Songwriter - Producer - Singer
1925 - 1991
To Find Out More About Doc Pomus...
Songs Written By...
Awards & Achievements...
Movie & TV Show Songs...
Till The Night Is Gone : A Tribute To Doc Pomus Selected Album Reviews...
Semi-Legal Stuff About The Song Portions Featured On These Pages...
Biography Of Doc Pomus...
|The legendary Doc Pomus found success as one of the finest white blues
singers of the 1940s before becoming one of the greatest songwriters in
the history of American popular music. The author of many of the most popular
rock & roll songs of the 1960s, he composed "Save the Last Dance for
Me,'' "This Magic Moment," "Sweets for My Sweet" and dozens of others,
including Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," "Little Sister," and "(Marie's
the Name) His Latest Flame."
Crippled by polio in his childhood, Pomus - born Jerome Solon Felder on June 27, 1925 in Brooklyn, New York - became interested in singing blues and writing songs after hearing a Big Joe Turner record as a kid. He played saxophone at the time, and after hearing Turner, blues music became his obsession. By the mid-'50s, after singing in a thousand blues clubs, Pomus came to a crossroads in his career: he was in his early 30s and if he wanted to get married and support a family, it was not going to be by singing the Blues - he decided to concentrate on songwriting. He took a young piano player, Mort Shuman, and molded him into his writing partner - a partnership that lasted many years and even more hit songs.
Together, Pomus and Shuman wrote the words and music to such hits as "Save The Last Dance For Me," (one of the 25 most popular songs ever recorded) "Little Sister," "Suspicion," "Can't Get Used to Losing You," "Surrender," "Viva Las Vegas" and hundreds more. After securing their own office in the Brill Building, the team continued to crank out hit after hit. Presley alone ended up recording more than 20 of their songs throughout his career, including items like "Mess of Blues."
After the Pomus-Shuman partnership broke up, Pomus took a ten year hiatus from writing. He earned his living as a professional gambler, a weekly poker game run out of his West 72nd street apartment. Pomus' son Geoffrey was sitting next to his father one night, trying not to give away the cards in their hand and maybe learn a thing or two about the game, when the mob came in to get their cut... by way of two masked gunmen. This ended Pomus' gambling career and pushed him back to writing.
Collaborating mostly with Dr. John, Pomus penned another string of gems for B.B. King, Mink DeVille and a host of others. In 1991 Pomus became the first white person to be awarded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's (an organization he co-founded) Pioneer Award. Later that year, on March 14, he died of lung cancer at the age of sixty-four in New York. In 1995 Forward Records (a division of Rhino Records) released Till the Night Is Gone, which featured recordings of fourteen of his songs, many written with Mort Shuman, by artists such as Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Hiatt, and Roseanne Cash.
Since his death, Pomus has been elected into the Rock & Roll, Songwriting, Blues and New York Music Halls of Fame. Featured in hundreds of films, TV shows and commercials, his songs have sold over 250,000,000 recordings and achieved more than 50,000,000 broadcast performances. His songs have reached number one on every type of Billboard domestic and foreign charts and have reached the top forty in every decade since the 1950's.
Tell The Truth Until They Bleed
Josh Alan Friedman
|Although Josh Friedman knew Doc Pomus well and was his friend and still
is a friend of his family, the family of Doc Pomus does not attest to the
accuracy of every fact and event illustrated below. We do wholeheartedly
however, attest to the creativity of the author and the accuracy of the
themes and overall tone. We sincerely appreciate his efforts and
hard work in this telling of the life and times of Doc Pomus. We
hope you enjoy it...
The author of Tales of Times Square recounts his 10-year friendship with Doc Pomus, the songwriter who gave the world "Lonely Avenue", "Little Sister", "A Teenager In Love" and "Save the Last Dance for Me." This reminiscence originally appeared in L.C.D., the WFMU 90.1/91.1 Official Program Guide.
For me, Doc Pomus' loss to New York City was worse than losing the Statue of Liberty. His Buddha-like presence, holding court in music saloons, would now blend into Big Apple legend, where the past seemed greater with each passing year. "At least now, they can't say I died young", he cracked, at his 60th birthday. He was 65 when he passed away in 1991.
Doc Pomus was no Damon Runyon character; he was a leading man, a great stabilizing figure of integrity in a music industry that had come to resemble a corporate cesspool.
