In the latter part of the 20th century, Jerome Felder wrote more than 1,000 songs and landed dozens of hits on the Billboard charts, yet his greatest accomplishment may have been to make all but the most studious fans forget that Jerome Felder ever existed. Instead, the first generation of youth pop fans knew Doc Pomus (1925–91), the crippled blues shouter who began his career as a performer but gradually became one of the first rock 'n' roll songwriters — as well as one of the last.
Now a book, Alex Halberstadt's "Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus" (Da Capo Press, 228 pages, $26), the first full-length biography of the man who would be Pomus, sheds new light on this mysterious, colorful character whose songs are at the heart of the pop music of the last 50 years.
As a songwriter, Pomus was prodigious but not always consistent: In his office at the Brill Building — home to such songwriters as Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Carole King, Burt Bacharach, and Neil Sedaka — he wrote brilliant songs, such as B.B. King's "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere," Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," and Dion's "Teenager in Love," but many more that were sheer hack work; the majority of his tunes were somewhere in between. But Pomus's own story is one that no lyricist or historian could have invented.
Felder was born in 1925 to a Jewish family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Crippled by polio at the age of seven and confined to his parents' apartment, he fell in love with words and music, the novels of Jules Verne and other fantasy storytellers, and the sound of black America, which he heard on the radio late at night and on the "Race Records" he scoured at the New York shops. At age 15, love became obsession when Felder heard "Piney Brown Blues" by Big Joe Turner.
Two years later, Felder snuck into a jazz club in Greenwich Village and was in the process of being kicked out when he announced that he was a blues singer. So the overweight Jewish boy from Williamsburg ambled up on stage with his crutches, alongside the great trumpeter Frankie Newton, and proceeded to belt out "Piney Brown Blues." He put all the pain and frustration he had been feeling his whole life into that blues, and the crowd responded, to his complete surprise, enthusiastically.
It was around this time that the young Felder came up with the name "Doc Pomus." It conveyed just the right sense of ambiguity and sophistication he was looking for. For the next dozen or so years, he supported himself — just barely most of the time — as a blues singer. Heworked occasionally in Manhattan jazz venues, including the traditional jazz concerts produced by Jack Crystal (father of comic Billy Crystal), but he made most of his living, such as it was, singing in bars in black neighborhoods in the outer boroughs and New Jersey. Black audiences had never seen anything like him — a crippled white boy who belted like Joe Turner.
Sadly, Pomus couldn't keep doing it forever; as a vocalist, he was hardly in the same class as such great blues masters as Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Brown, and Big Bill Broonzy. The closest thing he had to a hit was a radio jingle he wrote for a Brooklyn clothing store.
But Felder found he possessed other musical gifts, so Pomus segued into the world of songwriting. He quickly formed a partnership with the composer Mort Shuman, an accomplished pianist who was 10 years younger and had also grown up infatuated with rhythm and blues. For the next decade, Shuman primarily wrote the music and Pomus the lyrics, and the two wrote hit after hit, including no fewer than 20 songs performed by Elvis Presley. Pomus also served as a mentor to Shuman and, eventually, many other composers, showing them how to interject authentic blues feeling into their tunes.
The "Doctor" also took himself a wife, a beautiful blonde "shiksa" named Willi Burke. In one of his most touching passages, Mr. Halberstadt describes Pomus at his own wedding, watching with his crutches and leg braces, as his new wife danced with every man but him. He later transformed the experience into the most durable and heartfelt of his songs, "Save the Last Dance for Me," which was immortalized by the Drifters. By the end of the 1950s, Pomus and Shuman were writing on call for the burgeoning teeny-bopper-pop industry, a veritable assembly line of disposable singers, like Philadelphia's Fabian, who were getting by on youthful good looks and sophisticated production techniques.
But there were copasetic platters too. One of Pomus's first hits was 1956's "Lonely Avenue," a blues variation similar to "Heartbreak Hotel," but at once more sophisticated and more primitive: Ray Charles emoted it in a haunting, two-beat shuffle rhythm that suggested convicts marching in leg irons. Pomus is best known for primordial, rootsy tunes like Presley's 1960 hit "A Mess O' the Blues," but he also did a lot to Europeanize rock and doo-wop. The Drifters's "This Magic Moment," which is essentially a solo feature for Ben E. King, uses symphonic-style swirling strings to conjure a mystical sensation, while "Surrender" was one of Presley's better Italianate excursions. Pomus also got his stars to go Latin: "Viva Las Vegas" and the marvelous, lesser-known "Kiss Me Quick" had the King rocking to a Brazilian samba beat, while "You Be My Baby" was a Ray Charles chacha-cha.
Mr. Halberstadt's primary source for his biography were the many journals that Pomus began keeping, vividly if informally and irregularly, in his later years. Combining the Doctor's own accounts with those of his surviving friends and colleagues, the author weaves the various strands into a seamless narrative that reads more like fiction than a musical biography. If "Lonely Avenue" is sadly lacking a third act, it isn't the author's fault. Pomus and Shuman, along with the other Brill Building composers, were put out of business in the mid-'60s by the tidal wave of singer-songwriters led by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Pomus had to support himself for 10 years by playing poker, but that's a whole other story.
Doc (I knew him slightly) never stopped writing, but he never came up with another major hit. At the end of his life, however, he was widely celebrated and recognized as a major contributor to the canon of American pop. He died in 1991, the same years as Shuman, of cancer. Most of his more trite jukebox ditties did not survive their era, but the best of his songs, as Pomus put it endearingly and redundantly at the end of "This Magic Moment," "will last forever 'till the end of time."
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