Today's TMFW covers the songwriter Doc Pomus and the story behind his biggest hit.
Pomus was a fascinating character. Born Jerome Felder to two Jewish immigrants in 1925 in Brooklyn, he was crippled by polio as a child and spent recovery time in an iron lung and full body cast. As a young man, he fell in love with blues music, and though he was a short white Jewish kid on crutches he pursued a career as a blues shouter. (This is how he got his stage name: he wisely guessed that "Jerry Felder" might not be very marketable in New York City blues clubs.)
Pomus' intro to show business is an excellent story. Allegedly, he was at a New York City club called George's in 1943 (that would make him 18 years old at the time) to hear some blues. He was poor and could only afford one drink, so he sat at the bar with an empty glass enjoying the music. The owner demanded that he either spend some more money or leave the club, and Pomus responded that he was a blues singer and was not there to drink but instead to perform. When the owner called his bluff, Pomus took the stage and performed a rendition of "Piney Brown Blues" by Big Joe Turner, to the crowd's delight. And Pomus figured out right then that despite some obvious differences between him and his contemporaries he could make a go at the blues.
Remarkably, he had some success: over the next twelve years, Pomus recorded several dozen records for famous blues/jazz labels like Chess and Apollo. Songs like "Give it Up," "Lonely Avenue," "Send for the Doctor," and the barely-veiled drug anthem "My Good Pott" fit right into the genre and hold up well.
Pomus was, by all accounts, a spirited and gregarious performer. But he was not going to be huge on the blues scene, and he knew it. So Pomus started writing songs. In 1957, he formed a songwriting partnership with a young piano player named Mort Shuman, with Pomus supplying the lyrics to Shuman's music. They clicked, and for nearly 10 years they had a great run of hits. Nine of their songs made the top 10 and another fifteen made the top 40. They included Dion and the Belmonts' "A Teenager In Love," The Drifters' "This Magic Moment," and Elvis Presley's "Little Sister."
That latter song was one of 18 songs (or maybe 25?) that Pomus wrote for Elvis Presley, primarily with Mort Shuman. Most of them were forgettable B-sides or album fodder for Elvis movie soundtracks, but they did have a #1 song with "Surrender" and they wrote the title song for "Viva Las Vegas."
All of that is a pretty cool TMFW all by itself - a crippled Jewish kid from Brooklyn who made a career as a blues shouter and then as a huge songwriter. But the story of Pomus's biggest hit is what puts it over the top.
Pomus was sufficiently successful that in 1957 he was married to Willi Burke, a broadway actress and dancer. His experience at their wedding reception lead to his biggest hit as a songwriter. Confined alternately to crutches and a wheelchair, Pomus was not able to dance with his bride that night. Burke initially refused to dance with anyone else, but Pomus wanted her to have a good time and encouraged her to dance with his brother Raoul. Years later, Pomus thought back to that night and what it felt like to watch his bride dancing with another man. Inspiration struck, and he wrote some lyrics on the back of one of their old wedding invitations. He gave the finished song to Ben E. King and The Drifters: "Save the Last Dance for Me."
Ben E. King's performance on the song is emotional, and was authentic. As King himself explains in this WNYC Soundcheck clip, "just before I recorded it in the studio [the owner of Atlantic Records] told me the story about it...and when I was signing it I could envision him sitting there and his wife is dancing and he's saying 'it should be me there doing what he's doing.'"
The song was a big hit for Atlantic and for the Drifters, and spent three weeks at #1. Unfortunately, Pomus and Willi Burke did not live happily ever. They divorced, and the unwinding of their marriage is said to have inspired the song "Can't Get Used to Losing You," which was a hit for Andy Williams in 1969.
Pomus died in 1991 at age 65.
FURTHER READING/WATCHING: Pomus is the subject of a book by Alex Halberstadt: Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, and the 2012 documentary AKA Doc Pomus. And this appreciation by his friend Josh Alan Friedman is a good read.
BONUS FACT: "Save the Last Dance for Me" inspired an answer song by Damita Jo called "I'll Save the Last Dance for You," which uses substantially the same melody and structure as the original but sings it from the woman's perspective instead. It hit #22 on the charts in 1960, and was her second-biggest hit.
BONUS FACT 1.5: Damita Jo's biggest hit was "I'll Be There," which reached #12 in 1961. That too is an answer song, this time to "Stand by Me" by the Drifters' singer Ben E. King. There is more to come on answer songs - including the song that inspired some of the most famous ones - in a future TMFW.
BONUS FACT 2: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby have a song that pays tribute to Pomus - appropriately named "Doc Pomus" - on their Lonely Avenue record (which gets its title from a Pomus tune).