You May not Have Heard of Doc Pomus but His Music is the Soundtrack to Our Lives.
One of the most popular dance songs of all time was written by a man with Polio, who could not dance.
Doc Pomus is little known outside of the music industry, but this prolific songwriter wrote some of the most well known songs of the early Rock ‘n Roll era, including 25 songs for Elvis Presley and hits for The Coasters, The Drifters, The Searchers, Dion and the Belmonts and so many more.
Still not ringing any bells? Well how about the songs?
A Teenager in Love, Save The Last Dance For Me, This Magic Moment, Turn Me Loose, Sweets For My Sweet, (a hit for the Drifters and then the Searchers), Little Sister, (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame, Mess of Blues and Viva Las Vegas. Sound familiar?
As well as these hits, Doc Pomus wrote songs for, or collaborated with, Ray Charles, Dr John (AKA “Mac” Rebennack), Willy DeVille, B.B. King, Irma Thomas, Marianne Faithfull, Charlie Rich, Phil Spector, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to name a few. A pretty impressive CV for someone most people have never heard of, don’t you think?
So who was Doc Pomus and what was his story?
Let me tell you…
Doc Pomus was born Jerome Solon Felder in Brooklyn, New York, on June 27, 1925, the son of Jewish immigrants. He contracted polio when he was 6 years old and as a result relied on crutches or a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
He became a fan of blues music after hearing a Big Joe Turner record as a teenager, adopted the stage name Doc Pomus and began performing as a blues singer.
This was incredibly rare for a white Jewish man at that time. In fact, he said that more often than not, he was the only Caucasian in the clubs, but that as a Jew and a polio victim, he felt a special “underdog” kinship with African Americans. While in turn, the audiences both respected his courage and were impressed with his talent. He recorded over 40 songs as a singer in the 1940s and ’50s and sang in a thousand blues clubs.
But in his early thirties he wanted to get married and realised that he could never support himself and a family as a singer. So he decided to become a songwriter and enlisted his long term piano-playing partner, Mort Shuman, as his collaborator. Their collaboration mostly involved Pomus writing the lyrics and Shuman the melody, but occasionally each worked on both.
They got themselves an office in New York’s legendary song writing HQ, The Brill Building and proceeded to churn out the hits.
A Teenager in Love was a huge hit for Dion and the Belmonts
A Teenager in Love was originally called ‘Oh To Be A Teenager in Love’, but Doc realised that teenage love was not that great, it was full of angst and hence the lyrics that so many teenagers felt an affinity with.
The Dion version of the song reached number 5 on the American Billboard chart, but in May 1959, it held three positions in the British Top 20, the other two versions were by Marty Wilde and Craig Douglas.
It has subsequently been covered by artists as diverse as Bob Marley and The Wailers, Simon and Garfunkel, The Fleetwoods, Helen Shapiro, Connie Stevens and the Mutations on The Muppet Show in 1976, Less Than Jake in 2002 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the same year.
The story of Save the Last Dance for Me is rumoured to be based on Doc’s wedding day experience, where he was unable to dance with his wife, because of his polio, so he encouraged her to dance with his friends and male family members.
Ben E. King and the Drifters recorded This Magic Moment in 1960, reaching number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was covered in 1969 by Jay and the Americans and this time went to number 6. It has since been used in the film The Sandlot and the television show The Sopranos, not to mention recently in an ad for the TAB in Australia. Ooops! Sorry we did mention it.
Pomus and Schuman were recruited to provide some of the humongous number of songs that Elvis Presley was required to record during his moviemaking days. They contributed over 20 songs, among them Little Sister, Viva Las Vegas, Mess of Blues and one of my personal favourites (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame.
Doc was driving in his car one day and was struck by the sounds of the car horns blaring. When he got to the studio, he attempted to assimilate the sound of the horns and wrote an introduction to a song he initially called “A Crowded Avenue”. Later, the work progressed with Mort Shuman. A chorus was added and the name of the song was changed to Can’t Get Used to Losing You. It became one of the biggest hits for Andy Williams, in 1963.
In the mid 60’s Doc had a quite serious accident, when he was tipped out of his wheelchair after hitting a crack in a New York pavement. A low period in his life followed, his marriage broke up, his partnership with Mort Shuman ended and his fortunes took a downturn. Everyone seemed to be recording their own songs and the demand for his material waned.
He took a break from song writing and became a professional gambler, for a decade. But he eventually realised that having his apartment full of degenerate gamblers was not the ideal way to bring up his kids.
He partnered with Dr John (Mac Rebennack) and Willy DeVille and wrote gems for both of them and B.B. King.
This one is a favourite Mink DeVille song of mine that Willy wrote with the Doc.
Doc was always a champion of down on their luck musicians and others. He often held court in various bars, restaurants and the foyers of the hotels that he lived in, welcoming the night people of New York.
One such musician was Jimmy Scott (AKA Little Jimmy Scott ) and Doc wrote to Billboard magazine bemoaning the fact that too often the music business waits until someone is dead to declare how great they were and that someone should give Jimmy a record deal.
Ironically, Jimmy Scott sang at Doc’s funeral and as a result was signed to Sire Records and regularly worked with Lou Reed thereafter.
Doc died from Lung Cancer in 1991 and his funeral was said to be the most astonishing, touching music funeral New York ever saw. His own music was played gospel style and Jimmy Scott’s performance of Someone to Watch Over Me brought the crowd to tears.
The 1995 album Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus
features recordings of fourteen of Doc Pomus’s songs by artists such as Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Hiatt, and Roseanne Cash. That has got to be worth checking out.
By Max Power
You can find links to music, books and videos from Doc Pomus, his influencers and collaborators below