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.