An appreciation of a great book & a great life
“I write for those who stumble in the night” — Doc Pomus
“If the music industry had a heart, it would be Doc Pomus” — Jerry Wexler
“He was literally the most beloved person I’d ever come across” — author Alex Halberstadt
NOTE: This article was first posted on the original t.o. music pix website on Dec. 20, 2007.
2012 update: A new documentary, A.K.A. Doc Pomus, has just been completed and had its debut on May 13 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. The film did an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Doc’s life (as well as the music and the stories..). I found it really did prove that quote above by author Alex Halberstadt. Very moving, and highly recommended. Not sure when or where you’ll be able to catch it. See www.akadocpomus.com.
See bottom of this article for links to a radio interview with the book’s author and Ben E. King, along with audio clips of Doc’s own releases, plus others doing his music. CD and other references as well.
In almost 40 years of reading books on music, this is one of the best I’ve ever read: a highly entertaining, well-written, tragic, and humorous account of an amazing — indeed, “unlikely” as the title indicates — life. In fact, to call it a “music book” is misleading. It is, more accurately, simply a terrific biography, telling a great story.
Doc Pomus was a paraplegic, an authentic blues shouter, and for a time the most successful pop songwriter in the world (“Save the Last Dance For Me”, “Suspicion”, “Viva Las Vegas”). These were just a few aspects of Doc’s life, memorably captured and recounted by author Alex Halberstadt. A great story, in every sense.
Doc was born Jerome Felder in 1925 in a Jewish immigrant ghetto in Brooklyn. He had an oppressive and troubled childhood; short and overweight, he was crippled by polio at the age of seven, and spent the rest of his life in crutches and later a wheelchair. His parents were usually arguing with or ignoring each other. Not surprisingly, he retreated into his own private world and fantasies. The author was fortunate to have access to the many journals Doc kept through much of his life, revealing his thoughts and inner life.
From the introduction to an unwritten memoir (1984)
I was never one of those happy cripples who stumbled around smiling and shiny-eyed… They’d never look at me and say, “What a wonderful courageous fellow”.
I was always too fucking mad and didn’t have a chip but great big log on my shoulder… My main thing was to act and look cool… I talked the hip talk of the jazzmen… I was gonna be the first heavyweight champion on crutches… Or maybe the first major league pitcher on crutches… I was going to be the most extraordinary and talented and virile man that ever lived.
And underneath, I was a frightened little kid — afraid that my limited physical equipment was not enough to get me any kind of piece of the action out there…
Discovering the Blues
Music was an early escape. At night after everyone was asleep, he’d listen to Beethoven (“the deaf genius”), pull out a baton, and conduct the orchestra. Later he discovered another kind of music — another world — on the black radio stations. His life changed one night when he first heard the huge voice of Big Joe Turner belting out the blues. He was hooked. “The singer shouted out the lyrics with such stupendous, effortless force that Jerome imagined him to be eleven feet tall, six hundred pounds and powered by a steam engine”.
When he had first returned home after two years of sometimes grim rehabilitation following his polio contraction, Jerome would yell “at a frightening volume” to call his mother from the far end of their apartment. Within a couple of weeks, his voice became stronger. This might have only been a curious by-product of his situation, but after hearing Joe Turner several years later, he began trying out a “Joe Turner” voice. Eventually his singing was powerful enough that his mother would come running, and neighbours knock on the walls. This story reminded me of the accounts of young Salif Keita — scorned in his own life as an albino — yelling at the animals around his village, and eventually developing into one of the great voices of West Africa.
Doc becomes a blues shouter
One night in 1943, in a Greenwich Village jazz and blues club, the life of Jerome Felder ended, and that of Doc Pomus was born. Jerome had been holding on to an empty beer glass for an hour when the owner confronted him, telling him to spend some money or get out. Jerome answered, “I’m a blues singer, and I’m here to do a song”. He got up on stage with his crutches and jumped into Joe Turner’s “Piney Brown Blues”. Encouraged — and surprised — by the crowd reaction, and even more by their acceptance of him, he returned the next night. Asked his name by the owner, he replied, “My name is Doc Pomus, and I’m here to sing the blues”. Halberstadt writes, “The paralyzing sense of not belonging began to lift.”
