R.I.P. Doc Pomus

by Jim Byrnes:


Doc Pomus and his writing partner, Mort Shuman, authored literally hundreds of hit songs from their little office in NYC's Brill Building: This Magic Moment, A Teenager In Love, Lonely Avenue, Can't Get Used To Losing You, Suspicion, Sweet's For My Sweet, to name just a few. The songs were recorded by Elvis, Ray Charles, The Drifters, Andy Williams and climbed the charts for years on end. This is the story of one of those memorable songs.

Doc Pomus was born Jerome Felder to Jewish parents in Brooklyn in 1925. He was stricken with polio and lost the use of his legs at the age of 6, but he was determined to not let it get in the way of a full life. He discovered the music of the great blues singer Big Joe Turner and fashioned a career as a blues shouter while in his teens. So as not to embarrass his parents in what they considered a less-than-reputable profession and thinking Jerry Felder was not exactly a fitting handle for a blues shouter, he named himself Doc Pomus. He recorded 50 or so sides over a few years, but not having a lot of success, he gave up singing in 1957 and turned to songwriting—which proved to be a wise move.

He met and married Willi Burke, a beautiful and talented woman who worked as a singer and dancer on Broadway. They both loved the nightlife and Willi loved to dance. Doc, unable to dance because of his polio, sat on the sidelines as one fellow after another whirled her around the dance floor. In an inspired moment, he scrawled six words on their wedding invitation: Save The Last Dance For Me. The song was originally recorded in 1960 by The Drifters with a lead vocal by Ben E. King. It turned out to be King's last performance with the group before he went on to pursue a solo career. The song went to Number 1 on the charts and has been covered thousands of times—one of the most-recorded songs of all time.

The Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting came upon hard times when The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the era of singer-songwriters flourished. Doc took to making a living as a gambler, running a weekly poker game out of his West 72nd Street apartment until mobsters ran him out of business. He did have a resurgence later as he worked with Dr. John, Willy DeVille, Tom Waits, and many others both as a writer and mentor of up and coming songwriters. The man led quite a life, which has been chronicled in the 2012 documentary film, AKA DOC POMUS. Recommended.

I got to know Doc a bit in the late '80s when he looked me up as he was a fan of my Lifeguard character in the CBS crime drama, WISEGUY. He liked seeing a character taking care of business while in a wheelchair and got in touch with me through Cannell Films. We had some good chats about music and the blues in particular before he passed away in 1991. What a character. I've barely scratched the surface here but I did want to tell the story of a beautiful song and how it came to be. RIP Doc.


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