The writer of some of rock and roll’s most enduring songs, Doc Pomus was first among those that kept the music alive between rock icon Elvis Presley’s 1958 entrance into the U.S. Army and the 1964 arrival of British band the Beatles. Among the songs—many now standards—that Pomus wrote with his partner Mort Shuman are “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “His Latest Flame,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Little Sister,” “I Count the Tears,” and “A Mess of Blues.”
Despite being crippled by polio at age six, Pomus loomed larger than life to his many friends and admirers. Even as rock forged on without him in the late 1960s and 1970s, Pomus continued to embody the traits of the hip, all-knowing, and kind empiricist—the guy who has seen it all yet retains a heart of gold.
Born Jerome Solon Felder in Brooklyn on January 27, 1925, Pomus began his career singing, not writing. He grew up middle class, his father a precinct politician and lawyer. In a grim bit of irony, young Jerome was shipped off to summer camp to avoid a polio epidemic in his neighborhood; while at camp he contracted the disease. Difficult times were eased only by his infatuation with the blues, and specifically with Big Joe Turner’s “Piney Brown Blues,” a record that transformed Doc’s life.
“It all changed for me when I was about 15 or 16 and I heard Joe Turner’s ’Piney Brown Blues,’” Pomus told Peter Guralnick in 1988, as quoted in Lost Highway. “From that moment on I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to be a blues singer. That to me was everything music was supposed to be. It was the way the male voice was supposed to sound.”
At the age of 18, Pomus began hanging out in New York City at Greenwich Village nightclubs, often sitting in and singing blues and rhythm and blues. It was after such a night that he chose the name Doc Pomus—a complete fabrication—because it sounded cool to him. It was in this milieu—the sweaty, bohemian, democratic, and sultry atmosphere at places like George’s Tavern—that Pomus began singing, standing before the mike on braces and crutches. Attending Brooklyn College by day, at 19, Pomus made his first record, for famed critic Leonard Feather. He would later record for Chess and Savoy Records and sing jingles, all without great note.
But Doc had found his world; he quickly endeared himself to black musicians and their reality. He began writing songs, he said, “to support my singing habit,” which he gave up in 1957 after a bad business deal. A year earlier, Pomus had begun writing with Mort Shuman,
Born Jerome Solon Felder, January 27, 1925, in Brooklyn, NY; died of cancer, March 14, 1991.
Songwriter. Began singing at Greenwich Village nightclubs, c. 1943; began writing songs, c. 1953-54; met writing partner Mort Shuman, 1956; collaborated with Leiber and Stoller on “Young Blood,” 1957; quit writing and gambled, 1965-75; wrote “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere” for B.B. King, 1982.
Awards: Grammy Award for “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” 1982; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
Addresses: Record company —Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-4900.
ayounger composer and musician. “Young Blood,” a song started by Pomus and completed by stellar songwriters Leiber and Stoller, was a hit for the Coasters in 1957, giving Doc an early taste of things to come.
Songwriter Otis Blackwell—of “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel” fame—brought Pomus and Shuman to the attention of Hill & Range, a publishing house that had shrewdly established a lifelong relationship with Elvis Presley. Pomus and Shuman were moved into a penthouse suite in the famed Brill Building, the song factory that also housed Goffin & King, Sedaka & Greenfield and Phil Spector. The deal brought Pomus his first steady money—$200 a week—and the opportunity to write and place his songs.
Between 1958 and 1965, Pomus and Shuman wrote some of rock’s most vivid and romantic songs. It was a new kind of music, not quite blues, not quite pop. The duo was helping to construct what rock and roll would be—what it communicated, what its tempo would be, and to what degree the music would penetrate every day life.
“Well, it’s always easy to come up with explanations after the fact,” Pomus later said, according to Forward Records publicity materials, “but I feel like we were writing songs that couldn’t be pigeonholed, and we weren’t writing songs in a single voice. Now you take a song like “Save the Last Dance for Me,” or any of the Latin songs that Mort and I wrote together, and I was trying to get the lyrics to sound like a translation. My job was to bring the thing back to some elemental point, something palatable to the recording industry, so you would have the image in your mind.”
In 1965 Doc took a bad fall while in England; he was hospitalized for two months and would remain for the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, everything changed in the mid-1960s: Self-contained groups like the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones were in vogue, and Pomus’s marriage ended, as did his collaboration with Shuman.
For the next ten years Pomus quit writing and became a professional gambler under the tutelage of Johnny Mel, playing cards with a the toughest of characters. He gave it up in 1975, ultimately calling his gambling “too risky, too violent,” as he noted in Forward Records press materials. “But the [songwriting] was the same kind of thing. I always felt that writing songs was like gambling, a profession where the odds were definitely loaded against you. But the idea of being able to bet on yourself… playing cards in a way was just as extension of the rest of my life.”
With the help of friends like musicians Dr. John and B. B. King and songwriter Spector, Doc gradually began penning tunes, noticing that his contributions to the music world were again gaining notice. Before he died on March 14, 1991, Doc enjoyed a decade of activity. He wrote the Grammy Award-winning “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere” for B. B. King in 1982; recorded with Roomful of Blues; was reunited with his old friends and idols Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner; and in 1991 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Pomus’s songs have been covered by numerous and diverse artists from Bruce Springsteen to Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond to the Dead Kennedys, and LaVerne Baker to the Beach Boys. There also exists the Doc Pomus Financial Assistance Grant Program, established by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in Pomus’s name. Since its inception, the Foundation has provided more than $400,000 in general and financial assistance to legendary R&B figures.
In March of 1995 Rhino released the long overdue Till the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus. The album features performances by Bob Dylan, Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash, Los Lobos, John Hiatt, and Lou Reed, who provided Doc with this homage: “Doc was a great songwriter, poet, philanthropist, gambler, raconteur supreme. He was like a blazing sun—anybody in his orbit benefitted from him. He was the way you should be. When you grow up, you should be like Doc.”
Elvis Presley, Pot Luck, RCA, 1962.
Dion Sings His Greatest Hits, Laurie, 1973.
B. B. King, There Must Be a Better World Somewhere, MCA, 1983.
Presley, Rocker, RCA, 1984.
The Drifters: 1959-1965 All Time Greatest Hits and More, Atlantic, 1988.
50 Coastin’ Classics: The Coasters Anthology, Rhino, 1992.
’Til the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus, Forward/Rhino, 1995.
Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway, Vintage Books, 1982.
Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound, fourth edition, Limelight, 1992.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
Rolling Stone Album Guide, edited by Anthony DeCurtis, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, Straight Arrow, 1992.
Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Scott, Frank, The Down Home Guide to the Blues, A Capella Books, 1991.
Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles, 1942-88, Billboard Books, 1990.
Billboard, February 18, 1995.
Village Voice Rock and Roll Quarterly, summer, 1988.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Forward Records publicity materials, 1995.
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