Doc became a blues singer — and a good one. Many of those nights, he was the only white face in the clubs. In those years, some white “hipsters” were hanging out in the jazz and bebop clubs, but not the blues joints. And nobody had heard of a white guy shouting the blues, much less a short, overweight Jewish guy in leg braces and crutches. But Doc was no novelty. He was the real thing. Halberstadt describes a pivotal night, when Doc first left the clubs of Greenwich Village and vicinity to play one of the all-black clubs of Bedford-Stuyvesant
The blacks watched Doc with rapt curiosity. Who was this rotund ofay poseur with his crutches and braces?… No audience had ever watched him so intensely… It hadn’t occurred to him that they’d never seen a white man… on any stage… singing their music….
The room blew up. It was all Doc could do to keep his voice above the hollering… They’d loved him all the more because he was white and owned the music, without fuss or extraneous reverence or apology… Easy, Doc thought. This was home.
Doc sang at Billie Holliday’s nightclub, one night he fronted Duke Ellington’s orchestra, another night, the great Lester Young backed him. He made a lifelong friendship with “the herb”, captured in one of his 40’s singles, “My Good Pott” (“Morning, noon, nighttime too / I need my good Pott all day through”).
But of course, he did not become the next Joe Turner. He played, sang, recorded a few songs, and survived for the next “twelve grinding, stoned, vagrant years during which he was lucky to have made two grand”. By 1955, Doc realized he had to give up his dream of being a blues singer.
During the previous few years, Doc had gained a bit of extra money writing songs for others, including his hero, Joe Turner. But by the mid-50’s, the music world was changing; R&B and rock & roll was all over the charts. Atlantic Records, home of Turner, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and others, wasn’t interested in recording Doc, but they did want his songs. “Boogie Woogie Country Girl”, written by Doc, was as rock & roll as Turner got. “Lonely Avenue” for Ray Charles was a song rooted in Doc’s own life.
Doc definitely had “a way with words”, but had always struggled producing charts. In 1955, he met Mort Shuman, and for the next several years, “Pomus-Shuman” credits were on hundreds of records. They started with the R&B-rooted artists of Atlantic (Turner, The Coasters, Bobby Darin and others), but soon moved to the huge teen market. Doc, who loved the down and dirty blues, now became the master of “adenoidal cries of manhood” and “teenage devotional[s] of custard-like viscosity”. He wrote “Turn Me Loose” for Fabian who possessed “a reliable range of four or five notes, wobbly pitch and not much volume”, and “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love” for Dion whose “oiled lustrous mane framed the delicate face of a criminal”.
Soon, they hit the true big time: Elvis. “Mess of the Blues” found its way onto the B-side of an Elvis single, and by 1961, they were the favourite writers in the “House of Elvis”.
During those same years, Doc found happiness outside the music business. In 1957, he married Willi Burke, an aspiring actress. “He had assumed loneliness and hard luck were lifelong fixtures, but Willi swept them away”. Their wedding though was not a fairy tale. Neither Doc’s Jewish family, nor Willi’s Catholic one was ready to be part of the wedding ceremony (held in a Catholic church). Willi was dismayed to find only a half dozen attendees — all Doc’s friends.
The families did however get together for two receptions: the first at Gluckstein’s Delicatessen; the second at the Waldorf-Astoria. At the deli, the floor was cleared for dancing; When Doc told Willi to go ahead, she protested. “I only want to dance with the groom”. But of course Doc couldn’t dance, so on his wedding night, he sat watching his bride dance with his brother, Raoul. Three years later, it was that scene he remembered most clearly about his wedding day, and on the back of a left-over wedding invitation, he began to write the words to the song that would become Atlantic’s biggest seller in its history: “Save the Last Dance For Me”.
