The Life Of Doc Pomus, Songwriter To The Stars NPR's Melissa Block speaks with director Peter Miller about his recent documentary, A.K.A. Doc Pomus, about the obscure songwriter behind Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," The Drifters' "This Magic Moment" and many more pop hits.
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The Life Of Doc Pomus, Songwriter To The Stars

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The Life Of Doc Pomus, Songwriter To The Stars

The Life Of Doc Pomus, Songwriter To The Stars

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

His name would spin around and around on the vinyl, the writer of a thousand songs, Doc Pomus.


THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) This magic moment.

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Viva Las Vegas .

ANDY WILLIAMS: (Singing) Can't get used to losing you. No matter what I try to do...

DION AND THE BELMONTS: (Singing) Why must I be a teenager in love?

BLOCK: The late Doc Pomus shaped the sound of early rock and roll, writing hits for The Drifters, Dion, Ray Charles, Elvis, many more. His story, one of intriguing reinvention and determination, is told in the new documentary "A.K.A. Doc Pomus." It's co-directed by Peter Miller and he joins me now from New York.

Peter, welcome to the program.

PETER MILLER: Great to be here, thanks.

BLOCK: So, let's go back to the beginning. Doc Pomus was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. He was crippled by polio when he was really young - he was 6 - and his life was turned around by what he heard on the radio.

MILLER: Young Jerome Felder had a really tough life after losing the use of his legs and really felt the blues. And when he heard a Big Joe Turner song on the radio, "Piny Brown Blues," it just absolutely transformed him. And he realized that the blues is what had the greatest meaning for him, and he turned himself into a blues singer. This handicapped, white, Jewish kid found himself singing in African-American blues clubs.

BLOCK: Yeah, how did that happen? How did he transform himself that way?

MILLER: He found himself at a nightclub one night without enough money to buy a beer. And so, the owner of the club comes up to him and says, what are you doing here, kid? And he says, oh, I'm a blues singer. He said, yeah, you're blues singer, let's sing some blues. So he gets up and the band that night is Frankie Newton, one of the great trumpet players in jazz. And suddenly, Doc has to sing the blues. And he sings and he's good and they invite him back. And before you know it, he's singing all the time.

BLOCK: We hear him in your movie talking about the invention of his name, Doc Pomus. Let's take a listen.


DOC POMUS: Doc came from the fact that I really liked an old blues singer, Doctor Clayton. And Pomus - I don't know. It was just traveling in a subway with my cousin, Max, we kept fooling around with different sounds and it sounded right. So I became Doc Pomus.

BLOCK: And that's it. The name was born.

MILLER: Yeah. Well, another reason was that he didn't want his mother knowing that he was singing at these blues clubs.


MILLER: So it was convenient to have somebody else's name up on the marquee.


BLOCK: And did that work?

MILLER: For while but then he became something of a star. I mean, he recorded something like 50 '78s, you know, 50 sides. And becomes prominent in this world. And so, his mother does know that he's doing this.

BLOCK: Well, let's listen to one of the recordings - his own recordings as a blues singer. And this one is called "Send for the Doctor."


POMUS: (Singing) Well, they call me Doc. I can make you feel so good. Well, they call me Doc. I can make you feel so good. Do more for you than any man in this neighborhood.

BLOCK: So, Peter Miller, did Doc Pomus any hits as a singer?

MILLER: Well, at some point along the way, after recording dozens of blue sides, he has a song called "Heartlessly." It could have been a hit. But then the record company that acquired this recording discovered that Doc was a 30-something-year-old, disabled, Jewish guy on crutches. And I think their hopes for him becoming a pop star dimmed and they didn't release the record. So I think at some point along the way, Doc realized that he had to pursue other ways of getting his music out there.

BLOCK: And he turns to songwriting. What was the key to how he succeeded over and over again through all the years, as a songwriter?

MILLER: Well, I think, Doc would have said that he was a craftsman. He was trying to sell songs. He was trying to make songs just that would be hits. But something, I think, within his songs was quite deep and was rooted in his own personal experience. I mean, there is one song called "Lonely Avenue," which just tears your heart out. And even though Doc would have said, I am not writing autobiography, a song like this you know that it's about the experience he had.

