Doc Pomus

Above, the songwriting team of Mort Shuman, left, and Doc Pomus 

If ever there were an unlikely member of the pop songwriter’s pantheon, Jerome Felder, AKA “Doc” Pomus…is it.

He was arguably the greatest white rhythm and blues singer of the lates 1940s and early 1950s, but quit to become a songwriter. He partnered with Mort Shuman to form one of the most prolific songwriting teams of the early 1960s, but quit to become a poker player. Pomus was revered by rock and rollers, but found most of them to be poseurs. It was about perfecting the craft, the nuances, the attention to detail, making the song work. And while Pomus never cared for “pop,” it was his musical ethic that caused him to create a number of important pop standards.

Young Jerome was stricken with polio at age 6, and learned to propel himself around with the use of a crutch. In his late teens he found that his voice was almost as big as his personality, and he began to sing in small jazz and blues clubs around New York city. He adopted “Doc Pomus” as a stage name, supposedly to spare his straight-laced middle class Jewish family from the shame of having a blues “shouter” in their midst.

From the mid-1940s through 1955 he had a successful recording career and sold out nightclubs wherever he went. Looking back at the era, it’s hard to imagine that a white, crippled Jewish boy became one of the guiding lights of “black” music, but it did happen. Pomus was true to the art and his lifestyle was authentic, thus the color of his skin was irrelevant.

Because Pomus was leading rather than imitating, he was constantly in search of fresh songs that would further the craft. Seldom finding any, he began to write his own songs. Doc quickly became the go-to guy for new blues numbers, penning hits (within the genre) for Laverne Baker, Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner and others.

By the mid 1950s Atlantic Records had risen to the top of the blues world, and Pomus was one of the top guns at the label. It was there that he began working with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the songwriting team that propelled The Coasters to crossover fame in pop. The trio of Leiber/Stoller/Pomus hit with “Youngblood,” which seems now to have been the final nail in Doc’s career as a performer. Perhaps he found the role of songwriter to be more profitable; he undoubtedly found it less taxing physically.

The next stage in Pomus’ career came from a completely unexpected quarter. Legend has it that a teenage Mort Shuman had dreams of being a blues composer, and just happened to be dating Doc’s cousin. Fact is Shuman was already a burgeoning songwriter, although certainly not at Pomus’ level. Exactly how they met isn’t exactly clear. What is clear is that together they would elevate the quality of pop music during their decade of collaboration.

Within the dynamics of this unlikely duo, Shuman did most of the composing while Pomus handled the lyrics. But it is well known that both crossed into the other man’s domain to finalize their compositions, and reported that in some cases they switched roles completely. The extent of this is unclear, although it is generally understood that most songs were truly collaborative.

Knowing Pomus’ blues background and adherence to the “purity” of his musical craft, it would be safe to assume that the resulting Pomus/Shuman songs were complex and difficult for the average listener to warm up to. Nothing could be further from the truth. During their decade together, Pomus/Shuman songs sold more than a hundred million copies, making both comfortably wealthy.

Pomus’ adherence to his blues background shone not in the complexity of the lyric, but rather in the fact that the words were meaningful, and expressed from the heart. Even their most maligned tune, Fabian’s “Turn Me Loose,” reads like a blues classic:

I’ve got some change in my pocket and I’m rarin’ to go
Takin’ some chick-a to the picture show
And when I see her home and we kiss goodnight

…in the hands of Big Joe Turner, that song would be genius. Re-worked a bit, Sinatra could’ve made it a standard. But recorded for posterity in the insipid tones of heartthrob Fabian, the song is little more than a novelty. It’s unfortunate, because it has the melody and lyrical urgency that it could’ve been a blues classic. Even so, the royalty checks cashed just fine.

With more capable performers, a number of Pomus/Shuman songs are undeniably ensconsed in the pantheon we call the Great American Songbook, including The Drifters: “This Magic Moment” and “Save The Last Dance For Me”. Elvis Presley had a series of Pomus/Shuman hits, most notably “Surrender”. Andy Williams did “Can’t Get Used To Losing You”, and “Hushabye”, was introduced by The Mystics.

While “This Magic Moment” probably marks the highpoint of Pomus’ and Shuman’s efforts, it is the unlikely “Save The Last Dance For Me” that has become their biggest selling standard. Set to be the “B” side of a single, it went to #1 first for the Drifters in 1960. It then charted highly but forgettably for The DeFranco Family in 1974, Emmylou Harris on the Country Charts in 1979, and in a big way for Dolly Parton in 1983, on Country, Pop, and Easy Listening Charts. Most recently, Michael Bublé hit the Adult Contemporary top 5 with it in 2005.

It is interesting that “This Magic Moment” is so closely tied to Ben E. King’s incredible vocal, despite a top ten remake by Jay & The Americans. On the other hand, “Save The Last Dance For Me” could be sung by almost any performer. Many Pomus songs seem to go that way. For example, it is difficult to imagine “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” being performed by anyone but Andy Williams. By the same token, ask people who “Hushabye” belongs to, and most will erroneously say the Beach Boys.

Some are tied indelibly to the original performance. Dion’s recording of “Teenager in Love” will likely never be replaced; same goes for Elvis’ renditions of “Little Sister,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “His Latest Flame,” and “Suspicion.” We include that to see if you’re paying attention…”Suspicion,” you may recall, was indeed originally recorded by Elvis Presley, but the hit version was recorded by a British soundalike named Terry Stafford. Because the Stafford version was a drop-dead ringer for Elvis — and because to this day many listeners don’t realize that it wasn’t Elvis — we’ll stand by the premise that some songs are indelibly linked to one performer, and we’ll include that one. (Sorry Terry).

By the late 1960s the Pomus/Shuman partnership had more or less run its course. Shuman went to France, and Pomus became something of a recluse. He lived a sort of bizarre life playing high stakes poker as a quasi-hermit in New York City, chaffeured around as needed by a personal assistant. It was during this period that he allegedly discovered Bette Midler, and signed her to his home label. He also brought The Fabulous Thunderbirds into prominence, and supposedly worked with John Belushi and Dan Akroyd in the creation of The Blues Brothers.

Largely on the strength of royalties from twenty-some songs recorded by Elvis, Pomus became financially secure when Presley died. Fans gobbled up records, checks poured in, and Doc could afford to dabble in music only when it struck his fancy.

What goes around comes around, and by the late 1970s Pomus was back in the spotlight, continuously lauded by the likes of John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan. Doc was often asked to work on various projects with top names in rock, but found many of them to be tiresome or less than sincere. One writer claims that Doc was slated to work with Neil Sedaka, and when the pair got together, Sedaka sat at a piano and played dreadful melodies which seemed to entrance him. Pomus, bored and ignored, eventually signalled for his assistant to back his wheelchair out of the room. Supposedly, Sedaka never even noticed Doc’s departure.

Fed up with rock and rollers, Pomus returned to his roots in the last years of his life. He didn’t work on many musical projects, preferring instead to lend assistance to old bluesmen who were down on their luck. Doc looked out for the likes of Big Joe Turner, working hard to ensure that royalties were paid to their rightful recipients. He became the first caucasian to be enshrined in the Blues Hall of Fame.

Pomus passed away in 1991, just 66 years old. His name is seldom mentioned among the greats of American Popular Song; instead he seems to have been adopted by a rock community that doesn’t really understand the depth of his contribution to the craft. Hopefully now, more than 20 years after his death, we have begun to appreciate his proper place in the Great American Songbook.