At the recording session, Atlantic owner Ahmet Ertegun told the song’s story to the group’s lead singer, Ben E. King.
The story haunted the young singer. As he waited in front of the microphone, King fought back tears. Moments later, he laid down one of the most sympathetic and exquisitely soulful performances of his life.
[The WNYC audio clip at the bottom of the page begins with an interview with King about Doc and the song].
Despite the commercial and personal success, Doc was still troubled, still insecure. He and Willi — now acting on Broadway — moved out to a ranch house in Long Island. At parties they hosted, he would at times be embarrassed to say what kind of music he wrote. “His hit records and possessions couldn’t insulate him from the perplexed, pitying stares he saw, or imagined [he saw]”. “He’d hated poverty, but it was easier to handle than success”.
Other, unsettling changes were afoot. “The day shift at the Elvis factory was tense and overworked”, and needed constant “product” to pad the interminable Elvis movies. It was an impossible task to write songs of any quality in that quantity. Conflicts developed in his marriage (“Can’t Get Used to Losing You”, sung by Andy Williams reflected this). And the music business was going through another revolution, one that would mean the end of the era of the songwriter, thanks to the Beatles, Dylan and others. As well, Doc’s partner Mort became less reliable, eventually preferring to hang out in Europe with the Stones and others in that music scene.
In 1965, Doc had an accident, injuring himself in a fall from his wheelchair. During his recuperation, Mort told him he was leaving, and a few days later, Willi asked for a divorce.
The next year, Hill and Range, Elvis’s publishing firm didn’t renew his contract. The other singers and acts that he had helped make a success were now passé. Rock had passed him by, and Doc’s life was heading downwards again. When he and Willi disposed of their home, it turned out Doc had neglected to file a tax return in 5 years, and he lost all the proceeds from the sale. “In six years, he’d managed to burn through a quarter of a million dollars… he was utterly, completely broke”.
He got money where he could, including hosting high-stakes poker games, with players like Harry the Horse, Lillie Train, License Plate Benny and Chico Marx’s widow. Eventually, he had to give up poker, after they were raided a few times, both by the police (“Flush the pot”, Doc would cry), and fake cops who would rob the players. One of the regulars had offered Doc a cut in a loan-sharking operation, but was never able to fulfill the promise as he was later fished out of East River, dismembered. That was it for Doc’s poker career.
Doc discovered a great singer he thought would put him back in the business: Bette Midler, but in the end, that turned sour for him as well.
Doc & friends
But someone with the musician genius, soul, and life of Doc Pomus could not bottom out. Too many good people knew and loved him too well. At the annual BMI award dinner in 1973, John Lennon asked to be sat next to Doc, and told him that “Lonely Avenue” was the first song the Beatles had rehearsed together. Around the same time, Doc met a strange character whom he knew made “intensely weird records”. Mac Rebennack — Dr. John — became a close friend and musical partner for the rest of Doc’s life.
Doc became a regular again in the music clubs. One night in 1976, he went to see his old idol, Joe Turner where they renewed their friendship. Doc discovered how badly off Joe was, and helped him recover over $25,000 in royalty payments. In 1983, Doc produced a Turner record, which was nominated for a Grammy.
At the same time, he and Dr. John began writing songs together. Ironically, after those years at the top of the songwriting heap, churning out teen hits, Doc’s new songs were a throwback to how he started: intelligent, mature songs about adult relationships. During his recording of their “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere”, B.B. King had to stop the session; he began to cry after reading the lyrics and understanding what they really meant. Doc was moved that B.B. had sung the song — which was written about his own life — just the way he’d imagined it.
A few years later, Bob Dylan, ironically one of those most responsible for ending the dominance of the songwriter, came to visit Doc for inspiration to overcome a case of writer’s block.
