Friday, May 1, 2015

Doc Pomus

"I didn't want to be "The Crippled Songwriter" or "The Crippled Singer".  I wanted to be the singer or the songwriter who was crippled.  I wanted to be larger than life...."

He was the only white guy in the place.  He was a short, chubby Jew who walked with crutches due to a childhood bout with polio.  In a music genre that was filled with people with the colorful sobriquets of T-Bone and Tampa Red, he was simply known as Jerry.  When he hauled himself to the microphone to sing, a number of people were prepared to wince at a delusional eighteen-year-old who was about to butcher the blues.

Then he started singing.

And so, requiring a performance name that fit his new world, Jerry became "Doc Pomus" [even he wasn't sure where that name came from] and set about creating not only some memorable performances in those small, hot, smoky clubs, but composed some of the most infectious tunes in the early days of rock and roll.

Born in Brooklyn in 1925, Jerry Felder was afflicted with polio in boyhood and wiled away the dull hours of restricted movement by listening to records, in particular those of Big Joe Turner.  With little else to do, he who would be Pomus imitated the intonations and styles of the performers to the extent that he could mimic almost all of the big singers of the day.  As time went by, with the burgeoning confidence of adolescence, he began to develop his own style.  Being, by his own admission, a complete and total ham, it was only natural that he would begin to compete in the many amateur performance venues that were common in the 1940's.

There was something else about him, other than his ability to sing the blues.  The fact that a diminutive Jew, by his own admission a "cripple", wearing a garish outfit could move with confidence to a stage in an all-black venue and completely own the room granted him a remarkable respect from the audience.  As is often the case with marginalized people, they recognized one another's struggle.  Eventually, established artists were hiring him to be their opening act.

Pomus wanted to be so much more, though, within and for the music that had granted him such an unexpected purpose and role.  In addition to performing in more and more mainstream venues, Pomus also began to write for the nascent music magazines of the era and, importantly, compose small pieces for some of the more famous performers.  While on his honeymoon, a vacation he could ill-afford, he chanced to hear a stray song of his, one that he had turned over to Leiber and Stoller [the two premier composers of the 1950's], playing on a jukebox.  Upon his return, his agent called to let him know that he had a royalty check for $1500 [$14,500 if adjusted for current inflation] waiting for him.  Suddenly, not only were money problems laid to rest for awhile, but Pomus found a much more lucrative line of work.

Using some of his profits, Pomus rented a rehearsal room at the famous Brill Building [if you've never heard of if, 1.) get out of the house more and 2.) follow the supplied link], found a pianist with whom to collaborate, and set about composing some of the most memorable 45 rpm records of the mid-century.

Here's just a partial list:

"Suspicion" [made famous by Elvis Presley]
"A Teenager in Love"
"This Magic Moment"
"Save the Last Dance for Me"
"Marie's the Name, Of his Latest Flame" [again, Elvis]
"Viva Las Vegas" [ditto]
"Lonely Avenue" [a big 1950's hit for Ray Charles]
"Hushabye" [a particular favorite of mine that I sing to my granddaughter] and many, many others, including twenty-five for Elvis, alone.  [Interestingly, Pomus and Presley never met].

With the British Invasion in the mid-sixties, heralded by the arrival of The Beatles in the United States, the doo-wop-descended music, typified in the Pomus compositions, was replaced in popularity.  However, as a true artist, Pomus was not to be daunted, and shifted his compositions to a more mature regard and found a rich host of performers willing to record them.  Folk guitarist Marianne Faithfull, country music legend Charlie Rich, blues god B.B. King, and Cajun madman Dr. John were just a few of those who brought the later Pomus songs to life.

As if often the case with those in the performing world, Doc Pomus had his addictions and his demons. These caused him to run through friends and wives and, eventually, placed him in the NYU Medical Center where he died of lung cancer in 1991.

As is also often the case, his death occasioned a whole host of delayed recognition for him.  He was posthumously elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Pioneer Award [the first non-black performer/composer so recognized], and was always credited in concert by Lou Reed for introducing the downtown indie rocker to the business.

It's in those stray, backstage moments that his real influence is made known, in those quiet conversations between gigs or performances, when even current rockers, rappers, and bluesmen mention Pomus' name and style.  One fellow from New Jersey with whom I stood behind a curtain in a now-closed music club in the East Village once said to me, "I can always tell if a blues singer is going to be good, even before they sing a lick, if they have a fat mouth.  You know, like Doc Pomus?  It takes a fat mouth to sing the blues."