Throughout his life, Doc Pomus dealt with the odds. But he couldn’t overcome them with the swagger of Elvis Presley in the song “Viva Las Vegas.” Doc wrote the words to “Viva Las Vegas” with the line, “All you need’s a strong heart and nerves of steel,” but he wrote it for a triumphant Elvis, one with Ann-Margaret close by. Presley made it all seem easy — and fun. Things were different in Doc’s world. It always took much work and determination to come up with the winning hand. More often than not, it was a struggle.
Born Jerome Solon Felder in 1925, a series of overwhelming odds weighed early on Pomus. At the age of six he contacted polio. It would be difficult but he would not let the disease keep him down. He read voraciously and gained a worldly sense early in life. With steel braces and crutches, he succeeded in making his rounds. The radio brought a world of music to his bedroom. Classical. Jazz. Blues. The music of Count Basie, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and other black performers cast a spell upon him. The spell took hold and would never leave him. He would pursue a life in music.
Doc took up the saxophone. In his mid-teens, he and three under-aged friends began playing at a low-rent bar in Brooklyn. The sax playing ended abruptly, however, when Doc’s knuckles were struck by a rock-hard snowball thrown by a kid across the street from the brick wall Doc was leaning against. His fingers suffered nerve damage and the bones did not heal. The odds against him grew. He would have to find another way to make it in the music business.
Guided by his own determination, Doc began a career as a singer. A pudgy 19 year-old Jewish boy named Jerome Felder, leaning on his crutches, was not what people expected to see as they looked at the bandstand in George’s, a Greenwich Village tavern. They didn’t expect to hear such a mighty voice either. In Alex Halberstadt’s Lonely Avenue, The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, the scene at George’s on Doc’s second night there is beautifully described. Halberstadt writes of the club owner stopping at Jerome Felder’s table shortly before he was introduced.
Doc sang the blues and eked a living, sometimes meager, for roughly a decade, performing at black nightclubs in New York. By 1955, however, he decided to devote himself to songwriting. It was a wise decision. That year “Boogie Woogie Country Girl;,” written with Reginald Ashley, was recorded by Doc’s hero, Big Joe Turner. The next year Ray Charles took Doc’s “Lonely Avenue” all the way to number 6 on the R&B charts. The odds against Doc were decreasing.
In ’57, heading back home from their honeymoon, Doc and his bride, Willi Burke, stopped at a roadside diner. On the jukebox he heard a song that seemed vaguely familiar. It was “Young Blood,” a song he had given a demo of to the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The melody and verses were different, but it was recorded by The Coasters, the R&B group Doc had in mind when he gave Stoller the demo. By this time, it was climbing the pop charts. The song was credited to Leiber, Stoller and Pomus. Real money was coming in. Doc Pomus had made it big in the music business.
A whiz kid named Mort Shuman became Doc’s songwriting partner. Shuman handled the lion’s share of the melodies and Doc served as the principle lyricist. They made a remarkable team. For several years the hits kept on coming. “A Teenager In Love” by Dion and the Belmonts, “There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Save The Last Dance For Me” by The Drifters. By 1960, they were writing hit songs for the biggest name in show business: Elvis Presley.
Halberstadt writes that Pomus and Shuman “were quickly anointed as the favorite writers in the House of Presley.” No wonder. Either together or separately, they wrote more than 20 songs for Elvis. “Surrender,” “A Mess Of Blues,” “Little Sister,” and “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame” were among those that made it big and considered by many as the best of Presley’s post-Army recordings.
In ’62, Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker struck a deal calling for three Elvis movies a year. A lot of songs were required. Rolled out assembly line style., most were forgettable, but the material by Pomus and Shuman, as expected, stood out from the others. In ’63, with their partnership nearing an end, and many changes occurring in rock and roll, they gave Elvis Presley a great one, the title song for Viva Las Vegas.
Bongos and a snappy guitar kick off “Viva Las Vegas” in high gear as Presley jumps right in, singing of the thrills that await. He celebrates all that is Las Vegas, the neon lights flashing and the devices that can seperate him from his money. The lyrics of Doc Pomus allow Presley to excitedly describe the scene with its blackjack, poker, roulette wheels and the risk involved. There’s a fortune won and lost on every deal.
Presley’s enthusiasm soft-pedals the chance of losing everything.
I’m gonna have me some fun
If it costs me my very last dime
If I wind up broke, well
I’ll always remember that I had a swingin’ time
In the film, “Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis rocks the club with this song. He spreads the message that the ladies in their furs and the men in their jackets and ties embrace. It’s a stellar performance that obscures how those same lyrics written by Doc Pomus could take on a different meaning with another singer and less vigorous arrangement.
On Till The Night Is Gone, the ’95 Doc Pomus tribute album, Shawn Colvin takes on “Viva Las Vegas.” The melody is similar but the sound is dark and haunting. The words Elvis Presley vibrantly delivered are infused with second thoughts and regret by Colvin. On the song’s bridge, she sees through the allure of the desert playground.
