If I asked if you knew who Jerome Felder is, you’d say no. If I said he was in the music industry and had changed his name, you might possibly guess Don Felder, a guitarist/songwriter with The Eagles. Well, Jerome Felder is a songwriter, who went by the name Doc Pomus. It’s a shame he’s not a household name, because he wrote many songs that everybody knows (Surrender, Turn Me Loose, Sweets for my Sweet, Hushabye, Here Comes the Night, to name a few).
As a music lover, former disc jockey, and somebody that poured over liner notes and songwriting credits – perhaps that’s why I was thrilled to walk into a film festival and see a movie about this legend. All I knew about him was some of his extensive song catalog, and that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
When Jerome Felder was only 6-years-old, he contracted polio from a swimming pool. He was an athletic and big kid that had dreams of becoming the next heavyweight champ. As much of a boxing fan as he was, he probably liked Joe Turner a lot more than Joe Louis. The song Piney Brown Blues got this pudgy Jewish kid going to blues clubs on crutches. He made up a lie about being a blues singer, got invited on stage, and a star was…well, should’ve been…born.
When he finally met Big Joe Turner, it was a mutual admiration society, and he started writing some great songs for Turner. Years and years later, when he felt a nightclub was working Turner too hard with three shows in one night, he had his van driver call in a bomb threat before the third show. It might be the only time you hear of a bomb threat and agree with it.
When Felder was singing at various clubs, he changed his name so his hard-working mother wouldn’t see it on the marquees. He went with “Doc” after an old blues singer he liked. The last name he came up with while on a subway, just because it sounded good. In the music business, when we hear of all the weird reasons record execs have convinced singers to change their names – having a fear your mom would see it up in lights is perhaps the best one ever. Being a white, crippled Jewish guy hurt him as well. He had cut a number of singles, and was on the verge of fame. One of his songs (Heartless) was purchased by RCA, and they ended up shelving it. Nobody knows why. Pomus said it was the best song he had ever done, and speculates it had to do with them finding out he wasn’t a promising young black artist. At that point, he decided to quit singing and stick strictly with songwriting. He had sold one of his songs (Chains of Love) for $30, and they changed the name of the songwriter on the single (which was common back then). He figured he could sell a few more tunes.
In this documentary, we hear him explain how time consuming the process of songwriting can be and how poorly it paid. An example of the unscrupulous behavior of record companies occurs when he’s on his honeymoon and they go up to a jukebox in a diner. They see the Coasters song Young Blood. He called the record company, saying “It must be a hit.” They said “You must want some money,” and sent a check for $2,500, which he said could cover him for the entire year. Talk about a great honeymoon! Yet, it makes you wonder what kind of check (if any) he would’ve gotten had he not seen that 45 in the jukebox.
Hearing the story about how he met his wife is something that just filled my heart with warmth. Here’s a guy writing all these sad songs – like an early hit for Ray Charles called Lonely Avenue (in my opinion, one Charles’ best songs). Imagine how hard it must be meeting women when you have a disability.
At one point, he meets a boyfriend of his cousin’s named Mort Shuman. He was a bit younger. A piano player piped in to what the teenagers were groovin’ to. They promptly wrote Teenager in Love, which we all know and love by Dion and the Belmonts. It also charted by two other bands around the same time (music fun fact: It was also originally It’s Great to be Young and in Love).
Another interesting thing about a documentary like this is watching how songs are created. Sometimes they’re lines he thought of and wrote on the back of wedding invitations (one set of lyrics is actually taken from a William Blake poem, but I’m guessing nobody will catch that).
Pomus had nice chemistry with Ben E. King (who we hear a lot from in this documentary). He gave The Drifters the songs This Magic Moment and Save the Last Dance for Me. Listening to his wife crying as she talks about how he wrote that for her on their wedding day, while she was dancing with everybody else while he was unable to move much…might be the most powerful thing you see on screen all year.
