TORONTO — Rock musician Lou Reed called him one of the greatest songwriters in history and Bob Dylan admired him so much he once asked him to write some lyrics for him.
His life seemed tailor-made for a Hollywood movie. He was the son of poor Jewish immigrants and was crippled by polio. Yet, he became a successful celebrity, got addicted to gambling, lost everything and then got his life back on track.
The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is saving its best for last with A.K.A. Doc Pomus, a highly informative documentary on one of the most prolific hitmakers of the 20th century, which closes the Film Festival on May 13.
Born Jerome Felder, Doc Pomus wrote or co-wrote over 1,000 songs including This Magic Moment, Little Sister, Sweets for my Sweet, Viva Las Vegas and Save the Last Dance for Me. His songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, The Drifters, Andy Williams, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Dion and the Belmonts, The Coasters, Joe Turner and several others. In his prime, Doc Pomus had 13 Top 10 songs in one year. He was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
A.K.A. Doc Pomus chronicles his life from his beginnings as a young Jewish boy in Brooklyn stricken with polio, to his extravagant 1991 funeral attended by hundreds of the most important people in the music business including Phil Spector and Lou Reed
Doc Pomus was born in 1925 and contracted polio when he was six. He would spend the rest of his life on crutches or in a wheelchair. He was a “white boy hooked on blues” and spent most of his childhood days listening to the radio. At 17, he wowed the manager of a blues bar with his singing and began performing every day. (He changed his name so that his mother wouldn’t recognize it on the marquees).
This was quite a start for a fat Jewish boy on crutches. But it was these handicaps that would also let him down. No record company was willing to sign him despite his obvious talent.
Instead, he turned to song writing, becoming encouraged when his song Young Blood became a hit in 1957 for The Coasters and he received a sizable royalty cheque. Because he was already in his 30s, there was a danger that he was out of touch with the vibrant teenage market of the 1950s, and he teamed up with the younger Mort Shuman, who added contemporary stylings to Doc’s blues sensibilities.
It was the start of a highly lucrative partnership. Under contract to the top music publisher, Hill & Range, they started to churn out hits, starting with A Teenager in Love for Dion and the Belmonts.
They were introduced to Elvis’s management and wrote several hits for him including Viva Las Vegas, which has since been recorded by many other artists, among them Bruce Springsteen, Shawn Colvin, The Dead Kennedys and ZZ Top.
He married the aspiring young actress Willie Burke, and it was at their wedding that he got the idea for his signature song Save the Last Dance for Me. Unable to dance with his wife because of his disability, he let her dance with other men, but reminded her, as the song goes, who will be taking her home tonight “and in whose arms you’re gonna be.”
The song was a huge hit for The Drifters and has been recorded by other artists including Dolly Parton and recently Michael Bublé.
The mid-’60s saw the rise of singer/songwriters such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and songwriters were no longer in demand. This, and his marital woes, started a downward spiral for Doc Pomus. The hit he wrote for Andy Williams Can’t Get Used to Losing You was inspired by his marriage problems.
He turned to gambling to make a living, but around 10 years later, Elvis’s death ironically brought him lots of royalties and he was able to leave gambling and devote his attention to writing again, teaming up with the eccentric blues man Doctor John to write songs for B.B. King.
A.K.A. Doc Pomus packs a lot into 90 minutes. Even if you’ve never heard of Doc Pomus before, you’ll still find it extremely moving and entertaining. It’s a fitting end to this year’s film festival. It screens at the Bloor Cinema May 13 at 7:30 p.m.