Viva Doc Pomus!
For decades now, Doc Pomus has been an anomaly in American popular music, a fixture of the pop-cultural infrastructure, though many of us can’t exactly say why. Like the oxygen we more or less take for granted but couldn’t do without, the songs of Doc Pomus have become an indispensable part of the American songbook, largely without our even knowing it.
In more than a thousand songs written with a variety of partners, Pomus wrote songs that bridged the period between rhythm-and-blues and the full ascendance of rock and roll. Over a career of more than 40 years, Pomus became the journeyman everyman, typifying the struggles and successes of singers and songwriters that preceded him and those who came after.
It’s a truism: A public life is sometimes, even often, less interesting than the one lived in private. All praises, then, to the biographer who can peel back the artichoke layers of celebrity spin to reveal the real that’s underneath. Alex Halberstadt has done such a public service with Lonely Avenue, the first biography of Pomus’ “unlikely life and times”, and a book that spins a yarn as avuncular and emotionally sincere as its subject, charitably but honestly exploring the inner and outer dimensions of the most influential songwriter you maybe never heard of.
All his life, Pomus (born Jerome Felder in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in June, 1925) was a mass of warring impulses. A student with one of the highest IQs in the borough of Brooklyn, he hated going to class. He loved the thrill of being on stage, yet the man who would become one of the pre-eminent songwriters of his era couldn’t stand the recording process. The public persona of the bon vivant concealed, sometimes just
barely, a man fraught with panic attacks, fears of abandonment and loss of control—surely some of the demons one encounters as a cripple by polio in a raw, harsh, able-bodied world. The loving family man (married and father to two children) became so as a product of an upbringing with a mother and father who constantly battled over money and social standing.
Pomus’ one constant—his early ventilator—was the black music he embraced body and soul before he was even a teenager:
Jerome spent whole days glued to the radio. Wiggling the dial allowed him to explore forbidden corners of the adult world without leaving his bedroom. Mendelssohn and Brahma eventually gave way to Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy, Bing Crosby, and Charlie Barnett. But nothing prepared him for the Negro stations. The first time he heard Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, he sat with his face inches away from the fabric-covered speaker, his eyes wide open and mouth slack.
A brief flirtation with the alto sax gave way to a more enduring passion as a singer; he was 15 when he discovered “Piney Brown Blues”, sung by the classic blues shouter Big Joe Turner, a friend and mentor in the years to come. At a Greenwich Village club in 1943, Pomus hobbled to the stage, crutches and all, and belted out the song that transformed his sense of who and what he was. Wildly received, he took on the name Doc Pomus at the same club the very next night.
Pomus was the beneficiary of unlikely intersections with the greats of blues and jazz. Billie Holiday invited him to play at her club in Hollywood. He worked briefly with Duke Ellington, befriended Otis Blackwell and Jimmy Scott, and lucked into an onstage encounter with the legendary saxophonist Lester Young—all of them associations that furthered his hold on classic American musical forms.
Singing evolved into a recording career. Halberstadt notes how the early phase of Pomus’ career dovetailed with the rise of the music business sometimes more focused on business than on music. One of his own recordings, poised to be a hit in 1955, was pulled by the record company for reasons Pomus never understood. Some of his early songs were recorded for obscure labels run by unscrupulous executives; Halberstadt recounts that, at least twice, Pomus had to threaten label chiefs at gunpoint to
get what he was owed—a graphic example of the kind of business battles Pomus would fight in later years.
The author notes when and how Pomus’ career pivoted, powerfully and finally—in the process explaining one of the most seismic shifts in modern American music:
In his honest moments Doc had to admit that, even if he hadn’t quit the stage, the stage would’ve quit him. The sounds that he loved as a teenager were nearly extinct—Dixieland had already gone underground by the time bebop, the celebrated jazz of the progressive, upwardly mobile Negro, declared independence from its lowly blues roots. Bebop had grown increasingly cerebral and racially integrated, drifting out of the commercial mainstream into the rarefied world of art. The working-class, dirty traditions Doc toiled in—hot jazz, jump, rhythm and the blues—had crossed racial boundaries, too, as revved-up dance fodder for white teenagers. Now, the sound that poured out of lunch counters and open car windows was Bill Haley and Little Richard.