I met him after he emerged from a sorrowful decade of retirement to collaborate with Dr. John in 1977. He retained his songwriting brilliance - so much wisdom disguised in simple street language - decades after his peers let theirs dissolve.
Shortly after Elvis died, I wrote the first of four articles on Doc, commemorating his comeback in a Soho News piece. In the curious way Americans honor their heroes after death, Elvis royalties intensified like a rejuvenated oil well. But Doc Pomus, who wrote 25 songs for Elvis, never met his foremost interpreter. They'd only conferred a few minutes by phone, Elvis calling for late-night instructions during an early '60s recording session; Doc didn't even know who he was talking to.
Doc came within inches of meeting Presley at a 1974 Hilton Hotel press conference. But the hard-assed Colonel Parker, whom Doc knew well in the old days, wouldn't let Pomus through. Doc introduced himself to Vernon, who said his son would love to meet him, but Elvis had just left the hotel. Doc was heartbroken. Three years later, Doc and Elvis made solid arrangements to meet. But Presley died a week before the meeting, leaving Doc totally spooked.
Nevertheless, when I met Doc in 1977, he'd just co-produced the debut LP for Roomful of Blues, the first white boys to revive Kansas City swing. He'd also produced the very first (henceforth unreleased) Fabulous Thunderbirds album, plucking them out of Austin when they were woolly local upstarts. (The T-Birds single-handedly ended the era of white blues bands looking and playing like hippies).
He'd written the title song for some Elvis revival show on Broadway. But his vast track record - Doc had written nearly 2,000 songs, 60 of them charting - intimidated potential collaborators. Even friends were often dumbstruck ("You wrote that?"). Other than Cher, to her credit, nobody recorded any of his recent material. He was hungry to write new songs, and that was the thrust of my article.
I did a hundred celeb interviews afterward, but only Doc Pomus gave me a warm post-publication call. I fell into the inner sanctum of his West 72nd Street apartment, the all-night rock & roll whirl. Doc presided bolt-uptight in his king-size invalid's bed. He was surrounded by piles of blues records shipped in from Chicago, promotional cassettes, music biz correspondence. A cable-TV channel switcher and phone operated over a swing table. He would put me at ease with his stories, fielding phone calls with child-like disbelief at the outside world. Some cracker trash country singer called at 3 am wondering if Doc knew how to lure his cat down from the roof. "Can you believe this shit?" Doc would mutter, hanging up. There were more fakers and poseurs in the music biz than anywhere, and Doc was blessed with knowing all the assholes. "Everybody's a genius", he would say, mocking the instant accolades accorded some schlock producer who that week scored a hit.
Johnny, the current driver of Doc's bus, was Fats Domino's former road manager, who cut his teeth collecting Domino's nightly box office receipts. When Johnny went home, Doc would buzz in guests through the electronic lock on his 11th floor door. Here I met such after-midnight visitors as Otis Blackwell, the Brooklyn pants presser who invented the rockabilly pop record ("All Shook Up" and "Don't Be Cruel"). Doc once sang in all the blues joints of Brooklyn with Otis for $8 a night. When in town, Big Joe Turner would drop in, feeble with a cane, yet still able to shout blues all night long, and every song in the key of C. So integral was Big Joe's 50-year role in R & B evolution, Doc believed, that rock & roll would never have happened had not Turner existed. Doc was often on the phone to the committably insane Phil Spector, who gave no other man but Doc full respect.
A happenstance visit by Ronnie Spector to Doc's apartment resulted in a breakneck romance that sucked every minute of my life for four months. Then one night, Ronnie, in a hurricane of alcoholic fury after her Roy Radin Vaudeville Tour, threw me out of her apartment along with the maid who I learned was her mother. Ronnie was Godzilla disguised as Gidget. Doc helped me regain my sanity in the year it took to recover.
Dr. John - a.k.a. Mac Rebennack - became Doc's new collaborator. A small songwriting keyboard was always present in Doc's living room. Their first songs were lyrical beauties that triggered the renaissance in Doc's career: "Dance The Night Away With You", "He's A Hero", and the title track for City Lights, a 1978 landmark album for Dr. John.