He got a phone call one night from Elvis Presley. He thought somebody was pranking him, so he hung up on the King. Pomus talked about Presley having a contract that made him give the studios four movies a year, with 10 songs each. He was hired to write, and gave us the best Elvis movie song ever – Viva Las Vegas. He also gave him Suspicion, (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame, and a great B-side to It’s Now or Never called A Mess of Blues. One of the great Presley songs he wrote, Little Sister, was originally for Bobby Darin. He couldn’t get it down right in the studio, and Elvis took it over.
Andy Williams refused one of his songs, saying he didn’t care much for it and that it wasn’t his style. He was talked into doing Can’t Get Used to Losing You, and it became his biggest seller ever.
B.B. King got the song Must be a Better World, and it moved him to tears. He said he couldn’t do it, that there was no way he could do justice to it. He tried. He and Lucille did enough justice to snag a Grammy for it.
Pomus and Shuman got an office at the famous BrillBuilding, where legendary songwriters like Carole King, as well as Leiber and Stoller all did their magic. These were the days when singers didn’t usually write their own songs.
Pomus and his wife have a few kids, and after she almost got mugged and Pomus felt helpless on his crutches, they move to the suburbs. Nothing like having a pool party and BBQ with some of the biggest names in music at your house. Listening to Dion talk about how excited he was to go swimming was funny, too.
Since it became a chore for his wife to keep driving him to the BrillBuilding, and he was fond of hotels anyway, he started staying at one during the week. Once she got a part on a Broadway play and some other acting gigs, they started drifting apart.
Things weren’t helped by the British Invasion, and musicians getting prolific at writing their own material.
The IRS also came knocking, and before you know it – Pomus had very little. To make a living, he has illegal poker games at his apartment. They get busted a few times, and eventually – he started working with a whole new crop of musicians that were fans. Bob Dylan (one of the guys that put him out of work with his writing ability), wanted help with a tune. Dr. John and Pomus became great friends, and Pomus helped get him off the smack. Pomus started going out to clubs, offering advice to musicians and songwriters…something he did even when he was at the height of his career. He easily had one of the biggest hearts the music industry has ever seen.
He worked with Phil Spector, and we get to hear Pomus talk about his eccentric qualities as well as the other big names folks he co-wrote with.
Now his parties are attending by the big New York names like John Belushi, and former San Diegan Tom Waits. Ray Charles called wanting a song for an Easter Seals performance. He wrote him There is Always One More Time.
Elvis died, and reissues were put out and records sold, and some royalties started coming in. The gambling parties stopped, and he started devoting his time back to music again. He even had a songwriting school which was well attended. He spent time helping forgotten, and sometimes homeless, blues musicians getting jobs and getting royalties they were owed.
At a songwriting event honoring John Lennon, the Beatle insisted on being seated next to Pomus. His daughter talked about seeing Lennon in New York one time and introducing herself, which got the surprised Lennon singing an entire song of his in the super market.
Lou Reed (who narrated some of this from Pomus’ own writing) used to hang with Pompus when he first started out in New York. There were a few musicians I had never heard of. A punk/cabaret style band called Mink DeVille impressed Pomus. Singer Willi DeVille was a fan of the songs he wrote for The Drifters, and they did a hugely successful album in the ‘80s.
We even hear from current singer/songwriters like Joan Osbourne and Shawn Colvin. And for a guy that fought hard to get Jimmy Scott a record deal – you’ll be amazed at what it took Doc to help get him that deal.
Pomus’ brother didn’t have the success writing songs, but writing books and practicing law. He’s written eight books (a few with comedian Jackie Mason), as well as being named one of the 100 Most Powerful Lawyers in America in the New York Law Journal (he’s represented Rudy Giuliano, Carol Channing, Robin Givens, and Mrs. Martin Scorsese, among others, in high profile divorce cases).
Pomus has written over 1,000 songs, and I could’ve watched another 1,000 minutes on his life.
This is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. It’s playing again at the Fallbrook Film Festival at the Digiplex Cinemas in Bonsall this Thursday. Hopefully it gets a wider release so more people have a chance to experience this magic moment at the movies.
I’m giving it 4 ½ stars out of 5.