Songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman
June 21, 2004
Doc Pomus was born Jerome Solon Felder on June 27, 1925 in Brooklyn, New York. He suffered from polio as a child, which left him to walk on crutches. After hearing blues singer Big Joe Turner, he became obsessed with the blues. He began his career while still a teenager, taking on the name Doc Pomus. He played saxophone and sang in Greenwich Village clubs. He recorded for a variety of labels but wasn't very successful. By the early 1950s he began to write. In 1955, he wrote 'Boogie Woogie Country Girl' for his idol Big Joe Turner. It was his first success. Another hit he wrote was 'Lonely Avenue' for Ray Charles. Another hits was 'Young Blood', co-written with Lieber and Stoller and recorded by The Coasters.
Mort Shuman was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 12, 1936 to Jewish immigrant parents. He studied music at the New York Conservatory and , like Pomus, was devoted to R&B music. Doc Pomus completely gave up singing by 1957 and in 1958 teamed with Mort Shuman to write for the Aldon Music Publishing. Shuman had played piano on some of Doc Pomus's recordings. They set up offices in the famous Brill Building in New York. (Side note: The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway got it's name from the owners, the Brill Brothers, who once had a clothing store in a part of the building. They leased the rest of the building to companies in the music business. By 1962 there were 165 music business in the building and it was a Mecca for song writers.)
The partnership of Pomus and Shuman authored hundreds of songs, specializing in 'blue-eyed soul'.
For the most part Doc Pomus wrote the lyrics and Mort Shuman wrote the music to their songs, but they sometimes worked on both. In 1959, they wrote 'Tiger', recorded by Fabian. It reached #3 and as did 'Teenager In Love' recorded by Dion and THe Belmonts.
In 1960, they wrote the #1 song, 'Save The Last Dance For Me' for the Drifters.
They began writing for Elvis in 1960. Elvis passed on the first song they submitted to him. It was called 'Turn Me Loose.' They later changed the song's arrangement and lyrics and it became a hit for Fabian.
The next song they wrote for Elvis was 'A Mess of Blues', which was released as the B-side of the single 'It's Now or Never' in July 1960. They continued to write for Elvis over the next five years however, neither one of them ever met Elvis. Elvis did call Mort Shuman in the middle of the night of June 25, 1961. He was calling for advice when he was recording '(Marie's The Name of) His Latest Flame' because they couldn't quite get the piano line down as Mr. Shuman had written it.
The Elvis songs written Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, together or separately, are: 'A Mess of Blues', 'Doin' The Best I Can', 'Surrender', 'Kiss Me Quick', '(Marie's The Name of) His Latest Flame', 'Little Sister', 'Night Rider', 'Gonna Get Back Home Somehow', 'I Feel That I've Known You Forever' (Doc Pomus with Alan Jeffreys), 'Suspicion', 'She's Not You' (Doc Pomus with Lieber and Stoller), '(It's A) Long Lonely Highway', 'Viva Las Vegas', 'I Need Somebody To Lean On', 'Girl Happy' (Doc Pomus with Norman Meade), 'What Every Woman Lives For', 'Never Say Yes', 'Double Trouble' and 'You'll Think Of Me' (Mort Shuman alone).
In 1964 they moved to England and Shuman began working with other writers. In 1965, Pomus took a severe fall that resulted in his being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He and Shuman broke up their partnership and Pomus left the music business for the next ten years, then making his living as a professional gambler. He returned to music in the late 1970s, co-writing with Dr. John and with B.B. King. He helped to found the the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and, shortly before his death, he was the first white person to be awarded that foundations' Pioneer Award. He died of lung cancer in New York, on March 14, 1991 at the age of sixty-four. In 1995, a tribute album was released entitled 'Till The Night Is Gone', which featured fourteen of his songs, many written with Mort Shuman, performed by artists such as Bob Dylan, Roseanne Cash, Los Lobos, Shawn Colvin, Dion and Aaron Neville among others. In 1992, Doc Pomus was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has also been inducted into the Songwriting Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame.
After their breakup, Mort Shuman continued to write for such acts as The Hollies, Freddy and The Dreamers, and Cilla Black. He then moved to Paris where he performed and began his own recording career. In 1968, Shuman translated the lyrics of French composer Jacques Brel and later he wrote, produced and starred in the stage production 'Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris', which ran for seven years. In 1986, Mort Shuman moved to London and wrote British musical productions.
