‘Doc Pomus’ celebrates the blues guru with a Jewish soulby dan pine, j. staff
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Hard to believe, but all these soulful pop songs — and 1,000 more — were written by a Jewish kid from Brooklyn disabled by childhood polio. Despite a lifetime on crutches (and later, a wheelchair), Pomus wrote much of the baby boomer soundtrack.
The songwriter is the subject of “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” a documentary from co-directors Peter Miller and Will Hechter. The film will have its world premiere at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival.
“He wrote an unbelievable number of songs,” said Miller, “but what struck me was he had an amazing life. If you were to have written it as fiction no one would have believed it.”
Soon enough, he started writing songs for friends, such as blues crooners Joe Turner and Otis Blackwell, becoming one of the top songsmiths in Manhattan’s Brill Building, the nerve center of pop songwriting greats such as Carole King, Neil Sedaka and other, mostly Jewish talents.
“He gravitated to the blues not just because it was great, but because it spoke to something in his soul,” Miller said. “Many of his pop songs were influenced by Latin rhythms, doo-wop; he did straight-ahead rock, tender ballads. He was all over the map creatively, but at the essence there is a soulfulness.”
With writing partners like Mort Shuman, Phil Spector and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, he enjoyed hit after hit. Artists including Dion, the Coasters, the Drifters and Elvis Presley covered his songs. Pomus wrote most of the songs for that string of god-awful Presley movies, though some — notably “Viva Las Vegas” — had staying power.
The filmmakers created “A.K.A. Doc Pomus” in collaboration with Pomus’ daughter, Sharyn Felder, who had filmed several interviews with her father before his death in 1991 at 65. “She spent her life keeping her father’s legacy together,” Miller said, “maintaining archives and keeping contact with everyone he knew.”
Miller interviewed scores of musicians — from Dion to Shawn Colvin to Lou Reed — who claimed Pomus as a mentor and inspiration. In his later years, Pomus taught songwriting and coached promising young writers. “He was a guru who mentored people. He didn’t suffer fools [and] surrounded himself with smart, talented people. Those are the people he helped,” Miller said.
As for his Jewish identity, Pomus was proud of his heritage, Miller said, though Felder described her dad as “a lox and bagels Jew.”
“I think his story is impossible to understand unless you understand he’s Jewish,” Miller added. “He came from a Jewish working-class milieu and saw himself as part of Jewish immigrant culture. It certainly shaped the way he saw the world.”
Miller theorizes that widespread discrimination against Jews in those days affected Pomus, making him more sympathetic to black America.
Also, a measure of discrimination never left Pomus, as he sought to navigate New York in the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act. There was little access to New York nightlife for a heavyset man traveling in a wheelchair.
“People had no idea what tsuris he had to go through,” Miller said. “The man could not get in and out of his wheelchair without serious acrobatics. His legs did not operate. Here’s one of the greatest songwriters in the world who can’t get into clubs.”
But he did get into hearts and souls with his music, which lives on to this day. Miller says the demand for Pomus songs remains high, with stars like Michael Bublé recently covering “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
“I hope it speaks to people even if they’ve never heard the music,” said Miller of his film. “It’s about a human being and his marvelous journey.”
“A.K.A. Doc Pomus” screens at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, July 26 at the Castro Theatre, 3:55 p.m. July 28 at CineArts, 5:10 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Roda, and 2:35 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Rafael.
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