Monday, September 5, 2022

A.K.A. Doc Pomus: A Documentary About a Writer, a Raconteur, and a Humanitarian

This is a revived version of a Line Out post about Will Hechter and Peter Miller's 2012 documentary, A.K.A. Doc Pomus (these posts were purged from the internet after The Stranger pulled the plug on their music blog). 

Film/TV Nov 3, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Doc Pomus: Writer, Raconteur, Humanitarian

  • Clear Lake Productions
  • Doc Pomus performing at the Pied Piper in 1947

(Will Hechter and Peter Miller, 2012, USA/Canada, 98 mins)

If you don't know Jerome Felder, aka Doc Pomus (1925-1991), you know his songs, and if you don't know his songs, it's worth catching up, because he wrote some classic material. I grew up with his handiwork, and if you were to ask people my parents' age, they'd tell you the same.

A short list includes Ray Charles's "Lonely Avenue," the Drifters' "This Magic Moment," and Andy Williams's "Can't Get Used to Losing You."* They're among the American songbook's most heartrending entries, but they're not without hope, which also summarizes the tumultuous life of their creator.

Co-directors Will Hechter and Peter Miller build A.K.A. Doc Pomus around interviews with Pomus, so he appears to narrate his own story alongside family, associates, and music writers, like Elvis scholar Peter Guralnick.


*Sonic Boom does a fine version of "Lonely Avenue" on his first, post-Spacemen 3 album as Spectrum. Most people my age are probably more familiar with the English Beat's cover of "Can't Get Used to Losing You," but I'm just old enough to remember watching The Andy Williams Show on TV. Doc Pomus gave the sweater-wearing smoothie his biggest hit.

Afflicted by polio at the age of six, Pomus would spend the rest of his days on crutches, with braces, or in a wheelchair. He grew up in Brooklyn, son of a small, angry man who failed at everything he tried, so music became his solace. Naturally, he embraced the blues, both as a singer and a songwriter, and he did well on the local circuit, but wider fame would elude him. 

Everything changed when he bonded with his hero, Big Joe Turner, for whom he wrote several songs. Pomus: "He started my career and, I would say, my life." (In Turner's time of need, Pomus would return the favor.)

Hechter and Miller proceed through Doc's marriage to Wilma Burke, a musical theater performer, and his partnership with co-writer Mort Shuman, with whom he moved in more of a pop direction—though they called it "rock & roll" then—but not without losing his blues roots (Latin rhythms also became a Pomus-Shuman signature). They set up shop in NYC's famed Brill Building, alongside Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Neil Diamond, and countless other soon-to-be-famous names.

From there, the filmmakers explore individual songs and their backstories. I won't give anything away, but if the real-life incident behind "Save the Last Dance for Me" doesn't break your heart, I don't know what will.


  • Doc Pomus with Mort Shuman: partners in music and tweed
  • Clear Lake Productions

Throughout the 1960s, there would be more heartbreak due to a combination of bad luck and bad decisions, but the 1970s and '80s brought new relationships with like-minded musicians Dr. John and Willy DeVille, and a second chapter began. As one speaker puts it, "He was cool again."

I didn't need to watch this film in order for Hechter and Miller to convince me that Pomus was a tremendous talent. That's evident by his songs, but his non-judgmental attitude becomes a story in and of itself. Pomus worked with a lot of troubled individuals—Dr. John and DeVille were heroin addicts—but he put his faith in them when other music business associates wouldn't.

In light of Lou Reed's passing last week, it's particularly sad to see him on screen (his relaxed readings from Pomus's clear-eyed journals form part of the narration), but it's heartening to see him sharing a laugh with Jimmy Scott, one of several under-appreciated singers that Pomus championed.

Pomus, like fellow New Yorker Reed, didn't judge those who looked or felt like outsiders. He celebrated them. He spoke for them. He was one of them.

A.K.A. Doc Pomus, which opened on Fri, plays The Grand Illusion through Nov 7. Pomus's daughter, Sharyn Felder, will be in attendance Sun and Mon.

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