By Alex Halberstadt
So many music biographies begin with a famous face, and simply add to an established legend. “Lonely Avenue” is a wonderful exception to that well-worn rule. It’s a warm and illuminating look at the creator of timeless songs like “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Teenager in Love,” and “This Magic Moment.”
Everyone knows the music, but few know Doc Pomus. Halberstadt’s book brings him vividly to life.
This insprirational tale should be required reading for anyone faced with adversity. Stricken with polio at a young age, the highlight of his childhood might have been seeing his picture in the local paper over the caption, “Paralyzed Boy Is Gleeful” – he’d been given a puppy by New York radio station. But Doc Pomus, born Jeremy Felder in 1925, overcame that and many other challenges over the course of his his life.
He walked on crutches with his legs in steel braces, and dreamt of being the world’s greatest handicapped boxer, and played the saxophone, but that ended when his knuckles were shattered by a hooligan’s iceball. By age 14, he’d changed his name to and was singing blues in New York nightclubs, leading a double life he kept well-hidden from his mother and father.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time marked by a sea change from jazz’s dominance to the birth of rock n’ roll, Pomus was one of the few white regulars to play the Harlem’s grittiest blues spots, but mostly struggled to achieve the success of his counterparts. Pomus did a few sessions, and scored an unlikely “hit” with a clothing store jingle, but that was about it.
Doc didn’t set out to become a songwriter. Like most things in his life, it came out of necessity, as the gigs petered out along with his chances of making it as a recording artist. “Doc marveled at an odd paradox,” writes Halberstadt. “It seemed that whenever he got a taste of the big time he ended up disillusioned, usually worse off than before.”
Alan Freed played one of his records, the sentimental “Heartlessly,” for weeks on his radio show, but the song lost traction when RCA, “convinced they’d bought a bona fide black hit … discovered the singer was a thirty-year-old, handicapped Jew.” With that rejection, Pomus “collapsed under the accrued weight of pennilessness, missed sleep, self-abuse, and the constant near misses.”
On one of many trips to then-young Atlantic Records trying to score a session, Pomus’s childhood hero Big Joe Turner suggested he write him some songs. Doc accepted the offer and wrote three songs, including “Lonely Avenue.” Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler gave it to Ray Charles, who heard the soulful hunger in the song and “got it right away.” Thus began Doc Pomus’s career as a writer..
The story of how “Save the Last Dance For Me” came to be is one of the book’s highlights. After a long an sometimes awkward courtship, he married the aspiring actress Wilma “Willi” Burke in 1957. Three years later, he wrote the first draft of the song on the back of a wedding invitation, remembering how he watched his brother and other guests dance with his new bride at their reception.
There were plenty more ups and downs in Doc Pomus’s life. The highs included working in the Brill Building beside great tunesmiths like Carole King and Gerry Goffin and writing chart hits for the Drifters and other doo-wop bands. He enjoyed a long collaboration with Mort Shuman that ended at nearly the same moment as his marriage to Willi, financial ruin and spiritual rebirth through his marriage to Shirlee Hauser. The animated denizens of midtown Manhattan circa 1960 are brought wonderfully to life, including a young Rodney Dangerfield and Muhammad Ali, punctuated by all-night card games and, of course, lots of great music.
The book is peppered with many wonderful anecdotes, like the industry dinner where ardent admirer John Lennon told him “Lonely Avenue” was the first song the Beatles ever rehearsed, to the time when Bob Dylan came to him for advice on writer’s block. Doc, writes Halberstadt, “told him that even though he couldn’t be twenty again, his songs could still be thrilling and profound. All he had to do was believe in himself.”
He might as well have been repeating his own advice to himself. Doc Pomus never gave up, and was writing great music throughout his life. He collaborated with Willy DeVille in 1980 on a project that produced “Just to Walk That Little Girl Home” and “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere.” Right before he died in 1991, he did some of his best work with Mac Rebennack, a/k/a Dr. John.
Halberstadt uses source material from friends, family and colleagues; he also had access to Doc’s voluminous diaries. “Lonely Avenue” is a richly detailed, and long overdue, study of an overlooked musical treasure. It firmly establishes Doc Pomus’s place as one of the most important figures in American music.