Why You Should Give a Rip About Doc Pomus

meowser-48.jpg posted by meowser

Chances are pretty good that unless you are a serious student of songwriting or a 1950s/1960s rock/R&B super-completist, you’ve never heard of Doc Pomus.  But chances are equally good that you’ve heard at least some of the songs he wrote or cowrote, which entered the national (and international) bloodstream like whooooaaah, and after all these decades have never left — “Lonely Avenue,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Young Blood,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Little Sister,” “Marie’s the Name (His Latest Flame),” “Suspicion,” “Surrender,” “A Teenager in Love,” “A Mess of Blues,” for about a decade he was a hit machine.  And he was also a fat guy, and one with a disability at that; he contracted polio at age 7, in 1932, and got around on crutches (and later, after he became financially successful, in a wheelchair) after that.

But that’s not why I’m writing about Pomus here — the most remarkable thing about his life isn’t necessarily the aspect of “OMG he was fat and had a disability and wrote all those great songs!”, even though I absolutely love the story about how he wrote the lyric to the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” while watching his wife dance with other men at their wedding, knowing he would never be able to dance with her himself.  (Reportedly Drifters lead singer Ben E. King was told about the origins of the song right before recording his vocal, and had to fight back tears the entire time he was live on the mike.) 

No, having read Alex Halberstadt’s 2007 biography of Pomus, Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, what’s most fascinating to me about Pomus’s story is what came before he was a successful songwriter, when he spent over a decade as a singer in blues clubs all over the “rough” (i.e. predominantly black and poor) parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey where nice Jewish boys like Pomus (nee Jerome Felder; his younger brother is celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Felder) were warned never to set foot.  In the 1940s and early 1950s, Pomus was something almost entirely unprecedented: a white blues shouter who found unconditional acceptance and respect among the black audiences he sang for, far more so than in the “integrated” (i.e. predominantly white and bohemian) jazz and blues clubs across the river in Manhattan where he also plied his trade from time to time.

Pomus was not, of course, the first ever white blues singer. When African-American musicologist/composer W.C. Handy recorded some of the very first blues songs to be made commercially available in America in the 1910s, he did so with Caucasian vocalists, the better to market the records to white record-buyers. But a white blues singer seeking acceptance among the African-American fans who made up almost the entirety of the “race music” (as it was then called) audience from roughly the 1920s through the 1950s certainly was something entirely new. Did being fat and having a disability — two physical characteristics that at the time worked to disqualify him from following the straight-and-narrow “upwardly mobile” career path then expected of working-class Jewish young men — contribute to both his motivation to succeed in music and to the willingness of demanding and musically knowledgeable black blues fans and musicians to regard him as legitimate? It would seem so.

But from what Halberstadt writes here, there was also no question that Pomus knew his shit as a vocalist upside down and backwards. He was no mealy-mouthed imitator, and in fact, when he was first starting out he seemed practically unaware of the fact that he was going where no Jewish boy had gone before; he merely wanted to be worthy of the title blues singer, and worked his butt off to get good enough. Rector Bailey, the jazz guitarist who invited the still-underage Pomus to sit in with his trio at the Verona Cafe in Bed-Stuy in 1943, thought Pomus had the goods to win over the virtually-all-black crowd there, and here Halberstadt describes Pomus as doing just that:

The blacks watched Doc with rapt curiosity. Who was this rotund ofay poseur with his crutches and braces? Doc could tell they didn’t know whether to expect imitation or homage or all-out comedy. No audience had ever watched him so intensely, so interested in what he’d do. It hadn’t occurred to him that they’d never seen a white man on this stage – or any stage – singing their music. Doc stepped onto the bandstand, grabbed the mike like a sputtering torch and shouted the first note, coming down hard on the beat. The room blew up. It was all Doc could do to keep his voice above the hollering and wailing around him; when he was done, they received him as though he’d just punched Max Schmeling into a coma…Doc’s idiom hadn’t found its audience until now. They’d loved him all the more because he was white and owned the music, without fuss or extraneous reverence or apology.

(If you have a Rhapsody subscription, you can hear some of Pomus’s 1940s blues recordings here, including the hilarious marijuana double-entendre tune “My Good Pott.” You can also sign up for a free account there that will allow you 25 spins a month with no further obligation, a nice resource for taking care of pesky earworms.)

