In 1983, Night Flight talked to songwriter Doc Pomus, “Arch Angel of Rhythm & Blues”

By on August 10, 2017

In 1983, songwriter Doc Pomus came by our New York offices for a very rare, exclusive interview, where he talked candidly about being thirty years old before writing his first rock ‘n’ roll hit.

Watch the two-hour full episode — which we believe originally aired in late June of 1983, although the chyron says July 15, 1983 — streaming exclusively for our subscribers on Night Flight Plus!

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In the early ’80s, Pomus — who used crutches most of his life after contracting polio at the age of six — was living in a two-room apartment on the 11th floor of the Westhover Hotel at 253 West 72nd, a few blocks from Central Park on the Upper West Side, and not far from USA Network’s New York offices.

His songwriting career had slowed down, and he was devoting much of his free time to helping out forgotten and overlooked R&B artists who had fallen on hard times, which may be one reason his friend and fellow legendary songwriter Mike Stoller called him the “arch angel of rhythm and blues.”

Read more about Doc Pomus below.

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Jerome Solon Felder (b. June 27, 1925, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section) was just sixteen when he’d first heard Big Joe Turner’s booming vocals on “Piney Brown Blues.”

From then on, he wanted to be a blues singer like his musical hero, making his singing debut as an 18-year old at George’s Tavern in Greenwich Village.

He began calling himself “Doc Pomus” in the 1950s, saying that Doc “sounded like a hip midnight character,” and “the name Pomus sounded foreign and mysterious.”

Pomus — with a band featuring ace sax man King Curtis and guitarist Mickey Baker — performed in metro NYC clubs during a 10-year career that lasted from 1944 to 1955, recording singles for the Savoy, Atlantic, Coral and Chess labels.

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Pomus would end up writing a few songs for his hero Big Joe Turner, and soon was focusing more on his songwriting than his singing career.

Early on, he believed his songs were meant for “…those people stumbling around in the night out there, uncertain or not always so certain of exactly where they fit in and where they were headed.”

Pomus had success with “Young Blood,” a song he’d given to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who radically rewrote it for the Coasters (keeping Pomus’s name on the credits because it had been his concept and title).

Pomus ended getting a royalty check for $1500.00, convincing him that a songwriting career was worth pursuing.

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Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus

By 1957, Pomus was collaborating with songwriting partner Mort Shuman, who was eleven years younger than him.

Their sweet 50s-era rock ‘n’ roll melodies and multi-faceted lyrics would soon end up making them a pair of the genre’s most successful songwriters, second only to Leiber and Stoller.

They eventually got themselves an office  at 1650 Broadway in midtown Manhattan, where several Brill Building songwriters and record labels also had offices.

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Pomus and Shuman would end up writing some of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest hits, including the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment,” Dion & the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love,” the Searchers’ “Sweets for My Sweet,” Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue,” and Ben E. King’s “Save the Last Dance for Me,” to name just a few of the Top Forty-charting songs which sold in excess of one hundred million worldwide.

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In 1960, Pomus and Shuman began writing songs for Elvis Presley, who passed on the first song they gave him; “Turn Me Loose” was then altered for teen idol Fabian, who turned it into a hit (they also ended up writing songs for Bobby Darin, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and James Darren).

They wrote for Elvis over the next five years — twenty-five songs, many of them hits — including “Viva Las Vegas,” “Little Sister,” “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame,” “Suspicion” and “Surrender.”

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Up to the early-to-mid 1960s, Pomus also teamed on different projects with Otis Blackwell, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector, who called Pomus “the greatest songwriter who ever lived.”

In 1965, Pomus had a bad fall down a flight of stairs in NYC, which resulted in him being wheelchair-bound for the remainder of his life.

It was while he was still recovering in the hospital that Mort Shuman confirmed that they wouldn’t be writing any more songs together.

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Bob Dylan and Doc Pomus

In the late ’70s, Pomus helped John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd put together the band supporting them as the Blues Brothers. He also became Bette Midler’s musical advisor, helping her get booked on “The Tonight Show” which then led to her being signed by Atlantic Records.

During the next ten years, artists like Willy DeVille, Irma Thomas, Marianne Faithful, Joe Cocker, Jose Feliciano, Charlie Rich, Ruth Brown, James Booker and Johnny Adams all recorded his songs.

Dr. John and Doc Pomus also wrote tracks for Dr. John’s City Lights and Tango Palace albums, and B.B. King recorded a few of them for his There Must Be a Better World Somewhere, which won a 1981 Grammy Award for best ethnic or traditional recording.

“I get a lot of kicks out of working with Dr. John,” Pomus told us during his interview, “because there’s a certain kind of blues, the New Orleans rhythm and blues, that I think we do very well together, the kinds of songs about losers in the night. Dr. John and myself know a lot about that because they’re mostly self-portraits, you know?”

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Doc Pomus and Dr. John

In 1991, 65-year old Doc Pomus died from lung cancer, preceding Mort Shuman by a mere six months, less than a decade after he’d stopped by Night Flight’s NYC offices for this rare interview.

Check out our full episode from July 15, 1983, streaming exclusively for our subscribers on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.