"Too many city lights
Pomus could turn the spin on a clichéd phrase and deliver it as a knockout punch, such as the gospel masterpiece "One More Time", recorded by B.B. King and Joe Cocker. The two doctors (Doc and Dr. John) wrote concept albums, with songs that rolled like honey off the tongues of B.B. King ("There Must Be A Better World Somewhere"), Jimmy Witherspoon ("Midnight Lady Called The Blues"), Jose Feliciano, Ray Charles, Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams.
During songwriting sessions, Mac would retire to the bathroom for a half hour. Each time, Doc sweated out whether he'd emerge alive or have to be carted out by ambulance. Mac later credited Doc for inspiring him to give up an old habit.
According to Mac, one of the five purest traditional blues motifs was single-handedly created by Doc in the song "Lonely Avenue", recorded by Ray Charles in 1956.
"Mac always said that was the 'junker blues' - junker being the old term for junkie", explained Doc. "It's a certain kind of monotonous, sad, melodic and lyrical line that, because of the continuity involved, for some reason has always attracted junkies. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum I imagine they're shuffling along to it or something. All the junkies, Mac told me, thought I was a junkie. They said somebody who wasn't could never have written 'Lonely Avenue.' Mac couldn't believe how straight I was."
Broadly recorded and imitated (hear Iron Butterfly's "Butterfly Bleu"), the song definitely became a prototype blues. During a serendipitous night going through Doc's forgotten closet, I found the original reel-to-reel. I also found crumbling tapes of Doc live at the Musicale in Manhattan, with Mickey Baker and King Curtis, circa 1954. These I transferred on my Teac to fresh tape.
In a master songwriting class he gave from his apartment, I sat as an observer. A lot of Doc's philosophy was black and white: "I look at music one way. It's either soulful... or not. If it's internal it's great, if it's external it's not great. I can tell where a songwriter has sat with a line for two weeks. To me, any artist who sits there analyzing the lines should be a mathematician instead."
Each of the 20 songwriters would have their weekly assignment - a love song or a novelty song - critiqued by the class. Then Doc would point out the weaknesses and strong points. Guests like Dr. John, Otis Blackwell, Tom Waits and Marshall Crenshaw added their two cents. Doc explained to the class why they shouldn't think in a shallow hit-song mentality. How he derived more satisfaction from a soulful rendition of an original song on a Jimmy Witherspoon record that sold 10,000 copies than a hit he wrote for, say, Andy Williams (who refused to sing Doc's "Can't Get Used To Losing You" on his TV show until it reached Number 1). How they should immerse themselves in a regional genre of music, say New Orleans, before attempting to write honestly in that form - not just do a cynical quick study. How to listen to a singer's entire output before tailoring a song specifically for him, learning what he can sing.
In the '50s, the managers of an untalented heartthrob named Fabian approached Doc and his partner, Mort Shuman. "They gave us an assignment to write songs for someone who couldn't carry a tune. That's very difficult to do."
Doc was told Fabian caused pandemonium among the teenyboppers, but he hadn't cut a successful record. Fabian's first two hits, "Turn Me Loose", and "I'm a Man", originally written for Elvis, were watered down melodically and lyrically for the limited chops of Fabian. "I was proud of the fact that I was able to get a guy like that off the ground", Doc said.
The career of Jerome Felder - a.k.a. Doc Pomus - might be divided into three periods. The first was as a blues singer. In 1944, at age 19, his debut 78 record was released on the Apollo label. A middle-class Jewish kid from Brooklyn, he changed his name to "Doc" so his dad, a ghetto lawyer, and his mom, a proper English woman, wouldn't know he was headlining at Negro joints. He handpicked rookie musicians King Curtis and Mickey Baker for his live backup band. Curtis became the seminal rock & roll sax player of all time, and Baker the most prolific studio guitarist of the entire 1950s. On record, Doc was backed by sidemen from the Basie, Ellington and Louis Armstrong bands. He recorded some 30 sides for Apollo, Chess and Savoy. As a sideline, he wrote terrific material for all the early Atlantic Records artists; LaVern Baker, Gatemouth Moore, and his idol, Big Joe Turner.
In this era, Doc Pomus was likely the only white blues singer in America. He always had a record out, and in those days a blues single that sold 20,000 copies was a huge hit. But unlike his dark-skinned contemporaries, he couldn't work the South, where a white man was forbidden on the chitlin circuit. In what he once referred to as Crow Jim-ism, he was restricted to the colored joints of the Northeast, mainly a dozen establishments in Brooklyn, Harlem and Jersey. Until he was 32 he never earned more than two grand a year, lived in flea bag hotels, and feared he'd wind up on the streets.
