Alex Halberstadt Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life And Times Of Doc Pomus

Saturday, 29 December 2012

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While there are stories that run parallel to the life of the man born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn in 1925 in the history of post-war rhythm and blues and subsequent developments there aren't too many that resemble that of Doc Pomus.

Childhood exposure to polio left the young Felder confined to bed, where he started listening to classical music before becoming entranced by jazz, jump blues and, particularly, Big Joe Turner. Subsequently, despite the mobility issues associated with crutches and callipers he began hanging around jazz and blues clubs, hauling himself up on stage and announcing himself as Doc Pomus and proceeding to give the blues wailing vocal bit his best shot.

It wasn’t as if he was the only Caucasian in those environments. You’d have probably have been able to spot the likes of Jerry Wexler and the Ertegun brothers working the same environment looking for talent to sign to Atlantic, and you’d probably have found a variety of beats and bohemians indulging in the white Negro lifestyle, but not too many disabled would be blues shouters.

That, one assumes, would have been a dead end street for most aspirants, but having befriended the likes of Lester Young and Duke Ellington and met up with co-writer Mort Schuman (Doc wrote the words, Mort handled the music) he landed in the right place at the right time, starting with a few regional hits before Ray Charles took Lonely Avenue to the top of the charts, delivering a national breakthrough as the sound of young America started to change.

For the next few years Pomus & Schuman, along with Leiber & Stoller dominated the American (and to a lesser, but still considerable extent those around the rest of the English-speaking world). To evaluate the influence you only need to glance at the song titles (Can't Get Used To Losing You, Little Sister, Suspicion, Teenager in Love, This Magic Moment, Turn Me Loose, Viva Las Vegas for starters).

Arguably the best of them, Save the Last Dance for Me had lyrics composed on the back of an invitation to his own wedding, recalling the helplessness he felt watching his bride dance with others at his own wedding reception.

It wasn’t, however, going to last, and the rags to riches and almost back again story makes for an interesting read as Doc goes from living in rundown hotels through the forties and fifties to luxury in the late fifties and early sixties and back down again once The Beatles and Bob Dylan turned the songwriting business on its head by singing their own compositions.

Back living in cheap motels, Doc supplemented his royalty cheques, which didn’t disappear totally, with the proceeds of hosting high-stakes poker games in low-rent environments. Along the way, although hustling was the name of the game and hits (apart from B. B. King’s There Must Be a Better World Somewhere co-written with Dr John) were few and far between, he emerged as an elder statesman, courted by the likes of Lou Reed, Willy de Ville and Tom Waits, a larger-than-life connection to a legendary era right up to his death from lung cancer in 1991.

Things improved marginally after Elvis Presley’s death, as royalties from The King's posthumous sales boom took the poker games out of the equation, but that’s the way the whole story goes, success and obscurity, high times and low, fat times and lean. It really is a hell of a story.

Some, however, will have reservations about author Halberstadt’s style. Halberstadt never met Doc Pomus, a problem that can usually be overcome through detailed research and exhaustive interviewing of peers, friends and family. Throw in access to the subject's archives and journals and archives and you should be able to get pretty close.

The problem, however, is how you approach the narrative once you’ve got the details sorted out. Halberstadt goes for a novelistic approach, attempting to see things through his subject’s eyes and emotions and sketching in the melancholy, frustrations and yearnings you’d have to assume were there. The problem is, of course, that you’ll never know and the novelistic approach may grate with some readers.

That was fine with me. Halberstadt manages to explore a subject where the surface history is fairly well known, adds plenty of detail I hadn’t been aware of that appears to be accurate and I can put up with what seems to be a reasonable amount of supposition built from access to primary sources, but your own mileage may well vary,

© Ian Hughes 2012