If you love music, you may be vaguely familiar with the name Doc Pomus. But chances are at least one or two of the 1,000-plus songs he wrote -- including such chestnuts as "A Teenager In Love," "This Magic Moment," "Save The Last Dance For Me," "Can't Get Used To Losing You," "Lonely Avenue," "Hushabye" and "Suspicion" -- are among your all time favorites.
The wonderful new documentary AKA Doc Pomus tells the extraordinary tale of a Brooklyn-born Jew who contracted polio at age six and spent the rest of his life in braces and crutches or in a wheelchair, yet overcame long odds to become one of the greatest songwriters of his era.
The film, lovingly conceived and produced by Doc's daughter Sharyn Felder and directed by Peter Miller and Will Hechter, played the festival circuit last year, opened in New York last week and bows in Los Angeles later this week.
To get some idea of Doc's importance, consider this: Dion Dimucci called "This Magic Moment" "a perfect song" and chose it as his favorite melody of all time. Bob Dylan said, "Everything you need to know is in 'A Teenager in Love.'" John Lennon asked to be seated next to Doc at an awards dinner so he could meet the master, and later sang "Save the Last Dance" from beginning to end when he ran into Sharyn in a supermarket. Phil Spector said, simply, "[Doc] was the light of my life."
Throughout his career Doc befriended and mentored hundreds of singers, songwriters and assorted other creative types, many of whom -- including Lou Reed, Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne and Robin Lerner -- pay their respects in the movie. Robin became an accomplished songwriter partly thanks to Doc, but their friendship wasn't initially about songwriting at all. "I didn't even know I could be a songwriter when I met him," she says. "I was waiting tables one night at Kenny's Castaways and he was my customer."
A few months later Robin saw a Village Voice ad for a handicapped songwriter's driver, and she figured it had to be Doc. "He said, 'Honey you'll never be able to push my chair but can you type?' So I schlepped my brother's typewriter on the subway up to his 72nd street apartment, typed one lyric for him and we became fast friends."
Their close friendship included a spectacular musical education. "Doc would take me out two or three times a week to hear music -- he introduced me to everyone. Eventually, I played him a few of my songs and he swung into action. Saturday nights I'd go to his apartment and he'd open up his big black phone book and ask who I wanted him to call. 'You want Phil Spector?' -- he'd get Phil on the phone and say, 'Phil - say hello to my good friend Robin.' We'd talk with Phil for a bit, hang up and call the next name. That phone book should be in the Smithsonian."
"One Sunday afternoon he asked me to come over and help out while he taught his idol, Joe Turner "Blues Train," a song he'd written for Joe to record."
(Doc credited bluesman Big Joe Turner for "starting my career, starting my life." Hearing Turner's 'Piney Brown Blues' blew Doc's mind, and it was the first song he performed as a blues singer; a couple of years later Turner recorded Doc's "Still in Love," which set him on his way as a writer.)
Robin continues: "Joe's wife drops him off -- he was very heavy, used a cane and was not young. She says, 'Whatever you do, don't let him drink.' The minute she leaves, Joe pulls a ten out of his pocket, hands it to me and says, "Honey, I need you to go to the store and get me a six-pack.
"Doc and I look at each other -- we'd promised -- and Doc says, 'Get him the six pack.' In comes Stuart, Doc's rehearsal piano player, who happens to be blind. He sits down at the famous beige Wurlitzer and we're ready to go.
"It turns out that Joe had never learned to read or write, which means Doc has to sing and physically act out the whole song line by line every time they do a take. Stuart, oblivious to the visual goings on, plays the same melody over and over all afternoon -- while Joe sits in his chair and drinks the whole six-pack, not getting up once. By the time his wife picks him up, Joe is practically in a diabetic coma and they head straight to the ER.
"A typical Sunday. Doc overseeing everything from the wheelchair, blind Stuart riffing at the piano, Big Joe -- a living legend who can't read the lyrics -- learning a song while downing a six-pack. And me directing traffic."
Doc's boundless loyalty and compassion occasionally took a strange turn. When he discovered that Manhattan night spot The Cookery demanded that an aging Joe Turner do three shows a night, he called in a phony bomb threat to empty out the place, obviating the need for show number three.
Doc, who died at 65, wrote deeper, sparer songs in his later years. Near the end of Aka Doc Pomus, B. B. King tears our hearts out, wailing, "I win some battles/But I always lose the war," from "There Must Be A Better World Somewhere," a 1980 Pomus/Dr. John collaboration.
Like all great artists, Doc transfigured his suffering to create that better world -- for himself, for his friends and family and for millions of music fans. In the documentary, his first wife Willi Burke recalls their wedding party, when Doc looked on longingly as guest after good-looking guest asks her to dance. But he's the one in whose arms she's gonna be and, well, you know the rest.
Doc's generous spirit departed this mortal coil in 1991, just after he whispered "Thank you" to the loved ones gathered around his hospital bed.