Halberstadt’s book is also a vivid reminder that there was a time in America, in the not so very distant past, when being fat was not considered an automatic negative for a performer, that in fact many performers of yore flaunted their size because being “big” conveyed both stage presence and vocal power. As a teenager in the early 1940s, Pomus idolized and based his developing vocal style on that of Big Joe Turner, whose spell he fell under after finding a recording of Turner’s “Piney Brown Blues” in a Brooklyn record shop:

From the moment he first lowered the needle into the groove, the record floored him like nothing he’d heard. The singer shouted the lyrics with such stupendous, effortless force that Jerome imagined him to be eleven feet tall, six hundred pounds, and powered by a steam engine. When he saw a photo of Turner in a magazine, he discovered he wasn’t far off. The man was as big as a warehouse. His petite, balding head rested upon a mountainous body like a maraschino cherry on a sundae…All he wanted to know about was that foghorn of a voice. That, he thought, was how a man should sound. It made every other male singer sound like a petulant mumbler.

(Turner’s recording of “Piney Brown Blues” is here, track 4.)

Alas, none of the “penny-ante” recordings (as Halberstadt calls them) that Pomus made for small, underfunded record companies ever attained any kind of national success (Pomus much preferred being on stage to being in the recording studio anyway). And when the musical tastes of black audiences started shifting away from blues and towards rhythm and blues in the 1950s, Pomus hung up the microphone for good and concentrated on songwriting, soon landing a big hit for Ray Charles in “Lonely Avenue,” and thereafter hooking up with composer Mort Shuman for their decade-long string of unforgettable classics (and a few schlocky numbers for the likes of Fabian, too, but nobody’s perfect).

For all that, though, Pomus’s was a life of pretty severe ups and downs; his wife evidently married him more out of a sense of rebellion and pity than physical attraction and love, and nagged him about losing weight and quitting smoking (he would be claimed by lung cancer at age 65, in 1991). Although he eventually gave up cigarettes and booze as well as a serious gambling habit, Pomus steadfastly refused to diet, claiming that he’d already given up quite enough and was not going to cheat himself out of tasty food in addition to everything else. You’re welcome at my eternal dinner table any time, Doc.

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6 Responses to “Why You Should Give a Rip About Doc Pomus”

  1. stefanie Says:

    Excellent review – am linking to it, if you don’t mind. Thanks!

  2. JeanC Says:

    I will definitely have to check out his bio, it does sound absolutely fascinating.

  3. Emerald Says:

    even though I absolutely love the story about how he wrote the lyric to the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” while watching his wife dance with other men at their wedding, knowing he would never be able to dance with her himself.

    And you know, meowser, I will now never be able to hear that song in the same way again. I’m going to have to read the bio as well. Thanks.

  4. fatfu Says:

    What a great story. It makes me think that while we’re so obsessed with maximizing lifespan, we’re not so good at encouraging people to maximize life itself – to live our lives fully throughout whatever lifespan we have whether we’re “healthy” or “look healthy” or not. And here’s a person who showed us one way to do that.

    So much of our efforts to maximize lifespan are about minimizing and restricting life – seeing yourself exclusively through the lens of body size, telling fat people we’re bad people and bad role models – we’re doing everything wrong – we should hide and cover ourselves – we’re enjoying food too much, we should spend more of our lives isolated and segregated on our lonely little hamster wheels.

    I wonder how somebody like Pomus would be received on stage nowadays. Whether it would be impossible for audiences to see through all those simplistic labels and caricatures of “obesity” and illness. It reminds me of Meme R. who when talking about the American Idol winner, Jordin Sparks, said “I see diabetes, I see heart disease, I see high cholesterol.” Would people now look at Pomus and be unable to see anything but illness?

  5. Meowser Says:

    Good question, Fu. I’m not a good-old-days person by any means, but at least up until about 20 years ago people didn’t pretend that their aversion to fat people had anything to do with anything other than aesthetics. Nobody expected musicians to be “health nuts,” FFS. (Today, of course, you can still get away with dissipating yourself to the max, as long as you look “pretty” doing it.)

  6. What Our Ears Have Been Missing « fat fu Says:

    […] But I keep thinking about the sounds from nearly a century ago that are at the roots of much of today’s contemporary music — folk, blues (which morphed into rhythm and blues, then rock and roll, then rap, and a kajillion other things) and hillbilly (which morphed into country/western, then just plain country). Even a lot of vaudeville performers weren’t dishy young things. Now granted, most of the people who performed and recorded that stuff had the shit exploited out of them and usually weren’t compensated fairly, but they weren’t expected to be young young young and hot hot hot, either. (And even “hot hot hot” didn’t necessarily equal “no visible flesh” then, either.) In fact, if you wanted credibility in any of those music forms you couldn’t look like you had it all that easy (which people would instinctively assume if you were very young and very pretty), or no one would believe you. […]


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