Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doc's Holiday Fever

My father, Jerome Solon Felder (aka Doc Pomus) was a super Jew to his core, but not at all religious. His rabbi died a week before he was to be Bar Mitzvahed, which he took at once to be a relief and an omen. His British mother Millie kept kosher, but practically encouraged her sons Jerome and Raoul to eat bacon outside the home, because she believed it had healing properties. The formalities of religion for him were not at all necessary. There was no battle between celebrating Chanukah and Christmas. He saw the holiday season as quite simply a festive opportunity and excuse to SHOP for others - to dole out large quantities of the year’s carefully accumulated stuff. The swag was always very well intentioned, but occasionally bordered on crap: trinkets, baubles and tchotchkies, for those nearest and dearest and sometimes real high-end goods too.  No matter the quality, people were genuinely moved by his very thoughtful gestures. But he was no saint, and he did not suffer fools.  Like his good friend Joel Dorn used to say to me, “If he didn’t dig you, man, could he ice you.”  Needless to say, he didn’t get gifts for everyone. 

Dad had a jones for shopping, an activity that a guy stuck in a wheelchair with wads of cash could easily handle. He could station himself inside of a favorite bookstore or record shop like Final Vinyl and be happy for hours. For himself, he bought large cowboy hats, flea market finds, exotic belt buckles, hand-made leather pouches, love potions and ointments, chunky turquoise-nugget rings, snake or lizard skin shoes, as well as endless books and records.  But mostly he loved shopping for gifts for others and always seemed to catch the Christmas/Chanukah fever right after Thanksgiving. He began by reviewing and always adding new names to his extensive Christmas card list, put together from saved cards he had received from old friends over the years: B.B. King, Phil Spector, Mr. & Mrs. Joe Turner, Ben E. King, Ellie Greenwich, Leiber and Stoller, Micky Baker, Gerry Goffin, and on, and on.

He loved the process of selecting the swag destined for family, friends, and flavors of the month. He lavished them with stuff he had stashed over the previous year, kept in specified drawers and cabinets, in plastic bags, and in little boxes earmarked for those he really liked: his favorite waitresses at each of the clubs and restaurants he frequented; secretaries at record companies, BMI, and Warner/Chappell; large bags of toys delivered to a downtown children’s hospital; for the the porters, doormen and the mailmen that he liked; or for Belle, the old lady down the hall. The extensive gifts ran the gamut - they might be inscribed, carefully selected books by Peter Guralnick, Jayne Ann Phillips, or Elmore Leonard; or a photobook by Walker Evans or Weegee. He often bought me photography or cookbooks and always inscribed them to me, his only daughter, as “to my favorite daughter” or conversely “to my least favorite daughter.”

Doc would also purchase a wide range of trinkets from an old-time salesman that he liked to throw business to named Sol Winkler. Sol came to his apartment on West 72nd Street, and had been coming to him since my father lived at the Forrest Hotel during the Brill Building days. He would open his pocket-lined coat, stuffed with pens, knives and two–in–one gadgets; and had suitcases filled with notions, frames, and wallets - everything always of questionable value. He might buy something from Sidney Mills of Mills publishing, who sold watches on the side, or from Carmine DeNoya (aka Wassel), a legendary music business and dear old wiseguy friend, who might offer him something fallen off the back of a truck or from a barter deal. Then there were the many flea market vendors selling jewelry or knick-knacks, both high end and low, that saw his electric wheelchair coming at them from a mile a way and salivated because they knew he was a big spender. Dr John sent him to a hidden botanica-type shop, where he would buy oils, gris gris and candles for special gifts.  He would send big gift baskets to Joe & Pat Turner in LA and a yearly salami to Phil Spector. (Pat Turner in turn always sent him lots of photos of their home at Christmas for my dad, who never had a chance to visit their LA pad, and Phil Spector would always send him a freezer-packed box of steaks.) When the loot was all wrapped and ready-to-go, he would send his driver to deliver Santa-Claus style to the various drop-off spots all over the city and parts beyond. This could sometimes take a few days. In the end, the size of his most recent royalty statement determined how much he would spend. My father lived simultaneously large and modestly in two small rooms. He did not invest in the stock market or own real estate and had a very high overhead to pay salaries for the small staff who worked for him. Shopping, going out to hear music, and ordering in food daily, were the only luxuries in which he indulged.

I have one specific memory from 1965, when we still lived in Lynbrook, Long Island in a ranch-style house with a big lawn and a pool. My mother, who is Catholic and also not at all religious, enjoyed over-the-top Christmases. Our tree was a giant silver tinsel number, sparkly and ornately decorated (these vintage decorations were all lost this year to Hurricane Sandy). My father asked his close friend Joe Morgan (Duke Ellington’s press agent), a big pudgy guy, to come out to our house where he would dress as Santa and descend from our attic to surprise my brother Geoffrey and me. My father’s mother Millie, brought vats of her homemade chicken soup with kreplach and kneidlach, and lamb shank stew from Brooklyn. We were over-gifted with a ridiculous amount of life-size toys that took over the living room. That is the last high-roller Christmas that I remember. Soon after, my parents were divorced and lost the house to the IRS.

My father kept his favorite records, mostly 78s and 45s, in special leather cases with handles.  Mac Rebennack always tells me that when he and my father were alone at night   they might occasionally fire up a joint. He had a record player at the foot of his bed, and my father was always very specific about which case Mac should go to, to pick out just the perfect record that he wanted him to hear.  That same music is what came out big-time for the holidays. It was Big Joe Turner maybe singing  "Still in Love," (Mac told me Pete Johnson’s piano playing on that was an important early influence for him) or maybe  “Love Roller Coaster” or "Don’t You Cry", or Gatemouth Moore singing Doc’s first recorded song “Love Doctor Blues,” or Jimmy Scott, Wynonie Harris, Big Maybelle etc. etc. Dad's favorite song was “Always,” written by the Jew, Irving Berlin, who also brought us “White Christmas.” After we exchanged our gifts, (Dad would open his with childlike enthusiasm) he would announce, “Lets get some Jew food!” And then, in the door from Fine and Shapiro, a Jewish deli up the street where he maintained an account, would come chopped liver, chicken in the pot, stuffed derma, calf's foot jelly, and kasha varnishkas. 

At which point he would proclaim: “Now, lets have some fun!”


"Don't You Cry" mp3
by Big Joe Turner, 1952.
available on All the Classic Hits 1938-52

"No One" mp3
by Doc Pomus, 1959.
available on It's Great to Be Young and in Love

"The Power and the Glory" mp3
by Benny Latimore, 1973.
available on The Early Years

"World I Never Made" mp3
by Dr. John, 2005.
available on Our New Orleans 

all photographs courtesy of Sharyn Felder


Retro Hound said...

Your dad was Doc Pomus? How cool.

Can I use the BB King card on my Facebook page?

Ted, I just wanted to say that I'm a Baptist living in small town Kansas, and haven't personally known very many Jews. But after reading your posts from the last week, last night I had a dream about a cowboy who was Jewish! No one knew he was a Jew until we found him lighting a Menorah. I have the weirdest dreams sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the posting, Sharyn -- your father's story was an amazing one, and my iTunes library is full of songs he wrote.

Ted, I look forward to your Hanukkah postings all year long!

Janine Nichols said...

I come from a decidedly unreligious "mixed marriage" too and "Always" was my mother's favorite song. We lived in Lynbrook after you did. Not that there's a connection.......Janine!