Who was Doc Pomus?

It’s been several years since we observed the anniversary of the birth of the great pop songwriter Doc Pomus (Jerome Felder), but Marc Myers provides raw material for celebration in the Wall Street Journal column “From pain, magic moments” (behind the Journal’s jealously guarded subscription paywall). Myers has a related JazzWax post that is accessible under the heading “Who was Doc Pomus?”

The occasion of Myers’s attention to Felder is the new documentary film A.K.A. Doc Pomus. The New York Times takes note of the film here.

Felder was one of the true characters of the Brill Building era of pop songwriting. Together with his partner Mort Shuman, he wrote hit songs for a long list of artists including Elvis, Ray Charles, Dion and the Belmonts, and the Drifters. The Doc Pomus site includes a good biography and list of song highlights. (See also the Songwriters Hall of Fame biography of Felder.) In the later phase of his career, after a long hiatus following the dissolution of his partnership with Shuman, he teamed up with Dr. John and others to produce a set of lesser-known gems for artists including B.B. King and Joe Cocker.

In the immediate aftermath of Felder’s death in 1991, the late New Orleans soul singer Johnny Adams recorded a stirring tribute to Felder in Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me. Adams chose to forego Pomus’s better-known songs in favor of the songs from the later phase of Pomus’s career.

I hadn’t heard a single one of the songs that Adams covered. Showing the depth of Felder’s catalogue, the disc is superb. Adams’s “Blinded By Love” is the most beautiful cover of a Pomus song I’ve ever heard, though there are other contenders on that disc as well as 1995′s out-of-print tribute Till the Night is Gone.

Felder had been crippled by polio as a kid. His disability was the key to the writing of “Save the Last Dance For Me.” In his New York Times review of Alex Halberstadt’s 2007 biography of Felder, Alan Light explains:

[His] crowning achievement was the Drifters’ sublime “Save the Last Dance for Me.” In a story straight out of Hollywood, Pomus actually wrote the lyrics on the back of an invitation to his own wedding, remembering how it felt to watch his bride dance with his brother, knowing that he himself was unable to navigate a dance floor. “Under his pen,” Halberstadt writes, “the simple declaration of love he set out to write wavered, giving way to vulnerability and fear.”

In the video above, Emmylou Harris and her Hot Band slow down the tempo, change the key in the middle of the song and get somewhere close to its heart.

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