You might not know him by name, but you know Doc Pomus’s blues.
He was a childhood polio victim who as an adult penned Just to Walk that Little Girl Home. For B.B. King he offered There Must Be a Better World and to Ray Charles he gave Lonely Avenue. He co-wrote Save the Last Dance for Me, and his funeral service was a moving, song-filled affair.
Pomus was born Jerome Felder, and the rock ‘n’ roll icon is the subject of AKA Doc Pomus, an affectionate documentary by William Hechter and Peter Miller. It is a straightforward progression of archival photos, recollections from family and music-biz heavies, Pomus’s personal journals (read by friend and devotee Lou Reed) and snippets of the more than 1,000 songs he wrote or co-wrote.
There is nothing particularly innovative or noteworthy in the way Pomus’s story is told. Interview subjects include the esteemed music writer Peter Guralnick, Ben E. King, Dion, music producer Hal Willner, and Pomus’s daughter, son and ex-wife. The late, likable Pomus himself also appears. The saga unfolds at an agreeable pace and in chronological order. Because Pomus is such a compelling figure, nothing fancy is required. His one-of-kind story will charm anyone who has a rock ‘n’ roll heart.
“I think my brother had every possible thing going against him in the history of the world,” says Raoul Felder, Pomus’s younger sibling and renowned New York divorce attorney. “From poverty to illness to incapacitation, you could not create a worse scenario for failure.”
Pomus’s father was a Jewish immigrant who made his Brooklyn household an unhappy one. The disabled Pomus – he changed his name as a teenaged blues singer – found refuge in radio, tuned to African-American music. “For him,” we are told, “it came from a completely different universe.” It absolutely did.
The uphill life of Pomus (1925-1991) is the film’s arc. He wrote and recorded the potential hit Heartlessly, but the record went nowhere once RCA/Victor found out the singer was a thirtysomething Jewish guy on crutches and not the young black artist the label thought they were hearing. His performing career doomed, Pomus went to work at New York’s Brill Building, the nerve centre for pop-music publishing.
There he put words to the melodies of his songwriting partner Mort Shuman and became a heavyweight hit-maker. It was decidedly kids’ music; A Teenager in Love, a chart-topper for Dion and the Belmonts in 1959, perfectly captured the fear and anxiety involved with adolescent romance. A 17-year-old would never write that song, the film points out, but he sure could identify with it.
A 17-year-old wouldn’t likely write about life’s “sweet sadness” either. Pomus did, in his journal, as he tried to come to terms with a world that was his “master,” and thus something he could not ever control. The late 1960s and seventies saw the rise of the singer-songwriter and the fall of the Brill Building and the melody makers within it. Around the same time, Pomus lost his wife, his house and his chief songwriting partner.
The film’s later parts study the wilder side of Pomus’s life. He was a curious curmudgeon who lived a wheelchair-bound urban existence, holding court in a notorious West Side apartment. He played poker, befriended the colourful Times Square types, cashed royalty cheques – Elvis Presley’s post-death sales spike in 1977 helped him there – and eventually returned to songwriting.
Pomus died of lung cancer in 1991, the year before Lou Reed released Magic and Loss, an album partly inspired by his mentor’s illness. “There’s a bit of magic in everything,” Reed summed up on the title song, “and then some loss to even things out.” Pomus, responsible for This Magic Moment and Can’t Get Used to Losing You, lived and wrote about both sides.