Elvis Presley called him up in the middle of the night to thank him for a song. John Lennon went to a banquet just so he could sit next to him. Dion said meeting with him was like “being inside a cubicle with a piano and a genius.” His name was Jerome Felder, but fame reached him under a pseudonym, Doc Pomus.
If you care at all about the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, you either know who Doc Pomus was or count one of his songs as among your favorites: “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Lonely Avenue,” “Little Sister,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” “A Teenager in Love.” The list never stops because Doc Pomus never did.
“To be a successful songwriter,” the man says in one of several interviews in the documentary “AKA Doc Pomus,” “you have to write songs. It’s not like you want to or think it would be a good way to make a living. It’s some kind of terrible force, sometimes it’s out of control. You have to keep writing.”
What makes Pomus’ story extraordinary, however, is more than the songs he wrote, some 1,000 in all. It’s the life they came out of, a life that changed when he contracted polio as a boy of 6. He spent the rest of his years — he died in 1991 at age 65 — either on crutches or in a wheelchair, but that never affected his drive or his upbeat personality.
Solidly directed by Peter Miller and William Hechter, “Doc Pomus” benefits from having been conceived by the man’s daughter, Sharyn Felder. The film has access to all kinds of family photos (as well as his heart-rending journals, read by Lou Reed) and interviews with many of the key people in his life, including Ben E. King, Dr. John, B.B. King and Pomus’ brother, celebrated New York divorce attorney Raoul Felder.
Pomus was an open-hearted man of great personal warmth, and his songwriting gift was based on an understanding of both love and pain. As many people in the film testify, he wrote the most romantic, yearning music despite coming out of a difficult life. As writer Peter Guralnick puts it, “he put his insecurities, his weaknesses into his songs.” Plus he added a touch of the blues to almost everything he did.
By the time the 11-year-old Jerome Felder heard the Big Joe Turner blues song that he always said changed his life, he’d already gone through a lot. Polio had landed him in a series of institutions where, his journals reveal, he was regularly beaten up and bullied, in effect punished for being disabled.
The young Felder, overweight and Jewish, became obsessed with the blues, and as a teenager and young adult was often the only white person in New York blues clubs, even though navigating the subway trains he took to get there and getting up and down the long stairways on crutches was a trial. He began singing almost by accident, and under a pseudonym he adopted to keep his parents in the dark, ended up recording almost 50 sides.
Though one of the first big hits he wrote, “Lonely Avenue,” was for established artist Ray Charles, Pomus was eager to take advantage of the newly emerging market for teenage music. He formed a partnership with the decade younger Mort Shuman and the parade of hits began.
One of the most moving voices in “Doc Pomus” is actress Willi Burke, Pomus’ wife, a stage-struck young blond from a small town in Illinois who met Pomus in the Manhattan residential hotel where they both lived.
Burke fell in love with Pomus’ larger-than-life personality, and they were married. Though he did not write the song till years later, the poignant “Save the Last Dance for Me” was conceived by Pomus out of what he felt when he couldn’t dance at his own wedding reception. Similarly, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” which became Andy Williams’ biggest hit, was written as a result of his impending divorce.
Expertly put together by editor Amy Linton, “AKA Doc Pomus” uses its wealth of material to create the sense of a man with a genius for putting undistilled emotion into his songs. The people who knew him continue to be amazed at who he was and what he did, and this film shows us why.
‘AKA Doc Pomus’
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; and Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino