PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

Lonely Avenue by Alex Halberstadt

Michael E. Ross

The songs of Doc Pomus have become an indispensable part of the American songbook, largely without our even knowing it.


Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus

Publisher: Da Capo
ISBN: 0306813009
Author: Alex Halberstadt
Price: $26.00
Length: 264
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-02
UK publication date: 2007-04
Amazon

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.