The rise of rock and roll, and the apparent increasing irrelevancy of Pomus’ career as a singer, was for him a throw down, a challenge to find a way, at the age of 30, to stay vital, to matter in the world of music he had surrendered himself to as a boy. He found part of that vitality when his song “Lonely Avenue” became a Billboard-charted hit for Ray Charles in 1956. He fully opened that window on the future when he met Mort Shuman.
A wannabe hipster with a love of R&B music and a talent for “mostly up-tempo melodic ideas with a strictly Top 40 sound”, Shuman collaborated with Pomus on hundreds of songs, among the most memorable a song whose lyrics a newly-married Pomus wrote on his wedding day at a deli in Brooklyn. “Save the Last Dance for Me” would be one of a string of Pomus-Shuman hits that dominated the Billboard charts and the radio between 1956 and 1960. There were others, like “Hushabye”, the proto-rock of “Little Sister”, the symphonic pop sweep of “This Magic Moment” and the deceptively poignant “Teenager in Love” that revealed how Pomus had evolved as a lyric talent and Shuman had become his ideal melodic foil. The two of them became a study in creative contrasts as formidable then as Lennon and McCartney would become some years later.
The two young songwriters joined the blooming Brill Building crew, a cabal of hungry tunesmiths that included Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka, and Carole King, all working out of offices in two buildings in midtown Manhattan. “Teenager in Love”, especially, had struck a nerve with the public: “It may not have been their very first hit, but Doc and Mort knew it was the first distinctive, fully deliberate song they’d written. The juxtaposition of Mort’s lush, deceptively simple, essentially upbeat melody and Doc’s tormented, ruminative lyric—- a delicious sweet-and-sour dissonance—became a template for their best work.”
That best work included songs for Bobby Darin, Andy Williams, Fabian, the Drifters, Dion and the Belmonts, and Elvis Presley. For Pomus, other songs included those written with Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, Dr. John, and Willy DeVille. And by the time he died in March 1991, Doc Pomus had become accidentally ubiquitous, his songs an indelible link between the blues that preceded the rock era and the punk ethos that transformed it.
Throughout this book Halberstadt sketches a broad canvas of characters, Pomus’s friends and enemies along with a gallery of rogues, malcontents, hustlers, knaves, acquaintances, colleagues, and hangers-on, from Veronica Lake (object of a romantic encounter) to Lou Reed (who consulted with Pomus about his own songwriting).
There’s some guesswork here; Halberstadt had access to Pomus’ notebooks and done interviews with some of Doc’s contemporaries, but there are also moments of revelation and introspection that can only be ventured. Halberstadt exercises this license faithfully and believably, Halberstadt takes many of its cues from Ken Emerson’s Always Magic in the Air, a more scholarly but no less effusive biography of Pomus, Shuman and the other Brill Building songwriters. But there’s an accessible rhythm to Halberstadt’s book, a style more conversational than Emerson’s book.
Sometimes it’s conversational at the expense of being biographical; Halberstadt’s narrative can lurch from year to year right when you think you’re in a chronological groove; and despite the book’s impressionistic powers, you’ll look in vain for something as simply stated as Pomus’ birthday and birthplace.
But this is no mindless hagiography; Halberstadt dutifully embraces the darker shadows behind the outwardly ebullient Pomus: the sudden flashes of rage, the prolonged bouts of gambling to make ends meet, the ravenous and sometimes heartbreakingly transparent desire to succeed on more or less his own terms.
It’s tempting to throw the word “unsung” at such figures as Doc Pomus. But with his volumes of songs written and recorded by him and many others, Doc Pomus wrote songs that could hardly be accused of being unsung. He’s nonetheless occupied a kind of netherspace in American musical culture, a name without a face compared to the bigger, brighter luminaries. Halberstadt’s Lonely Avenue gives us the name, the face and the life of a singular talent, one whose magic moment endures.