Friday, February 8, 2008

Doc Pomus

"...I walked slow and straight and never swung my legs fast and awkwardly like the rest of the gimps who got around with braces and crutches. My main thing was to act and look cool - angry, and cool and sharp. I talked the hip talk of the jazzmen and dressed like Bed-Stuy and Harlem. I was gonna be the first heavy-weight boxing champion on crutches - a one punch knockout killer. Or maybe the first major league pitcher on crutches- firing endless, unhittable strikes."
Doc Pomus

"It was his favorite time of night. Mckibben Street was quiet. The stickball games had broken up; the stoop orators had gone inside. The old Jewish women in housecoats who spent afternoons watching the street from their windowsills had drawn their curtains. Only a few windows were lit. The night was teeming with street sounds: the whine of automobile engines, the creak of the pushcart men rolling their carts home after a long day on Moore Street, a lonely rumba wafting down the street from somebody's radio. Jerome flipped on the set and wiggled the dial until he picked up the remote from the Elk's Rendezvous in Harlem: Chris Columbus's band was playing "I Can't Get Started," a whole section of muted trumpets woozily carrying the melody. Jerome exhaled another lungful of smoke, rested his arm, closed his eyes, and listened. In those early morning hours he felt like he belonged to the world most acutely, protected by the darkness and the solitude of night. At those moments he had access to the entire storehouse of adult knowledge. But he was still fourteen, and tomorrow was a school day. In five hours, he'd be dressed and ready to go, his hair wet combed across his head, squinting into the morning sun from the passenger seat of his mother's black Plymouth."
-Alex Halberstadt
from Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus

I just finished reading Alex Halberstadt's biography of Doc Pomus, and have to say I was moved by this story that traces Pomus' life from his beginnings as young Jerome Felder, a half crippled victim of polio in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn to a teenager moonlighting as blues singer Doc Pomus in New York's honky-tonk chitlin circuit to tin-pan alley songwriter writing hits for Dion, Elvis, Ray Charles and others. It's not a happy story, but it's not exactly sad either. Pomus lived a charmed life despite the odds; a life lived in residential hotels where he would hold court in the lobby with characters that forever disappeared from New York with the last century, hosting card games in his room to pay the bills when the checks stopped coming. Pomus wrote hundreds of songs, the bulk of these with his "melody man" Mort Schuman. As a lyricist, his songs embody a greater emotional depth and dark pathos not heard in most of the work of Brill Building songwriters. He wrote plenty of fluff too: "Girl Happy" for Elvis and "Go, Jimmy, Go" which he peddled to teenny bopper Jimmy Clanton, after Bobby Rydell balked at the original "Go, Bobby, Go." He told Clanton he had written it just for him. You can hear it below, along with some much better records by a host of others including Ray Charles - Pomus' first hit- and Joe Turner - Pomus' hero. Also some tracks from his later career including collaborations with Willie DeVille and Mac Rebbenack, a posthumous tribute record, and B.B. King's Grammy winning "There Must Be A Better World Somewhere."

It's a big playlist, and I don't think I'll ever do one this big again, not unless I can get an intern or something. But like I said, I was moved. Moved enough to go and take a walk to find the Felder family home here in Brooklyn. It's not too far from where I live, and when I got there, I found the building gone and replaced by a project. The picture above will give you an idea what McKibben Street and Manhattan Avenue looked like when young Doc gazed out the window minus a few buildings and the street life. As I looked down the block, I noticed a record store across the street from where their building stood. I think Doc would have approved.


"Alley Alley Blues" mp3
by Doc Pomus, 1948.
available on Blues in the Red

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

"Lonely Avenue" mp3
by Ray Charles, 1956.
available on Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection

"Young Blood" mp3
by The Coasters, 1958.
available on The Very Best of the Coasters

"You're Teasing Me" mp3
by Lavern Baker, 1958.
available on The Legend at Her Best

"It's Great To Be Young And In Love" (demo) mp3
by Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman, 1959.
available on It's Great to Be Young and in Love

" A Teenager In Love" mp3
by Dion and The Belmonts, 1959.
available on Best of Dion and the Belmonts

"Nobody But Me" mp3
by The Drifters, 1960.
available on The Very Best of the Drifters

