6 April 2018

Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman documentary and books

I have just watched AKA Doc Pomus, a documentary about the songwriter best known for his partnership with Mort Shuman in the late 50s and early 60s. The mix of images, interviews and the obvious taking of pains has resulted in a compelling and satisfying account which feels like the last word: we see, for example, not only footage of Pomus's wedding but also the song ideas he scrawled on the backs of unused wedding invites - including the one which was to result in Save The Last Dance For Me, one of Ben E King's finest moments as well as its writers'.

And if that isn't enough Pomus's wife, the addressee of the song, is on hand to talk, with understandable emotion, about her response when first hearing it - although here and elsewhere you never feel the director is exploiting the situation, merely recording the depth of feeling which these songs and their creator evoked in so many.

No one important, it seems, spurned the invitation to participate in the film. There is plentiful archive footage of Pomus himself as well as interviews with family members, not to mention a high calibre of other talking heads including Dave Marsh and Peter Guralnick. Nor does this telling focus on the Brill Building glory years of the late fifties and early sixties to the exclusion of all else: we get a lot about his childhood, the polio which was to affect the rest of his life, and the epiphany of hearing Big Joe Turner's 1944 recording of Piney Brown Blues, bookended by the information that Pomus actively helped Turner and other artists in later life by chasing up payments on their behalf. He was even aggrieved enough to call in a fake bomb warning to a club one night when the celebrated singer, well past the first flush of youth, was being forced to play a third show on the same night to maximise the venue's profits. Turner's Decca recording had inspired Pomus to become a blues shouter himself, and he never forgot his debt.

I was already aware that Ben E King had been a friend of Pomus's, keenly appreciative of the fact that he was the only Brill Building writer to go to his gigs. King is an interviewee here, as well as being glimpsed in photographs as a party guest. Leiber and Stoller also sing the Doc's praises (Jerry Leiber looking particularly frail by the time this was filmed), and at the end there is footage of Phil Spector and others speaking at Pomus's funeral; Spector says something to the effect that Pomus made him a better person, "believe it or not".

There is a strong sense throughout the film, in fact, that Doc Pomus, aka Jerome Felder, inspired a great deal of love and affection in all those artists with whom he came into contact. Dr John, a particularly close companion and collaborator late in Doc's life, announces at the funeral that he is going to give up heroin and sings the Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson song My Buddy by way of tribute. There is a kind of link to Judd Appatow's recent documentary about Garry Shandling: whatever their considerable achievements in their own right, Shandling and Pomus made a significant additional contribution to their respective arts as mentors, freely and unselfishly dispensing their hardwon knowledge to help many others achieve their own potential.

Before the hookup with Dr John it is odd to learn that there was a time when Pomus was making his living mostly from a poker club held in his home; new participants who didn't know their host beforehand would look around in astonishment at the gold records on the wall. When Elvis died Pomus assumed that his and Shuman's royalties from that sector would dry up but the event actually triggered a surge in record sales and his healthier bank balance meant he was able to give up the poker nights and songwriting came back into his life, leading to collaborations with Dr John and others.

For those wanting to explore the story further there is an excellent, highly recommended biography by Alex Halberstadt entitled Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, which was  published in 2007, presumably providing the basis for the documentary, as Halberstadt is one of the contributors. The printed word takes us even more deeply into Doc's mind, as when he first stands in front of an audience in Bedford Stuyvesant, a world away from the mixed, hipper crowds he has been playing to on 52nd Street:
The blacks watched Doc with rapt curiosity. Who was this rotund ofay poseur with his crutches and braces? Doc could tell they didn't know whether to expect imitation or homage or all-out comedy. No audience had ever watched him so intensely, so interested in what he'd do. It hadn't occurred to him then that they'd never seen a white man on this stage - on any stage - singing their music. Doc stepped onto the bandstand, grabbed the mike like it was a sputtering torch and shouted the first note, coming down hard on top of the beat. The room blew up. It was all Doc could do to keep his voice above the hollering and wailing around him; when he was done, they received him as though he'd just punched Max Schmeling into a coma. ... Doc's idiom hadn't found its audience until now. They'd loved him all the more because he was white and owned the music, without fuss or extraneous reverence or apology. Men in work shirts were lining up to buy him drinks; a young woman busting out of her crepe-de-Chine blouse who'd been doing a double-twist right in front of the bandstand was beckoning him over to her table. Easy, Doc thought. This was home. 
The passage is followed by an extract from a 1982 journal in which Pomus recalls a childish dream in which
I would get out of the wheelchair and walk and not with braces and crutches ... I would always sing and everybody would always love to hear me sing and my children were little children in my arms and the woman or women in my life would stay young forever and love me in a young way forever.

