Friday, May 29, 2009

BrooklynBio: Doc Pomus

“Viva Las Vegas”. “Save The Last Dance For Me”. “This Magic Moment”. “Young Blood”. “A Teenager In Love”. Doc Pomus was never a household name, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Brooklyn native was the most important pop lyricist of his epoch, blending the ribald urbaneness of Cole Porter with a friable blues sensibility that provided the template for the innovations of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Born into an era where “whiteness” was still very much synonymous with being of Anglo-Saxon extraction and adherence to Protestantism, it was only natural that young Jerry Felder – like future Atlantic Records chieftain Jerry Wexler across the East River – would feel more an affinity with the African-Americans migrating to Harlem or Brooklyn than the prevailing popular culture. Developing a penchant for the music, specifically blues, Felder adopted the moniker that would become his name for the rest of his life and sweated it out in Brooklyn’s scabrous – and mostly forgotten – blues clubs. His idol was the vivacious Big Joe Turner, a 40s-era stalwart who blended myriad styles (the small-combo jump blues that evolved from swing, fledgling electric blues, and just about everything else) under his devilish imprimatur.

Unfortunately, Pomus’s career was impeded by his race (while Greek-born Johnny Otis had broken the inverted blues color barrier in San Francisco, the notion of a white blues singer was risible to many blacks and whites in the early 50s), worsening post-polio symptoms (Pomus would eventually be confined to crutches, then a wheelchair), and a growing family to support. Falling in with a Francophile pianist eleven years his junior – Mort Shuman, later known for translating Jacques Brel’s oeuvre into English and collaborating with the ubiquitous Johnny Hallyday – they set up shop at the Brill Building as one of the foremost composing teams of 50s rock and roll, second only to Leiber and Stoller (who mentored the duo) in name recognition and overall import. In particular, the team developed a synergistic relationship with Elvis Presley, writing no less than 20 songs recorded by the King during his formative period; they considered their hit songs for Fabian among their greatest accomplishments, mainly because the scourge of the teen idol era was incapable of holding a tune. Pomus gradually emerged as a personality in his own right, frequently collaborating with Phil Spector on the latter’s earliest songwriting efforts.

As the virile days of early rock and roll segued into the automatonic splendor of the girl group era, Pomus and Shuman continued to draft the hits for an increasingly selective group of artists. But stagnation had set in: although he wrote vividly about “sleaze” and “juvenile delinquency”, Pomus’s annual income was upwards of $50,000 (nearly $500,000 in today’s dollars), while his wife – Broadway actress Willi Burke – enjoyed such suburban accoutrements as an oversized swimming pool. Long contemptuous of his bluesy ways – “If I had written a fifth-rate Broadway song,” he once observed, “my God, [her friends] would have been proud…” – Burke left Pomus in 1965; out of sheer coincidence, Shuman dissolved their partnership the same week, relocating to France.

The next ten years would find the good Doc – according to close friend Josh Friedman – gambling, “part of a sad Broadway underworld where high-stakes card games sometimes ended in robberies or kidnappings. He had no respect for his past work; his songs meant nothing to him. There were no rock critics back then, no awards or artistic recognition beyond his immediate comrades.” And so it went through the long hot summers of the 1970s, until Pomus and his son were nearly gunned down by the Mafia during a high roller game at the songwriter’s 72nd Street apartment in 1977. Scared into submission and spurred on by a series of retrospectives in the now-defunct SoHo Weekly News, Pomus returned to music, producing the debut album of blues revivalists the Fabulous Thunderbirds and supplying a gaggle of words to Dr. John. (Friedman insinuates that Pomus helped the New Orleans legend overcome a debilitating narcotics addiction.) While his new compositions would never top the charts – nostalgia hits by Dolly Parton and others ensured a steady income – he became an institution of New York nightlife, often spotted at the Lone Star Café.

Pomus died on March 14, 1991 at the age of 65. (“At least they can’t say I died young!” he frequently exclaimed in the years following his sixtieth birthday.) A year later, fellow Brooklynite Lou Reed would eulogize Pomus on his Magic and Loss album. His songs have reached number one on every Billboard domestic and foreign chart, and the top 40 in every decade since the 1950s.

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