The Unlikely Hipster
Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus
By Alex Halberstadt
Da Capo Press, 264 pages, $26.
In 1959, 10 of the songs that Doc Pomus wrote with Mort Schuman — including “Teenager in Love” (which the lead singer thought sounded “faggy”) — made it to the upper reaches of the pop charts. In that age of Connie Francis (Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero), Dion (Dion DiMucci), Fabian (Fabian Forte) and Bobby Darin (Walden Robert Cassotto), Pomus and Schuman were, in Alex Halberstadt’s fine phrase, “the reigning masters of Italian American radio operetta.”
In 1960, Pomus and Schuman scored with African American acts — the Drifters’ classics “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” — and with the King himself, Elvis Presley. They found themselves treated as pop royalty when their trip to England was covered widely in the press. Nevertheless, their command of the airwaves began to wane in 1962 and ended, for all intents and purposes, in 1964, when rock ’n’ roll turned into rock and the music industry changed yet again. Pomus was one of the last Tin Pan Alley lyricists, and for that reason alone he would be interesting enough for a full-scale biography. But Doc Pomus was much more — and in some ways less — than that.
He was already something of a has-been when he hit the big time. Doc Pomus was the nom de guerre of a paralytic lower-middle-class Jewish kid from Brooklyn named Jerome Felder. (Raoul Felder, the celebrity lawyer, was Doc’s younger brother.) Born in 1925, Jerry Felder had a remarkable streak of bad luck. His parents were terribly mismatched and just as terribly unhappy. At 7 he was stricken with polio, which left him on crutches and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He was, in his own words, “never one of those happy cripples who stumbled around smiling and shiny-eyed… I was always too f—— mad.” Lying in his room in Williamsburg, he dreamed of being the first heavy-weight champion on crutches, the first disabled Major League pitcher or bandleader. Instead, he became a jump blues singer.
He was surprisingly successful. Still in his teens, he sang in some of the toughest African American clubs in New York and New Jersey and was accepted by the audience as a bona fide blues shouter. Big and fat, with the face of a bar mitzvah boy, wearing braces and leaning on his crutches, Doc Pomus was an unlikely hipster. But the double or triple sense of alienation that had led him to the blues in the first place seemed to lend him a kind of authenticity that won over some very tough crowds and some very good musicians (including Duke Ellington and Lester Young). But as Pomus hit 30, he had enough of the wear and tear of performing one-night stands, and, truth be told, the world that had sustained him was disappearing. Jump blues, a creature of the 1940s, had become a thing of the past.
Rock ’n’ roll was the future. So were white teenagers. Pomus, who had never played to them and didn’t know them, found himself at a distinct disadvantage until he met Schuman in 1955. Mort knew teenagers. He was one.
Pomus and Schuman were an odd couple, to be sure, but within two or three years they had worked out what Halberstadt sees as their signature style: Schuman’s rather simple, upbeat melodies (with their frequent Latin touches) and Pomus’s ruminative, somewhat downbeat lyrics. Take the words to “Save the Last Dance for Me.” The singer expects that his girl will “dance, go and carry on” with other men. In fact, it is a foregone conclusion. He can only remind her that he loves her and that he will be the one taking her home at the end of the night. This is hardly a howl of triumph. A leading edge of sadness runs through Pomus’s life. As in any blues song, the good times are always shadowed by disaster. In the early 1960s, Pomus was married, churning out songs for Elvis, hosting big parties at his house on Long Island and earning more than any other songwriter around. But again, history overtook him. The heyday of Tin Pan Alley was over, done in by the likes of Bob Dylan on one hand and Lennon and McCartney on the other. By 1966, Pomus was broke and without a job. His wife left him. So did Schuman, who moved to France, where he unaccountably became a star, singing and writing in French. Pomus, on the other hand, was reduced to running poker games for a cut of the pot.
While there are indeed some grim moments in Pomus’s story, especially in his last 25 years (he died of cancer in 1991), Halberstadt does a good job of portraying the charm and goofy nobility that made Pomus a beloved figure. When an admirer offered to bring a bigger television to the hospital room in which he was dying, Pomus responded, “This is no time for long-term investments.”
Pomus countered his deep fears and depressions with a valiant gregariousness. He spent large chunks of his adult life living in hotels, and his relative immobility and overwhelming loneliness led him to park himself in the lobby, where he would engage in conversation all night. This was how he met both his wives and a number of the more colorful, lowlife characters that season this book. He was by all accounts a great and generous talker. He numbered among his friends very disparate and very talented folks, including Ray Charles, Lou Reed, Phil Spector, John Lennon and even Dylan himself. What’s more, he was passionately committed to popular music. He had an eye for new talent — he discovered and promoted the young Bette Midler — and a fierce sense of loyalty to the forgotten singers of the past.
Nevertheless, we have to be honest. Pomus’s hits were, more often than not, very good songs blessed with truly great arrangements. (Think of the strings that open “This Magic Moment.”) As far as Tin Pan Alley goes, he was no Lorenz Hart or Ira Gershwin. Instead, he was, by his own admission, an old bluesman. His later works, especially the songs featured on Johnny Adams’s wonderful “Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me,” have witty touches but are, in their way, standard blues tunes — that is, relatively straightforward, grown-up accounts of loss and disappointment.
But flashy genius is not the point here. Pomus’s story is worth telling — and Halberstadt tells it quite well — because he was such a character, such a mixture of gusto and vulnerability. He was also so clearly a product the late 1940s and ’50s. As such, he had the misfortune to become something of an atavism twice in his career, first as a shouter and then as a songwriter. What makes this book so oddly affecting is not the anger that motivated Pomus at the start, but the loopy courage with which he managed to survive himself in the end.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.