|Doc Pomus, AKA Jerome Felder.|
One of life’s sad but incontrovertible truths is that there never has been much in the way of career opportunity for a polio-disabled overweight white Jewish guy who wants to sing the blues.
In black clubs.
In the 1940s.
Most people on crutches – looking at the stairs leading up to the elevated train, way out in Brooklyn, knowing that the only way out was to climb them somehow – would have given up.
Not Jerome Felder.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say not Doc Pomus.
The name? He made it up.
The life? As Peter Miller, who made a documentary about Doc – “AKA Doc Pomus” – and will screen and talk about it at the Glen Rock Jewish Center on Sunday, put it, “you couldn’t possible make it up. If it were fiction, no one would believe you.”
Jerry Felder was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is hipster central now, but in 1925 was another slum neighborhood. His parents, British-born Jewish immigrants, “were striving but very much lower middle class,” Mr. Miller said. His father trained as a veterinarian and then as a lawyer, his mother ran a nursing home, eventually his father ran unsuccessfully for local office. His parents were brilliant, Mr. Miller said, and they tried hard, but they never quite made it. “It was a hardscrabble life,” he said.
Their life became even harder when Jerry, at 6 still an only child, fell ill with polio. He was in an iron lung for a year; the machine saved his life, but only after making it hell. The force of will that allowed him and so many other polio victims to withstand both the disease and the cure gave him, as it gave so many others, a fierce desire to succeed.
His only brother was born when Jerry was 9. His name was Raoul, and yes, he is the famous divorce lawyer. “It’s ironic,” Mr. Miller said. “Here is Doc, who wrote some of the greatest love songs, and here is Raoul, who presides over everybody-who’s-anybody’s divorce.”
Doc Pomus’s story really begins when Jerry Felder “puts on the radio, and he hears the blues. Big Joe Turner. And a light bulb goes off over his head. This disabled Jewish kid decides that he’s going to be a blues singer.
“The audacity of it!”
Beginning in his late teens, “He goes up the stairs to the El, goes to the Village, to Harlem, to Bed Stuy.” He succeeded. He sang in nightclubs for about a decade, Mr. Miller said, and he recorded more than 50 record sides; he wrote some of his own songs.
Jerry Felder (rather not Doc Pomus, it seems) graduated from Bushwick High School and then went to Brooklyn College. “He studied music, learned to play piano and saxophone,” Mr. Miller said. “His parents said, ‘What are you going to do with yourself? You should get a job as an accountant!’
“But his heart was set on being a blues singer.
“That was not a typical choice,” Mr. Miller understated.
It was around that time that Jerry Felder became Doc Pomus. He hoped that the name – which he decided sounded as if it belonged to a blues singer – also would keep his mother from knowing what he was doing. That was an unlikely hope, given that he was still living at home and would come back in the early morning, stinking of smoke. “You can only imagine,” Mr. Miller said.
Doc was very good at writing music, and that part of his career flourished. His performing career did not. At one point, RCA bought “Heartless,” a song he wrote; “when they learned that he was a 31-year-old disabled, heavyset Jewish guy, who did not look like a pop star, they killed the record,” Mr. Miller said. It was clear that Doc Pomus was not going to make it as a performer.
Instead, he became increasingly successful as a writer. Atlantic Records, the great rock and blues label, signed him; working both solo and with other writers, he wrote hit after hit.
Then the nature of the music business changed. “In the early days of rock and roll, there was a whole industry of people who are writing songs for these white rock and roll singers like Dion and the Belmonts and Fabian. They needed material.
“So there was this amazing place in Manhattan called the Brill Building – 1619 Broadway – a glorious little jewel of a building packed with songwriters and music publishing companies,” Mr. Miller said.
“Doc would knock on the door and try to sell songs.” He did that so well that eventually he was put on staff with a company “that happened to work with a young singer named Elvis Presley.”
Needless to say, Doc Pomus flourished. “In one year, he had 13 songs at the top of the charts,” Mr. Miller said.
“In many of his songs there is a biographical element.
“He was writing a happy song about how good it is to be a teenager in love, and then he looked back at his own experience, and remembered how awful it was.” The result of that soul-searching was the immortal “Teenager in Love.” (“Well if you want to make me cry, / That won’t be so hard to do. / If you should say goodbye, / I’d still go on loving you. / Each night I ask the stars up above, / ‘Why must I be a teenager in love?'”)
“In a way, his approach was rooted in the blues,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s rooted in an understanding that through melancholy, through challenges, through the bad stuff that happens, you can find transcendence and beauty.
“On the surface ‘Teenager in Love’ might look like a pop hit, but actually it is very deep.
“Save the Last Dance for Me” is even more steeped in irony and paradox. Doc Pomus married “a gorgeous gentile aspiring actress, a nice Catholic girl from the Midwest, Willi Burke, and they had children and moved to the suburbs,” Mr. Miller said. She went on to star in the musical ‘Fiorello,’ and the marriage didn’t last, but something happened at the wedding that enriched all the rest of us.
“Doc noticed at their wedding that she could be dancing,” Mr. Miller said. “He couldn’t dance with her” – he couldn’t dance at all, he never did have the chance to dance – “so he encouraged her to dance with everyone else. He knew that at the end of the evening, she would go home with him.
“Much later, he scribbled down the lyrics on a scrap of paper – oddly enough the scrap was a leftover wedding invitation – if you made stuff like this up people would make fun of you – and it was ‘Save the Last Dance for Me.'”
His career, always a roller coaster, headed down again, as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and all the other singer-songwriters made just-plain-songwriters temporarily obsolete.
“Doc realized that he couldn’t make a living in the songwriting business any more, so he turned to gambling,” Mr. Miller said. “He became a professional poker player.”
Because Doc was “a man of extraordinary intelligence,” with a fantastic memory, not only did he excel at poker, but he also held the games in his apartment, on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. That way, he got to keep not only his winnings, but also the house cut.
It was a Damon Runyon-like life, except the gamblers weren’t lovable con men, but genuine Mafia gangsters, Mr. Miller said. “They’d come back to his apartment and see all the gold records that lined his walls, and they’d say, ‘Who is this guy?'”
Doc hated it. He hated it very much.
And then Elvis died. His music became enormously popular again, as people remembered him as a young sexy singer instead of a bloated old-man caricature of himself in skintight gold, and Doc Pomus became rich again as the royalties rolled in.
Once again, he wrote songs; he developed deep friendships with such other musicians as Dr. John and Lou Reed, who died late last month. “And he starts to give back,” Mr. Miller said. “He befriends younger songwriters, including Bob Dylan, who comes to him for advice when it comes to lyrics.
“So does John Lennon, who also lives on 72nd Street.” (Lennon, of course, lived in the Dakota.) “John is in love with Doc’s music. Always has been. They hang out in coffee shops. John always has to wear disguises.”
By the time he was 65, Doc’s hard living – particularly his heavy smoking – got to him. He died of lung cancer in 1991.
His was an extraordinary life, and in many ways, Peter Miller said, it was a deeply Jewish one. “He was not a synagogue-going Jew, but I don’t think that Doc Pomus could have been Doc Pomus – or Jerry Felder – without being Jewish.
“Being Jewish in America shaped his outlook. He was on the outside looking in as a disabled person, and also as a Jew.
“America was not always the most welcoming place for him, and yet, like so many Jewish creative people – poets, musicians, writers, artists, performers – he tapped into something in American culture, and created the absolutely best musical culture that has ever been made in this country.
“He was not alone in this. Jewish artists really understood the pulse of what was going on in America.”