HIGH PRIEST OF EVERYTHINGDOC POMUS CRAFTED ENOUGH MAGIC MOMENTS TO FILL A MILLION JUKEBOXES
Insincerity blurs many a postmortem tribute album. What were the performers' true relationships to the featured legend? Were they just hired guns used for marquee value? Why should it be considered a "tribute" to rerecord a lesser version of a hit? Can a "tribute" recording dishonor the original artist?
When you're talking about Jerome "Doc" Pomus, you'd better shoot straight, because Doc told the truth until it bled. Even his Brill Building hits, sculpted with co-writer Mort Shuman to reap teen coin, were gems of streetwise truth. For quick reference: "A Teenager in Love," "Lonely Avenue," "Young Blood," "I Count the Tears," "Suspicion," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "This Magic Moment."
In the mid-Eighties, Doc went to a tribute concert in his honor at South Street Seaport in Manhattan. As Willy DeVille performed "Little Sister" while squinting at a hand-held lyric sheet, Doc cracked that DeVille could've paid him much higher homage had he just stayed home and not sang the damn songs.
There have been several single-artist tribute albums since Pomus died of lung cancer in 1991. The artists on the new Till the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus (Rhino)--including Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Rosanne Cash, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Dion, and Brian Wilson--surely loved Doc the songwriter, if not Doc the man. Then, so do all songwriters, whether they knew him or knew only of his work. Doc went through life the anonymous superstar--his lyrics known throughout the Western Hemisphere even as his name remained obscure to all but rock 'n' roll insiders and New Yorkers.
Doc had a theory about there being two types of songwriters: internal and external. "I look at music one way," he said. "It's either soulful . . . or not. If it's internal, it's great; if it's external, it's not great. I can tell where a songwriter has sat with a line for two weeks. To me, any artist who sits there analyzing the lines should be a mathematician instead." Among those songwriters whose music Pomus felt sprang from the head, not the soul or the gut, were Paul Simon and certain Broadway composers. Internal songwriters, however, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Otis Blackwell and maybe Bob Dylan, could write great songs in five-minute outbursts. It may have taken ten years' practice to be able to write a hit in five minutes, but it comes out whole hog in one blast. You can take your sweet time polishing the rough edges. Doc Pomus was possibly the only white urban blues singer in America during the Forties, when he cut about 30 78s for race labels like Apollo, Chess and Savoy. His sidemen came from the Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong bands. For a decade, living out of cheap Broadway hotels, he wrote blues for himself, as well as for the early Atlantic Records stable--performers like LaVern Baker, Gatemouth Moore and Pomus' hero, Big Joe Turner.
In that era, the blues audience was entirely black, he insisted. Being white, Doc wasn't allowed into the Southern chitlins circuit. In the early Fifties, he survived by playing a dozen clubs in Harlem, Brooklyn and New Jersey, where the unique presence of a white blues singer on crutches (Pomus was a victim of polio) was accepted. He hand-picked rookie musicians King Curtis and Mickey Baker to be his back-up band. Curtis became the seminal rock 'n' roll sax player and Baker the most prolific studio guitarist of the Fifties. Nearly broke and on his honeymoon in early 1957 with actress Willi Burk, Doc spotted "Young Blood" on a diner jukebox. It was a song he'd written and handed rough to producers Leiber and Stoller. Throwing in his nickel, he played the Coasters' 45, and was delighted to hear a minstrel-style reworking of the song. He called Atlantic Records, and was congratulated on having his first national hit. The label wired him a grand. He was given a cubbyhole office in the Brill Building penthouse, where he crafted hundreds of bluesy pop gems with his young pianist protg, Mort Shuman. The team flourished for ten years, with Doc writing 80 percent of the lyrics and 20 percent of the music.
I met Doc in the mid-Seventies, when I worked as assistant engineer at Regent Sound Studios in New York, fresh out of high school. After writing a Soho News article on his comeback, I fell into his inner-sanctum, all-night-rock-'n'-roll whirl. So herewith a few insights:
Dylan visited Doc's West 72nd Street apartment one night in the late Eighties. Bemoaning a case of writer's block, Dylan was hot 'n' horny to collaborate on some songs. "The fuckin' poet laureate of America showed up at my door," Doc recounted on the phone, sarcastic but impressed.
Doc was always ready to roll up his sleeves and go to work. His music may have generated untold fortunes, but he wasn't rich enough to retire. America's poet laureate, however, never called or followed up, leaving Doc hanging.
Nevertheless, Dylan's number cooks on the tribute album. It's a tune Doc penned for his hero, Big Joe Turner, in 1955, "Boogie-Woogie Country Girl." The Turner recording was also a vehicle for Atlantic's amazing session pianist Van Walls, who wore a Sherlock Holmes get-up featuring a calabash pipe. (It was Walls' last Atlantic session before he left the country. Thirty years later, Doc summoned Walls from God knows where to star at a gig at New York's Lone Star Cafe.)