Doc’s world became full with friends, admirers and hangers-on — old and new. Lou Reed visited almost daily. Doc started a workshop for aspiring songwriters, and became heavily involved in the Rhythm and Blues Foundation which helped former R&B performers who had fallen on hard times. His old songs came back to life (he made more money from Dolly Parton’s recording of “Save the Last Dance” than he and Mort had ever made in a year), and his new songs attracted a long list of great singers; singer Johnny Adams did an entire album of Doc’s newer songs.
He was back in his element.
In 1990, Doc was diagnosed with lung cancer. On March 12, 1991, Doc Pomus passed away.
The above article focuses largely on the broad events of Doc’s life. But there is much more to Lonely Avenue. It is, most definitely, not just a “music book”, it does provide a wonderful window into the back rooms of the music business, telling the story of people like Doc who made the business, but got little of the glory. And it tells the story of the music itself — how songs developed and changed because of events, or of the people involved.
More significantly, this review doesn’t capture one of the great elements of the book: its recounting of the people and characters in Doc’s life. Whether his two great loves (Willi and Shirlee), the “big names” in the music business, the hangers on, the “nobodies”, or the low-lifes, they all played a big part in this life story. The accounts of these people, their adventures, mis-adventures and close connections to Doc are a large part of what gives Lonely Avenue its heart. Besides the people named above, here is just a tiny selection of the people who make the story come alive: Bette Midler, Willy deVille, Rodney Dangerfield, Otis Blackwell, Esther Phillips, Phil Spector…
For a time, Phil Spector was one of Doc’s most frequent companions. Doc introduced Spector to his favourite restaurant, Spindletop. One night while eating there, Spector witnessed another diner taking three gunshots to the back of the head.
Spector refused to set foot in the Spindletop again. Doc nudged him back…
“The place is incredible, right, the salads, I mean how about the service in that restaurant? Babe, you always got to look at the upside.” But what about the guy who got murdered, Spector protested. “Well,” Doc explained in a bit of philosophy that Spector never forgot, “the murder — that’s the downside of the restaurant, you understand, that’s the downside.”
Some Doc Pomus links
- “This Magic Moment” on Soundcheck, WNYC. Mar. 20, 2007
A radio poddcast featuring interviews with Ben E. King about his original recording of “Save the Last Dance For Me”, and with author Alex Halberstadt. Also features excerpts of Doc’s songs, including the Drifters, plus his own recording of “My Good Pott”.
- “Blues Brother”
Another article and audio interview with Halberstadt
- See pages about Doc on Felder Pomus Entertainment, a website created by his family
- Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus
A great introduction to Doc’s music, I knew I had to get this when I first heard Dylan’s romp through “Boogie Woogie Country Girl”. The album features a mix of his old and new work. Many of the songs get a much different interpretation than the original. Elvis’s original “Viva Las Vegas” was all about the lights, action and glitz; here, Shawn Colvin, as described in Gerri Hershey’s liner notes reflects “the haunts of Vegas’ East Fremont Street, a part of town where the rooms go for $19.95 and the best odds are with disappointment”. Others who contribute include Lou Reed re-doing “This Magic Moment”, Solomon Burke (the one voice who could credibly do Joe Turner), Irma Thomas, B.B. King, Aaron Neville, Dion, and Dr. John growling through a great low-life song he and Doc wrote on Doc’s deathbed.
- The Pomus & Shuman Story: Double Trouble
Twenty six of their classic songs by various artists including Ray Charles, LaVern Baker, the Drifters, Dion, Ben E. King, Elvis, Irma Thomas and more. Released 2007
- Johnny Adams: Sings Doc Pomus/The Real Me
Great interpretation of Doc’s later work
- And of course, there’s iTunes, which has a good selection of Doc’s music. (If you do find some Drifters’ songs, be sure you’re getting the originals as recorded on Atlantic).
- Doc Pomus, Blues in the Red
Doc the blues singer. The album (2006) collects 24 of Doc’s singles
Listen to Doc himself, singing the blues — doing with and without some “aids”, on YouTube
“My Good Pott”
and “Blues Without Booze“