Viva Las Vegas with your neon flashin’
And your one armbandits crashin’
All those hopes down the drain
Viva Las Vegas turnin’ day into nighttime
Turnin’ night into daytime
If you see it once
You’ll never be the same again
To hear Shawn Colvin’s rendition, we surmise that what stays in Vegas is one’s money. Her antithesis to Presley’s joyous romp is beautifully delivered. Colvin’s performance demonstrates that the words of Doc Pomus have a flip-side pertaining to Las Vegas. Those words also reflect the difficulties Pomus would face in the years immediately following Presley’s recording.
Doc Pomus was facing huge odds again. Injuries suffered in a fall resulted in his being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His marriage ended. Mort Shuman left for England, working successfully with such acts as Freddie and The Dreamers, Cilla Black, and The Hollies. Matters only worsened for Pomus. He lost his house. He was flat broke. The hits stopped coming.
The changes in rock that an artistic soul like Doc could appreciate also worked against him. The new self-contained acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who did not depend on the writers of Tin Pan Alley, like Pomus and Shuman, for their hit records. Songwriters working in the Brill Building on Broadway such as Carole King and Neil Diamond, came to realize they should be singing their songs instead of pitching them. The process was changing, along with the music
In the years between The Beatles and Woodstock, the age of the singer-songwriter grew with Bob Dylan as the one most often emulated. Dylan was aware of his influence in the business. For the liner notes to his 1985 compilation, Biograph, Dylan told Cameron Crowe, “I didn’t know it at the time, but all the radio songs were written at Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building. They had stables of songwriters up there that provided songs for artists. I heard of it but (did not pay) much attention. They were good song writers but the world they knew and the world I knew were totally different. Most of all the songs, though, being recorded came from there, I guess because most singers didn’t write their own. They didn’t even think about it. Anyway, Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.”
Dylan went on to say “I didn’t start out as a songwriter. I just drifted into it. These other people had it down to a science.” Apparently he did appreciate their scientific approach since a year after making those remarks, he visited Doc Pomus for advice in regards to the writer’s block he was experiencing. Doc was more than happy to offer Dylan a few words of advice.
But for roughly a decade from the mid ’60’s, it wasn’t people like Bob Dylan visiting his small apartment on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. Instead he was hosting fellow gamblers in games of poker. Doc managed to make a living from it, but as he told his friend Darryl Rhoades, “There were some tough guys hangin'” at the time. By the mid ’70s he was able to give up the gambling life. His songs were popular once again.
Baby boomers rediscovered the music of their youth. Radio stations began shifting their formats to all oldies. “This Magic Moment,” “Young Blood,” “Viva Las Vegas” and other Doc Pomus songs were getting airplay and moving briskly in the record stores. Both Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton recorded their own versions of “Save The Last Dance For Me.” Now it wasn’t the odds against Doc that were increasing; it was his royalty checks.
Pomus also got back to songwriting, working with Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John) and Willy DeVille. In ’82, B.B. King won a Grammy for his recording of “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere,” written by Pomus and Rebennack. It’s a great performance. In his book, Halberstadt reports King recorded it in one take, having earlier been moved to tears as he read and reread Doc’s lyrics.
Doc worked the phone from his apartment, trying to make it a better world for the R&B artists he began his career with. Many were now destitute. He raised money so old friends could buy musical instruments or even daily necessities.
Over the years, Pomus was a fixture of the New York music scene. He took in as much live music as possible, hitting the clubs, chatting with musicians and other show business people. He was always interested in the new acts. When Darryl Rhoades and The Hahavishnu Orchestra played The Other End in ’77 and ’78, Pomus came to most every show.
Wishing to promote his craft, Pomus conducted songwriting classes with homework assignments and guest speakers such as Tom Waits, Marshall Crenshaw and Lou Reed. Conducting the classes was not the only way he shared his love of songwriting. Darryl Rhoades recalls, “Doc took me to the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. He talked about some of the guys on the wall that he knew like Sammy Cahn and some of the old jazz and blues guys.” Rhoades remembered how Pomus thought more should write, saying, “Doc had a driver who claimed to be a songwriter, but told Doc he never had time to write, which irritated Doc because he felt that if you were a writer then nothing could stop you; he thought the guy should be working on stuff while he was waiting in the van.”
In an introduction to an unwritten memoir, dated February 21, 1984, Doc Pomus wrote of the attitude and approach he had to accept to make it in life, “I ……. didn’t have a chip, but a great big log on my shoulder, daring the world to get in my way or mess with me.” He went on to reveal early ambitions, including being the first major league pitcher on crutches, “I was going to be the most extraordinary and talented and virile man that ever lived.”
Doc Pomus did not meet all his amazing ambitions, but he did have an extraordinary life.
This article continues The Southern Song of the Day series.