Over the past half-century, much derision has attached to the notion of the "White Negro", first codified in the 1950s by Norman Mailer and tortured to within a millimeter of its life, yo, by Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G. Yet what other explananation can there be for the story of how Jerome Felder, stricken with polio in childhood, exiled himself from lower-middle-class Jewish Brooklyn and reinvented himself as Doc Pomus? He roared the blues in the black nightclubs of New York and New Jersey, supported by his leg braces and crutches, before becoming one of the pre-eminent songwriters of his era, composing hits for everyone from Ray Charles and Joe Turner to Elvis Presley and Andy Williams.
The legend of Doc Pomus rests on classic compositions like "Save The Last Dance For Me", "Can't Get Used To Losing You", "Teenager In Love", "Viva Las Vegas", "Little Sister" and "There Must be a Better World Somewhere" – not to mention the 1956 Ray Charles hit which gives this book its title. But during the decade-plus between the mid-1940s and mid-1950s that he spent living in rundown hotels before striking it rich, Pomus was probably the only career white blues singer in America. He worked within a black aesthetic, in a black milieu, played with black musicians and paid his meagre rent with money earned from performing to black audiences.
Throughout his career, high life alternated with low, fat times with lean. After the British pop invasion and the post-Dylan singer-songwriter boom torpedoed not only Pomus's career but those of other bespoke songwriters, he was almost back where he started before his hot streak began: living in modest hotels and supplementing his slender earnings with the proceeds of hosting poker games.
His fortunes did not revive until the death of his one-time meal ticket, Elvis Presley. The King's posthumous sales boom boosted the royalty statements of Pomus and his primary collaborator Mort Shuman to the point where he no longer needed to play poker for a living.
His presence was evidently magisterial to the max, though. Even the notoriously haughty and egocentric Lou Reed metamorphosed into a worshipful baa-lamb around him. His informal songwriters' workshops were attended by the likes of Tom Waits, and John Lennon demanded to be seated at Pomus's table at an awards ceremony, telling him that the first song the Beatles ever rehearsed together was "Lonely Avenue": a gracious gesture, whether or not it was true. Dylan himself, in the throes of writers' block, visited Pomus in an attempt to commission the now wheelchair-bound old master to write him some lyrics. When Pomus was dying, Reed offered to replace his tiny black-and-white TV with a massive colour model. Pomus told him that this was no time to be making long-term investments. After Pomus's death, Reed commemorated him with several key songs on his Magic and Loss album, co-dedicated to Pomus.
Alex Halberstadt never met Doc Pomus, but you wouldn't know it from this book. By dint of conscientious research and exhaustive interviewing of friends, family and colleagues alike, plus access to his subject's archives and journals, the author immaculately fulfils both the "life" and "times" aspects of his brief. Pomus's music will live on through his beautiful and memorable songs, and his life is admirably evoked in this rich and generous book.
Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic' is published by Faber
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