"Doc's interior monologue", Halberstadt tells us in the acknowledgements, "is based on his own journal writings and reminiscences"; the book also benefits from "the courageous thoughtful accounts of Doc's great loves - Willi Burke and Shirlee Hauser." Often the detail can be touching and funny: Doc's weight causes the hotel bed to break on their wedding night and Willi locks herself in the bathroom until it has been replaced: "she knew what people would assume."

Another book, a joint biography of Pomus and his most famous songwriting partner, was published in 2013. The author, Graham Vickers, contends in his introduction that Pomus has been unfairly considered the senior partner (in terms of overall accomplishment) and it's possible that he may view Halberstadt's book and the documentary as part of the ammunition in a kind of propaganda war waged by Pomus's friends. Pomus is given short shrift in the latter half of Vickers' book, although no purchaser can really complain as the author makes absolutely clear from the off where his sympathies lie: taking into account his subsequent career in France Shuman's achievements "in the end, were the greater", he believes, and the book is therefore a conscious attempt to correct the impression of his amounting to no more than "a colourful note in the margins of Doc's life."

So we are given a great deal about Shuman as a translator of Jacques Brel's lyrics and as a major star in his own right in France, and as there is no dedicated biography of Shuman in English - not that I know of, anyway - Pomus & Shuman: Hitmakers undoubtedly fills a gap. I certainly learnt from it, which I suppose sort of proves Vickers' point: because of his fame as translator of many of Jacques Brel's lyrics I'd always vaguely assumed Shuman had been exclusively responsible for the words and Pomus the music in their partnership, but it seems that Pomus was usually the lyricist and Shuman the composer, even if each would offer advice to the other.

Then again, partnerships are funny things: the right suggestion at the right time can transform a workmanlike piece into something special. Dennis Norden, of Muir and Norden fame (in the UK, anyway) has talked about the way in which, for a time, writing duos can be far greater than the sum of their parts: not Muir plus Norden but Muir times Norden. And Python aficionados will know that Graham Chapman's mind was capable of diversions lunar distances beyond the capacity of the more industrious and organised John Cleese.

Mr Vickers seems to think it's self-evident that lyrics are generally less important than the music in securing a pop song's immortality but I wouldn't be too sure about that. Dave Marsh and others have, in the past, talked about how some of those songs for the Drifters give the deliberate impression of having been translated from some foreign language, looking ever so slightly odd and stilted in English. That is certainly a strong part of the exotic charm of the songs Pomus and Shuman wrote for them. Would Save the Last Dance For Me have endured as it has with a different set of words?

There may have been an additional difficulty for Vickers in that Pomus's life, his overcoming of such giant obstacles, may simply be more interesting than Shuman's. It certainly seems better documented. Both books quote from an autobiographical sketch of Shuman's but he is not vividly present every step of the way in either work. When he goes off to chase the good times in between bouts of songwriting with Doc he sort of disappears; we don't go with him. Mr Vickers' style is serviceable rather than compelling, but maybe he simply had less to go on.

Nevertheless, you will need both books in order get a full picture of their separate careers. But if you are not particularly interested in What Mortie Did Next (or even that Mortie did Next), then I'd say Lonely Avenue is the better read.

Related posts and links:

More information about AKA Doc Pomus can be found on the film's dedicated website here; it also seems to be the cheapest place to buy a copy. There is no additional cost for postage to the UK.

A clip of Ben E King singing a reworked version of This Magic Moment can be found at the very end of an extensive post about King and the origins of Stand By Me here. The same performance is described at some length in Geil Marcus's book The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs but I still like the final line of my post, so there.

Notes about Spencer Leigh's 1983 interview with Mort Shuman, finally broadcast a few years ago on Spencer's excellent Radio Merseyside programme On the Beat, can be found here.

My review of Always Magic in the Air, Ken Emerson's very entertaining account of the Brill Building songwriting pairs, can be found here; Emerson is also one of the contributors to AKA Doc Pomus.

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