Somewhere around the time of his last and greatest single, "Heartlessly", he had an alleged affair with actress Veronica Lake. Alan Freed broke the song into heavy rotation on New York airwaves in 1955. This was a strong indicator it was destined to chart. As was common practice when a small label release made this impact, a major label - in this case RCA - bought the master. And then for reasons forever unknown, RCA killed the record, never released it. (Perhaps because Doc was on crutches, unmarketable as a matinee idol?) The experience so soured him he quit singing forever. Surely had Elvis released the rockin' ballad "Heartlessly" identical to Doc's single, it would be a standard today. (Send for the Doctor, a collection of 16 Doc Pomus singles, was released on the Whiskey, Women, and... label in 1984.)
Doc's songs helped sculpt the dawn of rock & roll, a movement he never figured would last more than a year or two.
"Man, I been in a room with so many hits. If you wrote half a song and needed an ending, anybody who was around would come in and help, and you would do the same for them. Whenever a record was produced, we'd all be there in the rehearsals. And now it's all Big Secret business. When I talk with contemporary artists, they're more involved with the mechanics of business than they are with the craft."
In the mid-'50s, he groomed a teenage pianist with great chops, Mort Shuman, into gradually becoming his partner. Doc had handed a rough song to Leiber & Stoller, who were producing Coasters records. They asked his permission to change it around, giving him a third interest, which Doc thought was fair. Returning from his honeymoon in early 1957, he and his wife stopped at a diner, a few dollars left to their name. Doc noticed a new song, "Youngblood" by The Coasters, on the jukebox and threw in his nickel. It was the same song he'd given Leiber & Stoller, entirely reworked. A delighted Doc phoned Atlantic Records, which wired him a $1,500 advance on the single, congratulating him on his first national hit.
From a penthouse cubbyhole in the Brill Building, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman set out to reap teen coin, crafting hundreds of bluesy pop gems. They wrote 25 songs for Elvis ("Little Sister", "His Latest Flame", "A Mess of Blues", "Suspicion"), hits for The Drifters ("Save The Last Dance For Me", "This Magic Moment."), Dion & The Belmonts ("A Teenager In Love"), Bobby Darin ("Plain Jane"). Twelve songs a week they wrote, overpowering the odds of reaching the charts by sheer abundance. Doc wrote 80 of the lyrics, 20 percent of the melody.
"In the '50s, the kind of songs I wrote were associated with sleaze and juvenile delinquency", he told me. "I was married to an actress (Willi Burke) at the time and she was embarrassed by it all 'cause all her friends were theater people."
With Shuman as partner, Doc's yearly income shot up to 50 grand.
"I had a house, a swimming pool, all that shit, and we had nothing but these Broadway characters hanging around. None of them paid any attention to me and if they asked what kind of songs I wrote I felt embarrassed. If I had written a fifth-rate Broadway song, my God, they would have been proud."
Now, consider the context in which "Last Dance" was written. Here's Doc, married to this gorgeous blonde Broadway actress, and all her Broadway cronies are contemptuous of rock & roll. A childhood victim of polio, Doc was on crutches, never able to walk. One night he was at a dance with his wife, waiting for her to finish dancing with a bevy of partners, patient and cool on the sidelines. Though he never said so, it likely provided the inspiration for these lines:
"Don't forget who's taking you home
This much covered Drifters hit, with the Cubano-Ricano rhythms of the early '60s, has passed the lips of several generations - none hip to the hidden meaning.
After 1965, one of pop's great songwriting teams disbanded when Mort jumped ship. By sheer coincidence, Doc's wife walked out the same week. In crutches since polio took use of his legs during early childhood, a fall down a flight of stairs put him in a wheelchair, where he would thereafter remain.
Throughout the Beatles and Woodstock years, Doc Pomus stopped writing songs. He became a gambler, part of a sad Broadway underworld where high-stakes card games sometimes ended in robberies or kidnappings. He had no respect for his past work; his songs meant nothing to him. There were no rock critics back then, no awards or artistic recognition beyond his immediate comrades. Only once, during a 1960 trip to Europe where "A Teenager In Love" held three positions in the British Top 10, were he and Morty baffled to find newspaper reporters and cognoscenti interested in their songs.
