It’s one of the enduring mysteries of pop music. How something so slight and disposable, a three-minute tune — songs written about fleeting and often trivial teenage emotions — can still somehow be so long-lasting and deep. Doc Pomus, born Jerome Felder in 1925, was one of the great songwriters of pop. He was a legend of the Brill Building, the factory-like system that cranked out artists and writers like Carole King, Neil Diamond, and Leiber and Stoller. He was admired by songwriting legends like Gerry Goffin, Phil Spector, John Lennon, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and many more. He wrote mega hits for Dion, the Drifters, Ray Charles, Elvis and others. After watching AKA Doc Pomus, the new documentary film about his life, you’ll never hear “Save the Last Dance for Me” the same way. (The film gets its CT premiere on Oct. 2, at the Avon in Stamford as a part of the theater’s documentary night. And there will be a post-screening Q&A with director Peter Miller and Sharyn Felder, Pomus’s daughter and one of the film's producers.)
The song, written with Pomus’s longtime collaborator Mort Shuman, and made famous by the Drifters in 1960, is a strange love song, set to a stately Latin beat. It’s sung from the perspective of a man telling his female lover that she can dance and flirt and have a good time, reminding her that they’ll be the ones leaving together at the end of the night. But when you know that Pomus, who needed crutches or a wheelchair to get around due to paralysis from childhood polio, wrote the song for his wife after their wedding night, when he had encouraged her to dance with friends and family at their party, the song takes on a new depth. “But don’t forget who’s taking you home/And in whose arms you’re gonna be,” goes the chorus.
Pomus overcame poverty, illness and incapacitation, connecting profoundly with blues, boogie-woogie and other black music on the radio. “Life was a struggle. We were always in debt. We didn’t have money,” remembers Pomus’s brother Raoul. Music offered an escape from that world and an emotional transmutation of suffering into entertainment. “When I was about 15 or 16 years old I heard a Joe Turner record,” remembers Pomus in an interview. “That was everything music was supposed to be.”
Even with an innate musical talent, restless energy, a reservoir of pain to draw from, and the brashness of youth, one wouldn’t expect an overweight Jewish teenage cripple to be able to transform himself into a blues singer. But that’s what Pomus did, taking the stage at a club and faking his way through some tunes with a band behind him. Soon he was playing regular gigs, making $40 a week performing at a Greenwich Village hot spot. He took on the stage name Doc Pomus so that his mother wouldn’t know what he was doing.
Other similarly unlikely feats followed. Pomus took a room at the Forrest Hotel across from the Brill Building, where he presided over impromptu late-night roundtables of characters — other songwriters, gamblers, drunks and hustlers. That’s where Pomus met his wife, Willi Burke, an aspiring Broadway actress. They were an unlikely couple, perhaps. There was a considerable hotness gap between the beefy Pomus — who looked like a cross between John Goodman and Mitch Miller — and the bombshell Burke. But, as one female songwriter says in the film about Pomus’s charisma, many smart women find smart and talented men attractive. And Pomus had more than just intelligence and musical skill.
“I’ve never met anybody so fucking cool and so big-hearted at the same time,” says singer/songwriter Marshall Chapman. “Doc had it all. He was like a perfect universe — yin and yang, love and cool — in one body that had to be really big to contain them.”
Pomus experienced the whiplash effect of pop music trends and he rolled with the blink-of-an-eye changes of popular tastes. He had big hits with Elvis (“Little Sister,” “Viva Las Vegas” and more.) He witnessed the arrival of the singer/songwriter era, with Bob Dylan and the Beatles basically making the Brill Building model obsolete. At a point when his money-making potential as a songwriter was slim, Pomus took up gambling heavy and hard. Just when it may have seemed like Pomus’s style of polished pop songcraft had gone the way of the hula-hoop, fate seemed to throw the aging songwriter a bone. When Elvis died in 1977 it might have seemed that Pomus’s gravy train had dried up, but the passing of the King kickstarted a wave of nostalgic interest in his old hits, which meant more cash for Pomus. His marriage may have disintegrated, but there were more beautiful young women who seemed eager to keep Pomus company.
One of the more tantalizing tidbits of the film is the revelation that Bob Dylan approached Pomus in the mid-’80s with an unlikely request. Dylan, known more for his lyrical gifts generally than for his melodic skills, told Pomus he had some tunes that he wanted Pomus to write lyrics for. Pomus retells the story with evident amusement. It’s unclear what became of that collaboration.
As tastes changed, Pomus paired up with other artists — performers, lyricists, tunesmiths — and wrote more songs. He had a fruitful and meaningful connection with another "doctor," Dr. John, whose bayou-funk-mystic gumbo demonstrated a similar appreciation and respect for African-American musical traditions.
And meanwhile a whole new generation of aspiring songwriters sought him out. Pomus taught songwriting classes, with young singer/songwriters like Shawn Colvin and Joan Osborne studying with him. AKA Doc Pomus may come off a little like a hagiography, but that’s because Pomus was such a hugely talented and greatly loved dude. When you’ve got famous cranks and curmudgeons and general haters of humanity like Lou Reed singing his praises, you know Pomus must have been special. Pomus died of lung cancer at the age of 73 in 1991. (He had smoked four packs of Chesterfield unfiltered a day for 35 years or so.)
The film will inspire music buffs to track down some of Pomus’s tunes and listen with a new focus. Without delving too much into it, AKA Doc Pomus does an admirable job conveying that — even with his good luck, talent and large spirit — Pomus suffered plenty, and the hardships of being wheelchair-bound were something that even legions of fans and world-class friends couldn’t entirely soften. Until the end, Pomus’s advocacy for underdog singers like the high-voiced Jimmy Scott is a testament to his soul and his sense of justice. It’s hard not to like Doc Pomus after watching this film.
AKA Doc Pomus