"Go, Jimmy, Go" mp3
by Jimmy Clanton, 1960.
available on Time Life The Rock 'N' Roll Era: Teen Idols

"Little Sister" mp3
by Elvis Presley, 1961.
available on The Top Ten Hits

"Suspicion" mp3
by Elvis Presley, 1962.
available on From Nashville To Memphis: The Essential 60's Masters

"Hushabye" mp3
by The Beach Boys, 1964.
available on Little Deuce Coupe/ All Summer Long

"I'm Gonna Cry 'Til My Tears Run Dry"
by Irma Thomas, 1964.
available on Sweet Soul Queen of New Orleans: The Irma Thomas Collection

"City Lights" mp3
"Dance The Night Away With You" mp3
By Dr. John, 1978
live at The Bottom Line
also available on City Lights

"Save The Last Dance For Me" mp3
by Emmylou Harris, 1979.
available on Blue Kentucky Girl

"Just To Walk The Little Girl Home" mp3
by Mink DeVille, 1980.
available on Le Chat Bleu Expanded Edition

"There Must Be A Better World Somewhere" mp3
by B.B. King, 1983.
available on There Must Be a Better World Somewhere

"Still In Love" mp3
by Johnny Adams, 1991.
available on Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me

"Pictures And Paintings" mp3
by Charlie Rich, 1992.
available on Pictures and Paintings

"Boogie Woogie Country Girl" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1995.
available on Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus

"I Count The Tears" mp3
by Roseanne Cash, 1995.
available on Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus

"This Magic Moment" mp3
by Lou Reed, 1995.
available on Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus

Buy: Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus
by Alex Halberstadt © 2007 Da Capo Press

photographs by Ted Barron © 2008


Anonymous said...

I just finished this book myself, and like you, found it very moving. What a life Doc lived.

I immediately bought the Johnny Adams album with all of Doc's songs, but I'm so grateful the you provided this soundtrack.


Unknown said...

You're a maniac, Ted. I'll be in the city later this month.

Anonymous said...

This guy is a GIANT and this is great post.

Anonymous said...

I read an interview with Lou Reed where he went on at length about what a great lyricist Doc was.

Anonymous said...

Ha, I was just in that store about a month ago while on a trip to NYC. Despite it's name, it deals mostly in reissues of 50's/60's rock and R&B, pretty much exactly what this blog is all about. It's good.

Anonymous said...

Ted, Great post. And Huge. I thought the intern comment was very funny.

Jer.Eps said...

Doc & his wheelchair were a fixture at the Lone Star Cafe back when it was downtown and had a giant iguana on the roof. He & I saw Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley and others together. It was a long time before I learned who the guy in the wheelchair was, and what a genius he was. "Lonely Avenue" is one of my very favorites, and there are plenty of guys who would have retired after writing only "Save The Last Dance For Me."

Thanks for the atmospheric, epic post. I loved it.

Anonymous said...

A mouthwatering post, Ted. I'd be happy to intern for you if I wasn't putting a kid through college.

Anonymous said...

Great post my friend. I was so moved by the information you posted that I went to Amazon and bought the book. Fabulous job and please keep up the good work.

C. said...

Just fantastic, Ted. Well done.


ROEB said...

again mr. barron, what a pleasure to visit boogie woogie flu.

i greet you from across the ocean and wish you well!

ai to heiwa

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. Though I was on Locust St. for a minute ;D.

Kreisler said...

Just come across this blog for the first time. What a great post - thanks.

Anonymous said...

The Johnny Adams Story is about a man, his music and a lifelong struggle to become free. Free from a corrupt music industry that often times denied legal counsel, worked hard to keep many black entertainers under their tight control and ultimately robbed them and their families of earnings and royalties that were rightfully theirs.

Travel back with us now to a time when great artists like Johnny Adams were just getting started and learn the truth about what it meant to be black, uneducated and truly gifted during the 50's and 60's… a time when some of the greatest music ever heard was sung to a nation and some of our most gifted black artists struggled for just a small taste of equality.

The Johnny Adams story may shock you; it may even anger you; but one thing is certain…it will inspire and teach you that even when it seems the whole world is conspiring against you; that love is still the binder that holds the pages of life together.