[JPL] This Magic Moment- The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus

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Mon Mar 26 06:40:06 EDT 2007


March 25, 2007
This Magic Moment


The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus.

By Alex Halberstadt.

Illustrated. 254 pp. Da Capo Press. $26.

One night around 1960 ‹ about the time that songs he had written for the
Drifters, Elvis Presley, and Dion and the Belmonts were all topping the
charts ‹ Doc Pomus was having dinner with his young protégé, an ambitious
oddball named Phil Spector. They were, as usual, at the Spindletop
steakhouse, in the Hotel Forrest in Midtown Manhattan. Pomus was residing
there and holding court nightly in the lobby.

³Out of the corner of his eye,² Alex Halberstadt writes in ³Lonely Avenue,²
a taut and affecting biography of Pomus, ³Spector saw someone in a raincoat
and a fedora walk up behind a man at an adjacent table and rapidly fire
three shots into his head. ... Spector refused to set foot in the Spindletop
again. Doc nudged him back: ŒThe place is incredible, right, the salads, I
mean how about the service in that restaurant? Babe, you always got to look
at the upside.¹ But what about the guy who got murdered, Spector protested.
ŒWell,¹ Doc explained in a bit of philosophy that Spector never forgot, Œthe
murder ‹ that¹s the downside of the restaurant, you understand, that¹s the
downside.¹ ²

Pomus knew a few things about the downside. Though John Lennon told him that
a Pomus song was the first number the Beatles ever practiced together, and
Bob Dylan came to him for guidance during a bout with writer¹s block, his
life amounted to a series of tough breaks interrupted by a few years¹ worth
of songs that will live forever.

Born Jerome Felder in working-class Brooklyn in 1925, he contracted polio as
a boy. With the radio as his bedside companion, he first discovered
classical music before becoming transfixed by hot jazz and jump blues. A
chance encounter with a Big Joe Turner record would shape the rest of his
life; Felder heard that huge blast of a voice, Halberstadt writes, and
³that, he thought, is how a man should sound.²

In a process of transformation straight out of a comic book, young Felder
(whose brother, Raoul, would grow up to become a celebrated divorce lawyer)
began haunting jazz clubs. Soon he worked up the nerve to hoist himself
onstage with his crutches, introduce himself as ³Doc Pomus² and tear down
the mostly black houses with his renditions of popular blues songs.

The shadow story of ³Lonely Avenue² is the high-speed transfiguration of
popular music in the 20th century. Early in his career, Pomus found himself
working with giants like Lester Young and Duke Ellington. But the sound of
young America was changing, and though Pomus scored a few regional hits,
there was only so far a disabled blues shouter could go. The 1956 Ray
Charles hit that gives this book its title was Pomus¹s national breakthrough
as a songwriter, but it also marked the end of an era for the purer R&B he

Casting aside any lingering dreams of being an artist himself, Pomus cracked
the code for rock ¹n¹ roll¹s more adolescent concerns and simplified
rhythms. In the late 1950s and early 60s, he and his partner, the composer
Mort Shuman, wrote smashes like ³Turn Me Loose,² ³Teenager in Love,² ³Little
Sister² and ³This Magic Moment.² Halberstadt, a freelance writer, never met
Pomus, but he vividly links the melancholy and yearning in these songs with
Pomus¹s own personal and professional frustrations while never overplaying
his hand.

The crowning achievement was the Drifters¹ sublime ³Save the Last Dance for
Me.² In a story straight out of Hollywood, Pomus actually wrote the lyrics
on the back of an invitation to his own wedding, remembering how it felt to
watch his bride dance with his brother, knowing that he himself was unable
to navigate a dance floor. ³Under his pen,² Halberstadt writes, ³the simple
declaration of love he set out to write wavered, giving way to vulnerability
and fear.²

In 1959, Pomus and Shuman visited England and were greeted like rock stars.
But in 1964, when four kids from Liverpool reversed that trip, everything
changed overnight. After the Beatles appeared on ³The Ed Sullivan Show,²
Pomus and his associates couldn¹t fight ³the strangled suspicion that
songwriting-for-hire had been rendered obsolete.²

Indeed, other than a few stray hits ‹ most notably, B. B. King¹s
Grammy-winning ³There Must Be a Better World Somewhere² in 1981 ‹ Doc
Pomus¹s moment had passed. He paid his bills through high-stakes poker (in
low-rent private sessions, long before the game vied for cable time with
reality cooking shows) and royalty checks that turned up when artists from
Bruce Springsteen to Dolly Parton covered his compositions.

In his later years, Pomus became an elder statesman in the New York City
songwriter set, a larger-than-life connection to a lost era, knocking around
town with Dr. John and Lou Reed before succumbing to lung cancer in 1991. He
was a master kibitzer, a great listener and, he said, ³a mark² for every
hustler in the music business. At one point in the 1970s, he went down to a
stationery store and printed up cards that read: ³Doc Pomus ‹ I¹ve got my
own problems.²

Alan Light is the author of ³The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the
Beastie Boys.²

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