During his final years, Pomus often said he would have liked for Frank Sinatra to have covered one of his songs, which never happened. The only Beatles covers of his songs were on bootlegs. Nothing was officially released during their career (until the fab "Young Blood" on the new Live at the BBC release). John Lennon also lived on West 72nd Street, three blocks from Doc, but the only time they ever locked skulls was at a Seventies BMI dinner, where they were seated together. Doc's daughter, Sharyn, once encountered Lennon at the corner grocery. John crooned "Save the Last Dance for Me" (which was included on his 1975 Rock 'n' Roll album) to her, then turned and left. The thing about "Last Dance" that slays me is the context in which it was written. Doc was married to this gorgeous blond Broadway actress in the Fifties, and all of her Broadway cronies were contemptuous of rock 'n' roll. "None of them paid any attention to me," he once admitted, "and if they asked what kind of songs I wrote, I felt embarrassed. If I had written a fifth-rate Broadway song, my God, they would have been proud. In the Fifties, the kind of songs I wrote were associated with sleaze and juvenile delinquency."
Doc's childhood bout with polio left him on crutches, and then in a wheelchair for life. One night, he's at a dance with his wife, waiting for her to finish dancing with a bevy of partners, patient and cool on the sidelines. Though he never said so, that night likely provided the inspiration for "Save the Last Dance for Me," with its lines "Don't forget who's taking you home/And in whose arms you're gonna be/So, darling, save the last dance for me."
"Lonely Avenue" stands among the greatest blues songs ever conceived. Stalled in traffic, Doc sang it alone into a tape recorder in his car. Junkies revere it as an anthem because of the dirgelike repetition. On piano, it broke new turf as a prototype motif, one of a handful of pure blues progressions. The original 1956 Ray Charles recording remains the definitive version; on the tribute, Los Lobos achieves a spare, guitar-based incantation.
It's arguable whether a great song can transcend any singer who records it. How could Elvis be King without the 25 songs Pomus and Shuman wrote for him or the hits Leiber and Stoller and Otis Blackwell bestowed upon him?
On the other hand, could "Jailhouse Rock" (penned by Leiber and Stoller), "All Shook Up" (Blackwell) or "Little Sister" (Pomus and Shuman) have hit regardless of who released them, including the songwriters themselves? The answer is a definitive "no." The heavy machinery of promotion, record-company radio payola, Mafia control of jukeboxes, the prejudices of the day--all were factors in whether a record exploded. For example, the last recording Doc cut as a singer, "Heartlessly," was probably his greatest single, a strictly rockin' ballad. Seminal deejay Alan Freed broke it into heavy rotation on the New York airwaves in 1955, a strong indicator that it was destined to chart. As was common practice when a small-label release made such an impact, a major label--in this case, RCA--bought the master.
And then, for reasons forever unknown, RCA killed the record, never releasing it.
Was this because Doc was on crutches, unmarketable as a matinee idol? The experience so soured him, he quit singing forever. Yet chances are, had Elvis released a version of "Heartlessly" identical to Doc's single, it would be a classic today.
Conversely, the managers of an untalented heartthrob named Fabian approached Pomus and Shuman. "They gave us an assignment to write songs for someone who couldn't carry a tune," Doc said. "That's very difficult to do."
The songwriter was told that Fabian caused pandemonium among the teenyboppers but that he hadn't cut a successful recording. Fabian's first two hits, "Turn Me Loose" and "I'm a Man," originally written for Elvis, were watered down melodically and lyrically for the limited chops of Fabian. "I was proud of the fact I was able to get a guy like that off the ground," Doc said.
After a sorrowful decade of retirement from the music biz, Pomus returned to songwriting in the mid-Seventies. Dr. John was his second major partnership. Now Pomus concentrated only on lyrics, and never wasted a word. Doc could turn the spin on a clich phrase and deliver it as a knockout punch, as in the gospel masterpiece "One More Time," recorded by B.B. King and Joe Cocker (unfortunately, the song is not included on Till the Night Is Gone). B.B. King cried when the lyric to "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere" first grabbed hold of him. Johnny Carson shed a tear off-camera when King sang it on The Tonight Show.
But "He's a Hero," the ultimate hipster-in-the-night song, from Dr. John's 1978 City Lights album, contained a 20/20 lyric with 20/20 insight: "high priest of nothin'." Doc saw through the fakers, poseurs and big-shot no-talents in the music biz, and this phrase summed them all up. Several hundred songs were written in the twilight decade of his career. Some went unrecorded; the full weight of his gifts are yet to be realized. I hope they are forever sung.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.