A History of Blues: “A.K.A. Doc Pomus”

On Wednesday, October 23 the Hamilton Theatre screened the 2012 film “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” a documentary of the life of  Doc Pomus, a songwriting legend who wrote or co-wrote such classics as “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love” and “Little Sister.” Born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents, he contracted polio as a young boy, which forced him to use crutches for much of his life. If anything, this adversity drove him forward. In the many childhood photos featured in the film, the young Jerome, a big boned, hale child by appearance, would prop himself against a railing or a street sign in order to present himself in the manner he felt inside:

vigorous, undaunted.

Doc got his start as a blues singer after conning his way onstage at a club. When confronted by a manager as to who he was, he said he was the talent and was led on stage. He was asked by the pianist which key he wanted to sing in and replied, “Whatever you want.” His singing was well received and the experience gave him the confidence to pursue a music career. The blues resonated with Doc because he felt that as a Jew and a disabled man, he shared an underdog kinship with the predominantly African-American genre. So well-honed was his talent as a blues singer that he ultimately ended his singing career and started his career as a songwriter. When executives would be pitched Doc’s music, they would assume it was a young black man, and would be disappointed to find out that it was an overweight, polio-afflicted white man, a far less marketable entity in those days. And thus began one of the most storied songwriting careers in the history of popular music, a career that helped shape pop itself.

Working out of the world-famous Brill Building, Pomus composed some of his best work with partner Mort Shuman, writing songs for giants like the Drifters and Elvis Presley. His best-known and most loved song was performed by the former in 1960. “Save the Last Dance for Me” is a perennial favorite as a first dance song at weddings, but its origins in Pomus’s own marriage night comprise one of the most lovely and poignant anecdotes related by the film.

In the film, the festivities have commenced and everyone is moving and shaking but the newlyweds. Willi Burke, the bride and a Broadway performer by vocation, has been politely declining dances from family and friends because her husband is disabled. Doc allays her hesitations and tells her to go enjoy herself. From this act of large-heartedness, the songwriter found inspiration for his masterpiece. Home video from the event even shows Pomus teasing his new wife onto the dance floor.

This small act of kindness demonstrates a large facet of the man’s personality, his overwhelming generosity and goodness of heart. Throughout his long career, Doc was a champion of the forgotten and disenfranchised rhythm and blues performers who gave form and fullness to his words and tunes. Some of these men, once stars, were reduced to homelessness and poverty by a music industry that had no regard for their interests. Once they outlasted their usefulness to the business they were cast off. Pomus, in solidarity, could not abide people who made such beautiful music living in squalor and helped found the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Doc’s sharing nature also made him an ideal mentor to a host of young musicians, songwriters and producers who hoped to learn from the wisdom of a legend. Perhaps his most prominent prot?eg?e was the budding Phil Spector, who came to New York primarily to meet the man. Pomus also introduced the late Lou Reed to the industry.

So, the man is inviolable, a towering figure of a great age in music history, but what of the film? It was very good, with some reservations. At times I was overwhelmed by the beautiful nostalgia of the era, with its life-affirming melodies and swoons of love and passion. Doc is a compelling personality, and the combination of editing, music, interviews with friends and family does a consistently good job of fleshing him out, with flashes of eye-welling brilliance. The movie certainly dips into sentimentality, but that can be forgiven, as it was a sentimental time. What undercuts the sentimentality and leaves me yearning for more are the extremely personal writings culled from his journals. These stray lines create the impression of a much more lonely, contemplative and deep man than his outward reputation as a loving and brilliant pop artist suggests. Perhaps not enough was known about this inner Doc to incorporate much of him into a full-length documentary. Regardless, “A.K.A Doc Pomus” is a heartwarming and very informational picture that any lover of music should see as a record of the time and of the man.

Contact Eric Reimund at [email protected].