And so by 1975, when he gave up gambling, Doc resurfaced to find a different world opinion. His songs had lasted, were in fact frequently re-recorded. The pop music he once saw as a passing trend for 15-year-olds had contained so many simple truths that it prevailed. "And what could be more valid than the truth", he realized. "Thank God I learned to appreciate what I had written."
I worked at Regent Sound Studios, a job I landed fresh out of high school, where former Atlantic Records producer Joel Dorn kept his offices. There on the wall was a huge blow-up poster of a proud Dorn, arm around this imposing, bearded figure in a wheelchair, with Stetson hat and fat turquoise rings. At the time of the photo, Doc had discovered and coached a young Bette Midler. He introduced her to Dorn, who produced her first album. And Dorn encouraged Doc to resume writing. Thus began the third stage of Doc's career, in partnership with Dr. John.
Doc arranged the hippest gigs in New York for the Lone Star Cafe, corralling the likes of Van "Piano Man" Walls, the premier session pianist of the 1950s. Walls never appeared without his trademark Sherlock Holmes cape, deerstalker cap and Calabash pipe, and often had Big Maybelle on his arm. After Walls played on Doc's "Boogie Woogie Country Girl", a Big Joe Turner record, he left the country. Decades later, Doc found him in Montreal, and summoned him to the Lone Star Cafe. The Lone Star provided Doc a mere reserved table in exchange for all the legends only he could summon to their stage. Never a free bar tab.
Painting the town red, Doc wore the snazziest alligator shoes imaginable, which he purchased in the '50s at Leighton's on Broadway, where all the blues singers, gamblers and pimps then shopped. The shoes lasted 30 years simply because he never walked in them. Doc's bus, affectionately known as the 'Docmobile', had a custom pneumatic elevator lift for his wheelchair. Like a musical Ironside, he conducted business on the road from a lock-in desk by his wheelchair, and escaped to music clubs several nights each week. Bands Doc brought to the Lone Star often divided up their cash in the bus at 4 am.
But Doc was plagued by a chronic succession of chauffeurs who would disappear under bizarre circumstances. "I could write a book about drivers", he constantly complained, having to interview replacements while stuck for weeks in his apartment. The sheer logistics of getting around Manhattan, deciding which invitations to honor, lest they leave him stranded without wheelchair access, was overwhelming. These lifelong dilemmas he never once weighed upon his friends.
Doc's driver was a full-time on-call employee, required to transport Doc to his stomping grounds, clubs whose entrances could accommodate a wheelchair. Drivers were to check back periodically, but inevitably left him trapped amid torturous rock bands at Kenny's Castaways. The moment the driver arrived, he vanished backward like a ghost. This image, which I witnessed a hundred times, was a metaphor for bad music.
Most drivers, after a few weeks of good service, felt they were entitled to a songwriting partnership, or to be sponsored in some crazed business venture. Once Doc hooked up with an impeccable, well-mannered gentleman in his 40s, who drove perfectly and kept his mouth shut. Sure enough, after several sterling months, the cops came by. Turned out he was a wanted pederast, a high-ranking member of NAMBLA, who suddenly ran off to Belgium to resume a relationship with a 13-year-old boy. Inevitably, this type of news hit Doc when the bus was double parked, the driver making a run for it and stranding him in a crowded club with a loud, poodle-faced, cucumber-pants band.
Perhaps the worst night of musical torture for both of us was the night we caught Bruce Springsteen at his Palladium debut. Passes were arranged by Karen McAvoy, a friend I introduced to Doc who became one of his "downhill women." Karen periodically conned Doc out of a few bucks, stood him up, or hoisted her skirt over her head in public. He swore her off a dozen times. But she warmed her way back into his life by cooking up a remarkable homemade meal.
The former girlfriend of Springsteen/Conan drummer Max Weinberg, she arranged passage for us to witness the Springsteen phenom. Karen was an hour late with the tickets. When we arrived at The Palladium there was great confusion, Doc having to be wheeled through a maze of roped-off passageways. The night grew worse as the driver abandoned us for three hours of the most tedious mediocrity I'd ever heard. "Man, this stinks", Doc said. I never saw him so pained to leave a show, as Springsteen, a great crowd pleaser, kept pouring it on. Bruce dedicated a song to Doc, but only Weinberg emerged afterward to shake his hand.
