Thursday, March 22, 2007
A 'Lonely' pop genius
I met Doc Pomus once, at one of New York DJ Vin Scelsa's songwriters' nights at Greenwich Village's Bottom Line, sometime in 1989.

Jules Shear and Marshall Crenshaw sang and joked, and at some point this bearlike man in a wheelchair was brought in to a rear table, where he watched the show between accepting the greetings of well-wishers. He was a legend, co-author of "Save the Last Dance for Me" and "This Magic Moment," but it was said that any songwriter could call him any time they were stuck for a lyric, that he was listed in the phone directory just like everybody else.

I went over to shake his hand, or maybe I was too nervous. After all, he was a legend.

Based on the portrait in the new "Lonely Avenue" (Da Capo), Alex Halberstadt's engaging if sometimes thin biography, Pomus may not have agreed.

After all, he was a polio-stricken kid -- born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn -- who dreamed big dreams but spent the first 30-plus years of his life scraping by, singing the blues in mostly dumpy clubs. Even after teaming with Mort Shuman to write some of pop music's most enduring songs -- they also did "A Teenager in Love," "Hushabye," "Little Sister," "Viva Las Vegas" and "Suspicion" -- any wealth was short-lived. Pomus burned through his money, was divorced and struggled through the late '60s and '70s, forgotten by too many.

Still, a man who has friends is rich in other ways, and Pomus had plenty of friends. A number of them kept his flame alive and led to a new appreciation of his talent.

Halberstadt's biography tells the story well, though I often wished for the kind of depth another biographer -- perhaps Halberstadt's friend, Peter Guralnick -- could bring. (Guralnick wrote the introduction for "Lonely Avenue.") Only the occasional excerpts from Pomus' journals truly get inside the head of this big-hearted man, struggling with emptiness, gifted with genius.

However, any biography of Pomus is incomplete by definition. For the full story, put on those early-'60s Elvis sides. Or some old Joe Turner. Or "This Magic Moment" on a warm, quiet evening.

That's the beauty of Doc Pomus.
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