Monday, 1 April 2019

The extraordinary life of Doc Pomus - polio victim, white blues singer, and a truly great songwriter

Between the end of the first wave of genuine, raucous, gutbucket, rootsy Rock and Roll (1959) and the British Invasion (1963), most decent pop songs were written by fourteen Jews (eleven men, three women) working out of two office blocks on New York's Broadway - the Brill Building at 1619, and one that didn't have a name at 1650. At the time, the only one of these writers known to the public was Neil Sedaka, who recorded his own songs and who - despite being a pudgy little dweeb with a somewhat mincing manner - scored a large number of hits with expertly-crafted musical lollipops such as "Oh! Carol", "Calendar Girl" and "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen". Another - Carole King - would go on to record Tapestry, of the biggest-selling albums of the '70s. But the four greatest songwriters working out of these two buildings were undoubtedly Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman...

...four Jews who basically self-identified as black, and who (certainly in the case of the first three) were steeped in the traditions of black Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll.

When I use the word "steeped", I'm not joking. Leiber and Stoller (who I wrote about here) weren't appropriating an alien culture - they actually composed classics such as Wilbert Harrison's sublime "Kansas City", Big Joe Turner's "Chicken and the Hawk" and Big Mana Thornton's "Hound Dog" (they hated Elvis Presley's version, until the royalty cheques started arriving). Doc Pomus (born Jerome Solon Felder, he adopted a stage name so his mother wouldn't find out what he was up to) went one step further: while still a teenager, he hoisted himself up on crutches made necessary by a severe attack of polio when he was nine, and hollered the blues in black clubs, released a string of R&B records, some of which were pretty good ("Send for the Doctor"), and wrote songs for Big Joe Turner, Laverne Baker, and the magnificent "Lonely Avenue" for Ray Charles:

...and that glorious slice of street life, "Young Blood", for The Coasters:

Feeling that his age and background made it hard for him to connect with white teenage record-buyers, Pomus teamed up with the inexperienced but hip Mort Shuman and spent a year teaching him how to write songs. Together, they went on to compose some fairly crappy hits for manufactured teen idols such as Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Fabian (!), as well as many of the greatest pop songs of the late '50s and early '60s, including:

"This Magic Moment", The Drifters
"A Mess of Blues", Elvis Presley
"Save the Last Dance for Me", The Drifters
"I Count the Tears", The Drifters
"Surrender", Elvis Presley
"Little Sister", Elvis Presley
"His Latest Flame", Elvis Presley
"Sweets for My Sweet", The Drifters
"Here Comes the Night", Ben E. King
"Suspicion", Elvis Presley
"Seven Day Weekend", Gary US Bonds
"Can't Get Used to Losing You", Andy Williams
"Viva Las Vegas", Elvis Presley

(In case anyone is wondering what Mort Shuman brought to the party, he eventually decamped to Europe, where he co-wrote "Little Children" for Billy J. Kramer,  "Sha La La La Lee" for the Small Faces, the R&B classic "Look at Granny Run, Run" for Howard Tate, and a brilliant English-language version of Jacques Brel's "Jackie" for Scott Walker - before becoming a much-loved solo singer in France - singing in French!)

I've just finished a splendidly informative book about the writers and producers who created the "Brill Building Sound" - Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, by Ken Emerson (available here). Like many of the Brill songwriters, Pomus's career was all but destroyed by the British Invasion and the resulting shift to performers writing their own material (Leiber and Stoller's response was to set up their own label, Red Bird Records, and to concentrate on production). By the '70s - mainly driven by the need to pay for his children's private schooling - Pomus, a largely forgotten figure in the music business, made a living running a regular poker game out of his two-room Manhattan hotel apartment. (The death of Elvis Presley provided an unexpected financial boost, thanks to Pomus's songs appearing on a flood of Elvis compilation albums.) Now confined to a wheelchair and enormously fat (he'd given up cigarettes, didn't  take drugs, and barely drank, but made no attempt to control his appetite for rich food), Pomus enjoyed a well-deserved musical renaissance in the '80s: his later songs were recorded by, among others,  Willy DeVille, B.B. King, Irma Thomas, Marianne Faithfull, Charlie Rich, Ruth Brown and Dr. John, and his 60th birthday party was rammed with eminent performers. In his later years, he put a lot of effort into helping old blues performers who'd fallen on hard times, including Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Scott. 

There's a superb documentary about Doc Pomus available for free on YouTube - AKA Doc Pomus - which I can't recommend highly enough. Hell of a life, hell of a nice bloke - and what a songwriter!:


  1. It's a great shame that the era of the songwriting team which produced classics such as these will probably never come back. The way in which the record industry, if it exists at all, is now structured means that almost no one can make a living writing songs and very few from recording them.

    I recently met an American singer who writes her own material and whose popularity is evidenced by the fact that one of her songs has over 4 million plays on Spotify. The rates Spotify charges the customer mean that this has produced royalties of significantly less than $1000 for the artist. If Spotify were to put up their rates they would undermine their business model, given that the under 30s generation is sufficiently IT literate to file-share for nothing if subscription rates become too expensive. So the only way in which she and many others like her can make a living as musicians is through live performance at which she hopes to flog a few privately produced CDs. Several older musicians who might have expected to live off their royalties are now to be found almost constantly on tour. So unless a new Pomus/Shulman adjusted their style to suit Beyoncé, they would be stuffed.

    Great post.

  2. Awesome site. Love Doc Pomus & those incredible songs he wrote that the late, great Elvis Presley recorded. Best, Kirk