'You couldn't invent a life story like this'
PUTNEY -- It's very simple: You know his songs, but you don't know about him ... and he's worth getting to know.
He wrote or co-wrote "Save the Last Dance for Me," "A Teenager in Love," "Viva Las Vegas," "This Magic Moment," "Turn Me Loose" and "Lonely Avenue" and scores of other classic tunes, and collaborated with a who's-who of Motown, blues, soul, R&B and rock and roll stars.
Ray Charles loved his voice and his songs; Lou Reed was a close pal who called him "one of the best songwriters in history"; and Bob Dylan once phoned him for help when he was stuck.
He was the first non-African-American recipient of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
These are just some of the highlights of the interesting life of Doc Pomus, and if you don't know about him, here's your chance to get better acquainted.
On Saturday, at 7:30 p.m., Next Stage Arts Project will present a special premiere screening of the film "AKA Doc Pomus" and Q&A with filmmaker (and the songwriter's daughter) Sharyn Felder at Next Stage, 15 Kimball Hill. Tickets are $10, available at nextstagearts.org and at the door.
The film is certainly your introduction to one of the most celebrated Brill Building songwriters to emerge in the 1960s, but "AKA Doc Pomus" is more than that. With the help of Lou Reed, Dr. John, the songwriting team Leiber & Stoller and a host of other iconic artists, it tells the unlikely and entertaining story of this big-hearted, romantic, captivating figure.
"I did it because my father's story was such a great life story, and I wanted it to be told. I really thought you couldn't invent a life story like this," said Sharyn Felder, whose famed father died in 1991 at the age of 65. "This is a story of rise and fall, rise and fall. ... He was a force. His life had many highs and lows. He was classically an example of overcoming a lot of odds. In the end, he came out a major survivor."
Brooklyn-born Jerome Felder was stricken with polio as a child and used crutches and later a wheelchair to get around all his life. The music on his radio was a constant companion, and when he heard Big Joe Turner's "Piney Brown Blues," it changed his life.
He reinvented himself as a blues singer, choosing the name Doc Pomus because "he thought it sounded cool. ... He wanted to create this hip midnight character."
For a time in his late teens and through his 20s, Doc Pomus made his way as a blues singer.
"Seeing photographs of him as a blues singer in clubs in Harlem on crutches, as a Jewish kid with all black bands, I knew this was something that not everybody has done," said Sharyn Felder. "His blues recordings, they're fantastic. He just was a blues shouter."
But at some point in his music career, Doc Pomus came to the realization that he would never be a blues star. To supplement his income and support his new family, be began writing magazine articles and songs. He got his first big break when he chanced upon a recording in a jukebox by the Coasters of his song, "Young Blood." He had given the song to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who had reworked it considerably, but Doc Pomus was still listed as a co-writer, and he received a royalty check.
By 1957, he left blues singing behind for a career in songwriting that included a slew of hit songs, many written with his partner, pianist Mort Shuman. Although Shuman was typically thought of as the guy who wrote the music and Pomus as the lyricist, they often wrote songs collaboratively. Pomus also collaborated with Phil Spector.
"He liked the pure, simple form of writing songs. His idol was Irving Berlin. ... He liked songs that had a kind of universality, that people could relate to," said Felder. "The power of a song is so amazing. There's a lot of comfort and a lot of inspiration that comes from a song. Songs live on, and they have an infinite life."
Later in the 1970s and ‘80s, he held court in his two-room apartment in the Westover Hotel on 72nd Street in New York City, holding songwriting workshops. He also churned out songs that were recorded by Dr. John, BB King, Irma Thomas, Marianne Faithfull, Charlie Rich and others. Many were written for what Pomus described as the lost souls "stumbling around in the night out there, uncertain, or not always so certain of exactly where they fit in or where they were headed."
Pomus could relate.
"At the core, he was a blues person. Blues lyrics are about pain," said Felder.
Doc Pomus knew pain, but he also knew how to overcome it.
"He always said ‘I never wanted to be known as the crippled songwriter. I wanted to be known as the songwriter who was crippled,'" said Felder. "He wasn't a complainer. ... He was a romantic. He was very smart. He was witty and funny. ... He was like the hub, and all these spokes were all of us."
As his songwriting career peaked and then declined, Pomus needed to support his family in other ways. He became a professional poker player.
Felder had been thinking for many years that her father's life would be a good subject for a documentary. A newcomer to the film industry, Felder was figuring out how to turn her dream into reality and how to fund it, when she was contacted by filmmaker Will Hechter, who wanted to make the film. Hechter and Peter Miller directed "AKA Doc Pomus." All three produced it.
It was released in 2012 and won acclaim at festivals and at its own run in New York City.
The New York Times called it "a wonderful film celebrating the one man who connects the music of Elvis, Lou Reed, BB King, Ray Charles, Dion, Rosanne Cash, & Bob Dylan ... and his name was Doc Pomus."
Among the film's many featured stars is Lou Reed, reading aloud from Doc Pomus' journals.
Felder said she is currently exploring Broadway show and feature film projects based on her father's life and music.
For more information on the film, visit akadocpomus.com.
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