Happy Birthday Doc Pomus ► A Musical Appreciation
Doc Pomus singing at the Pied Piper with Uffe Bode,
Sol Yaged, John Levy and Rex William Stuart (1947)

Light 88 candles — the same as the number of keys on a piano — for Doc Pomus, one of the greatest names in Rock and Roll you never heard of; a Founding Father and a Brill Building Blues-shouting Jew.

Born Jerome Solon Felder on June 27, 1925, in Brooklyn, he walked with crutches due to a bout of polio at the age of six. He fell in love with The Blues after hearing a Big Joe Turner tune and took the stage name Doc Pomus as a teenager when he started performing in Blues clubs as a teenager. More often than not, he was the only White person in the club. During these years he recorded some 40 songs for small labels.

Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus

According to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame:

At first, penning songs for his own recordings, he soon became a major song source on the New York scene and a regular at the new Atlantic Records’ office, creating classics for Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown, Lil Green, Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner. He enjoyed his first rhythm and blues top ten hit with “Lonely Avenue” by Ray Charles. Hooking up with a team of two other young songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, he hit big with the Coasters’ “Young Blood.”

Pomus, by coincidence, met a talented teenaged fledgling songwriter Mort Shuman, who was dating Pomus’ cousin. He took Shuman under his wing and eventually the two became full partners despite the 15-year age difference between them.

Ultimately, the pair enjoyed a wonderful nine-year association resulting in a major body of work which, collectively, became a dominant force on the record charts and led to sales of well over one hundred million. The songs included, “This Magic Moment,” “Save The Last Dance For Me,” “Teenager in Love,” “Can’t Get Used To Losing You,” “Turn Me Loose,” “Hushabye,” “I Count The Tears,” “Sweets for My Sweet” and “Seven Day Weekend,” among many others. For Elvis Presley, they produced a series of major hit songs, including “Little Sister,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “His Latest Flame,” “Surrender,” “Suspicion,” “A Mess of Blues” and “Long, Lonely Highway,” to mention a very few.

Just last year a documentary on the great Doc Pomus was released. Making fun of his almost anonymous fame, the movie is called A.K.A. Doc Pomus:

Jeff Tamarkin, in his review of Lonely Avenue; The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, by Alex Halberstadt, gets to the bottom of the contradictions:

It wasn’t until long after the hits, after the Beatles and Dylan made irrelevant the songwriting mills, after a 10-year writing sabbatical when high-stakes poker brought in more cash than his royalties, that Pomus began to feel comfortable in his skin. He began writing again, and though his collaborations with the likes of Dr. John and Willy DeVille never came close to the charts, he felt at home with these younger singers, who respected the same traditions he did.

By the ’80s, he had recast himself as an eccentric, ebullient man about town, dressing loudly, throwing lavish parties, turning up nightly at clubs where bouncers cleared a path for his wheelchair and set him in the prime spots. But he also became a magnet for all manner of hangers-on and hucksters, and he took to carrying a business card that read “Doc Pomus — I’ve Got My Own Problems.”

Despite the overhanging gloom, Lonely Avenue — which takes its name from the 1956 Ray Charles hit that put Pomus on the map — is anything but depressing. Halberstadt’s re-creation of period detail is rich as is his portraiture of the myriad characters who flit in and out of Pomus’s life — Muhammad Ali, Veronica Lake (with whom Halberstadt claims Pomus had an affair), Rodney Dangerfield, John Lennon. With access to family and friends, as well as to the late songwriter’s journals — he died in 1991 — Halberstadt (who never met his subject) gets at the heart of Pomus’s often conflicting personal and professional lives.

However, as always, it’s about the music. Here’s a Doc Pomus Jukebox which includes some of his early Blues sides, as well as some of his tunes made famous by others.

As always: CRANK IT UP!!!

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.