Doc was the only guy I enjoyed club-hopping with, and some of my fondest evenings were spent as a foursome, with Ronnie Spector and Karen, in 1978. From rock & roll revivals, where I'd have to defend Ronnie's questionable honor amongst horny, balding, doo-wop singers, on to the Bottom Line and the Lone Star. We'd fuel up on hot dogs from Nathan's, or stop the 'Docmobile' at Barking Fish, a short-lived Cajun take-out phenomenon insanely located at the corner of 42nd and 8th. Doc said they served the most authentic cornbread in New York City.
By sunrise, we'd all pass out back at his apartment. I'd seen plenty of hot girls strewn across his bed in the wee hours, in various states of consciousness. But what Doc could do at this stage remained a mystery.
The yearly Doc Pomus birthday parties were attended by a few hundred guests who spilled out the hallway of his one-bedroom apartment. There were vats of Popeye's fried chicken and dirty rice. John Belushi often provided a crate of champagne, on ice in the bathtub. Otis Blackwell came alive by 2 am, reenacting his original demos for Elvis as he loosened the white handkerchief around his sweaty neck. The unsung Blackwell (who also wrote "Fever" and "Great Balls of Fire") was one of a handful of people in rock history on whom Doc bestowed the title of genius.
Big Joe Turner, a huge squat frog in a chair beside Doc all night, abruptly woke up by 4 am, cried out, "How come the dog don't bark every time he come to our door?" then collapsed back asleep. Nobody paid poor Tiny Grimes any mind, as he quietly played four-string tenor guitar in the corner all night. (An Atlantic Records star of the late 40s, Grimes was a founder of the Art Tatum Trio, and recorded with Charlie Parker on Savoy.)
"Tell the truth until they bleed!" cackled Jerry Leiber, in call-and-response, as Doc lashed out at the memory of some thieving record company president they once knew. The older blues legends had a mystical connection with Doc Pomus, and spoke guardedly to the white rock critics. Doc would tap his coffee cup, flattered as celebs paid their respects, or whispered in his ear.
I sat at Doc's table when Mort Shuman returned after a 20-year split to collaborate again. Shuman conceived and appeared in the '60s musical hit Jacques Brell, then became a French pop star. Dolly Parton had just re-charted their song "Save The Last Dance For Me", and offered some prospective assignments, along with Julio Iglesias.
Shuman turned out to be a large, barrel-chested neo-Frenchman, who seemed to eat the furniture around him. Doc was well over 300 pounds in his Stetson hat, so together Pomus and Shuman appeared larger than life. Their chemistry electrified the Lone Star, where Charlie Thomas and the Drifters kept an on-stage patter going toward them. Mort heckled like a banshee, belting out bold new harmonies to "Hushabye", "I Count The Tears" and other Drifters songs he'd co-written. Doc rolled his eyes, ever the straight man, but seemed humbled by this lusty animal, Mort Shuman, who had been his partner in so much glory. The reunion was brief, however, Doc strangely hurt once again, and Shuman returned to France. (Doc and Mort's life always crossed in mystical ways. Mere months after Doc died, the much younger Shuman came down with a liver disease and died in France.)
Doc taught me how blues was tongue-in-cheek, often self-mocking, all that self pity not meant in earnest. There were happy blues and sad blues. But the two classic distinctions were between urban and delta blues. The urban had more to do with jazz, swing and big bands. City and ghetto life. Whereas the delta blues was folksy, using bottleneck guitars, cigar box instruments. "Guys mumbling", as Doc saw it, "ya never knew what the hell they were talkin' about. The Chicago people were crossover guys, like Muddy Waters, who I eventually liked."
"You know what's amazing?" he continued. "When I made my 78 records, we used to laugh at all the singers like Muddy Waters. When the rock stars started using them as opening acts, all of a sudden these guys became well known. My group of people - Joe Turner, King Curtis, Mickey Baker - used to laugh at all the country-blues singers who were backwards musically. John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins sang out of meter - we couldn't respect them."
