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.
|Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus. |
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.
|With Brel, source L'Express/AFP.|
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|
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.
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!
- Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map:
- Mort Shuman's grave, Cimetière des Pins Francs, Caudéran
- Mort Shuman website: www.mortshuman.com, featuring extensive biographical information and an interesting section called Mort on Mort, the outline sketch of Shuman's autobiography.
- Ce dossier est également disponible en français !