There would, however, be one final journey for the artist: Shuman's body was transferred a number of years later to what is presumably his wife’s family vault in Cimetière des Pins Francs, off Rue Soubiras in the Caudéran district.

A quarter of a century down the line, does any connection remain between Shuman and Bordeaux? It is said that members of his family still live in the area although it is unclear whether it is his widow or daughter(s). I did send an enquiry to the official, family-endorsed website dedicated to the life and career of Mort Shuman, also in the hope of finding out where his Caudéran “villa” was located, but have yet to receive a response. If I do find out, I will gladly share the information here!

In the meantime, we can continue to enjoy the music of the man whose name was Mortimer, who was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1992 and whose songs formed an integral part of our collective soundtrack to the 20th century!

Invisible Bordeaux organised an impromptu sing-song at Mort Shuman's grave with a small group of friends on a rainy Sunday morning. It went something like this:

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