Naturally, the off-meter and slurred-word syndrome became copied and immortalized in the annals of rock. "Most of the black guys that sing with a rasp have a voice that's been misused form early life, from drinking and smoking since they were nine. My contention is that it comes from misusing the voice, not knowing anything about proper vocal techniques. So you get a white guy who has no reason for this - his speaking voice is clear - and he suddenly affects a rasp", he said, referring to the hippie blues bands of the '60s and '70s. "They must practice all day in college. There are black guys with very nice speaking voices, like B.B. King, who don't sing with a rasp. Joe Turner's singing the blues for 50 years; he don't have a raspy voice. He could have been an opera singer."
When Big Joe Turner died in 1985, his widow, Pat, bestowed upon Doc a shopping bag. It contained Big Joe's personal effects. The bag was spooky and Doc was unsure what the hell to do with it. He summoned me over to go through the contents which resembled the last worldly belongings of a blues Mahatma Gandhi.
I felt like I was invading a dead man's privacy. Without hesitation, Doc dumped across his bed the items of his childhood idol, the hero of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Ray Charles. There were assorted voodoo charms and a mojo stick. A campy gold cigarette lighter, tacky rings, watch, a gold phone directory with no numbers. (Turner was illiterate. He memorized in quick study the songs Doc wrote for him, and never forgot a lyric). A pair of shoes, and Big Joe's wallet, for Christsake.
"Just what you'd expect a great blues singer to leave", said Doc. Within the wallet were five business cards that read: Big Joe Turner "Boss of the Blues".
I took one.
When things went bad for Turner, he'd abandon a wife, house, Cadillac, with no forwarding address, saying "I left all those troubles behind." Doc wrote the first new song Turner recorded in 20 years, "Blues Train. "He brought Turner to New York from L.A. to do a last album, backed by Roomful of Blues, and play a long engagement at Tramps. Having left copyrights under previous wives' names, Doc discovered 10 years of Turner's royalty checks disappeared. Two of Turner's songs, including "Flip, Flop and Fly", were on the two-million selling Blues Brothers album. Untangling the mess, Doc stopped a $26,000 check sent out that week to an old ex-wife, Lou Willie Turner, who'd been quietly collecting checks in Florida. The check was rerouted to a startled Joe Turner, who'd never even heard of The Blues Brothers. Thus began Doc's philanthropic work with The Rhythm & Blues Foundation in Washington, aiding impoverished R&B pioneers.
The highest moments of our friendship occurred, I believe, at the mutual recognition of how much thievery, self-deception, destructiveness and/or pomposity existed amongst the people in charge. Prominent music industry no-talents, poseurs. The lies and misinformation printed in Rolling Stone. "High priests of nothing", to use a phrase from one of Doc's songs. They were all part of Doc's nighttime gallery.
He collaborated with Willie DeVille, who affected a cotton-picker's doo-rag look. Privately, he was dumbstruck that DeVille could sit for hours strumming a guitar aimlessly without an idea in his head. (Their collaboration did yield several acclaimed albums.)
Neil Sedaka, whom Doc fixed up with his first publisher in the '50s, met with Doc in the '80s for a potential collaboration. Sedaka went off into a greatest hits serenade, so lost in his piano lullabies that Doc's driver removed him, backwards, without Sedaka knowing. Dylan showed up once, anxious to collaborate, then never called again. The bullshit seemed to get to him more as time marched on. I was amazed how a guy's songs could generate a billion dollars, yet leave him less than wealthy.
° ° °
I'd already moved to Texas when Doc Pomus passed away in 1991, and couldn't make the funeral. His last days of lung cancer were painless, his daughter Sharyn assured me. Big Joe Turner records played quietly in the hospital room. Doc's standing-room only farewell at Riverside Chapel was said to be the most astonishing, touching music funeral New York ever saw. Record deals were scored by forgotten blues greats, who brought the audience to tears. Doc's own songs rang out, gospel-style, as the audience stood and cheered. This was exactly the kind of cruel irony Doc strove to prevent for so many of his peers. He knew their funerals would be sold out - it was while they were alive that he worked so hard to fill the seats, get them some cash - if only enough for a new set of dentures for some old sax player, or stage threads for a golden-voiced singer who couldn't make the rent. But mostly, to allow them the hard-earned dignity to keep playing their song.
Return To Top
Our site is protected by copyrights and/or trademarks
except for those images and/or text segments
that are already copyright or trademark protected by other persons and/or corporations (see about).