BLOCK: In your film, Peter, we hear a working tape of Doc Pomus singing this song, "Lonely Avenue."


POMUS: (Singing) The floor was soaking wet. From the tears I've shed you can bet I live on Lonely Avenue...

BLOCK: And then, ultimately, that becomes a hit for Ray Charles.


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Now, my room has got two windows but the sunshine never comes through. You know it's always dark and dreary since I broke off, baby, with you. I live on a Lonely Avenue. My little girl...

MILLER: Well, this is a song that's coming from the depths of Doc's soul. I mean, here's a guy who lived in hotel rooms, who had a challenging, difficult life and he's singing a song, writing a song that is just about his own experience about how tough things are for him.

BLOCK: You tell the story in your movie of how Doc Pomus meets his wife, the woman who will become his wife. She is a beautiful, aspiring young actress from a really tiny town in Illinois. She's come to New York and she meets Doc Pomus at the hotel where they're both living. It seems like he's a real magnet for people and she's drawn in. But what's really amazing about this is that it's a memory from their wedding that later becomes one of his biggest songs. Why don't you tell us the story?

MILLER: At their wedding, Doc and Willi Burke, his beautiful bride - of course they've got dancing. But Doc can't dance. He's on crutches. He's unable to dance with Willi. And so, he says go dance with other people. Please dance, it's your wedding. So she dances with his cousins. And she dances with other people. But she never dances with him and they exchange words that, you know, she'll save the best for last for him.

And this memory percolates in his mind and several years later, he's scribbling down song lyrics, unbelievably, on the back of old, unused wedding invitations. And one of the songs that he comes up with there is about saving the last dance for me.


DRIFTERS: (Singing) But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be. So darling, save the last dance for me.

MILLER: And this is a song which really had its origins in his wedding.

BLOCK: There's a really emotional moment in the movie when you're talking to his former wife, Willi, about that song. And here's what she says.

WILLI BURKE: I still can't think of that song...


BURKE: ...without feeling very sad and happy, at the same time, 'cause Doc wrote that for me.


DRIFTERS: (Singing) ...taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be...

BURKE: And he meant that from his heart.


DRIFTERS: (Singing) So darling, save the last dance for me.

BLOCK: I don't think I'm ever going to hear that song the same way again.

MILLER: You know, that's - it's really transformative to understand where that song comes from. You know, and Doc, who would always say he was just writing songs; you know, he liked the beat; he was trying to write a Latin rhythm; he was trying to write a good lyric, but there're stuff in the songs that absolutely is about what was going on in his own life.

BLOCK: Toward the end of his life, in your movie you talk about Doc Pomus who is not healthy - he's bedridden and a severely overweight - but he's basically become a teacher. He's giving songwriting classes for younger writers who come to learn from him.

MILLER: Doc's life had many, many ups and downs. I mean, there was wonderful romance and then there was real tragedy and difficulties. For a time, he can only make a living as a gambler because the whole world of songwriting has disappeared, when The Beatles and Bob Dylan come long. And then he has a career resurgence as an older man and starts giving songwriting lessons.

He invites his friends in the songwriting community, Lou Reed or Tom Waits or Otis Blackwell - these great songwriters - to come in with him and teach younger musicians. So we met people, Joan Osborne, Shawn Colvin, people who learned about the craft of songwriting from this very, very generous soul. And when Doc finally left the planet, at the age of 65 in 1991, the number of people whose lives he had transformed was giant. And the amount of kindness in this guy is just extraordinary.

BLOCK: That's Peter Miller. His new documentary is "A.K.A Doc Pomus." Peter, thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Andy you want to pick a song for us to go out on?

MILLER: "There Must Be A Better World Somewhere," which is the song that BB King recorded and won a Grammy for, which is just a gorgeous song.


BB KING: (Singing) I know there's just got to be, got to be a better world somewhere.

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