Doc Pomus by Josh Alan Friedman
Shortly after Elvis died, I wrote the first of four articles on Doc, commemorating his comeback in a Soho News piece. In the curious way Americans honor their heroes after death, Elvis royalties intensified like a rejuvenated oil well. But Doc Pomus, who wrote 25 songs for Elvis, never met his foremost interpreter. They'd only conferred a few minutes by phone, Elvis calling for late-night instructions during an early '60s recording session; Doc didn't even know who he was talking to. Doc came within inches of meeting Presley at a 1974 Hilton Hotel press conference. But the hard-assed Colonel Parker, whom Doc knew well in the old days, wouldn't let Pomus through. Doc introduced himself to Vernon, who said his son would love to meet him, but Elvis had just left the hotel. Doc was heartbroken. Three years later, Doc and Elvis made solid arrangements to meet. But Presley died a week before the meeting, leaving Doc totally spooked.
In the mid-'50s, he groomed a teenage pianist with great chops, Mort Shuman, into gradually becoming his partner. Doc had handed a rough song to Leiber & Stoller, who were producing Coasters records. They asked his permission to change it around, giving him a third interest, which Doc thought was fair. Returning from his honeymoon in early 1957, he and his wife stopped at a diner, a few dollars left to their name. Doc noticed a new song, 'Youngblood'by The Coasters, on the jukebox and threw in his nickel. It was the same song he'd given Leiber & Stoller, entirely reworked. A delighted Doc phoned Atlantic Records, which wired him a $1,500 advance on the single, congratulating him on his first national hit.
From a penthouse cubbyhole in the Brill Building, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman set out to reap teen coin, crafting hundreds of bluesy pop gems. They wrote 25 songs for Elvis ('Little Sister'',His Latest Flame'',A Mess of Blues'',Suspicion'), hits for The Drifters ('Save The Last Dance For Me'',This Magic Moment.'), Dion & The Belmonts ('A Teenager In Love'), Bobby Darin ('Plain Jane'). Twelve songs a week they wrote, overpowering the odds of reaching the charts by sheer abundance. Doc wrote 80 of the lyrics, 20 percent of the melody.
With Shuman as partner, Doc's yearly income shot up to 50 grand.
'I had a house, a swimming pool, all that shit, and we had nothing but these Broadway characters hanging around. None of them paid any attention to me and if they asked what kind of songs I wrote I felt embarrassed. If I had written a fifth-rate Broadway song, my God, they would have been proud.'
Now, consider the context in which 'Last Dance' was written. Here's Doc, married to this gorgeous blonde Broadway actress, and all her Broadway cronies are contemptuous of rock & roll. A childhood victim of polio, Doc was on crutches, never able to walk. One night he was at a dance with his wife, waiting for her to finish dancing with a bevy of partners, patient and cool on the sidelines. Though he never said so, it likely provided the inspiration for these lines:
'Don't forget who's taking you home
And in whose arms you're gonna be
So, darling, save the last dance for me'
This much covered Drifters hit, with the Cubano-Ricano rhythms of the early '60s, has passed the lips of several generations - none hip to the hidden meaning.
After 1965, one of pop's great songwriting teams disbanded when Mort jumped ship. By sheer coincidence, Doc's wife walked out the same week. In crutches since polio took use of his legs during early childhood, a fall down a flight of stairs put him in a wheelchair, where he would thereafter remain.
Songs by Doc Pomus
A Mess Of Blues (1960)
Doin' The Best I Can (1960)
Kiss Me Duick (1961)
His Latest Flame (1961)
Little Sister (1961)
Gonna Get Back Home Somehow (1962)
Night Rider (1962)
I Feel That I've Known You Forever (1962)
She's Not You (1962)
Long Lonely Highway (1963)
Viva Las Vegas (1963)
I Need Somebody To Lean On (1963)
Girl Happy (1964)
What Every Woman Lives For (1965)
Never Say Yes (1966)
Double Trouble (1966)
If you like reading this article, you will love the book; Writing For The King - a 400 page Book with more than 140 interviews with songwriters like Paul McCartney, Leiber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Red West, Mark James and Tony Joe White. Included are two CDs, the first contains previously unreleased RCA recordings of Elvis performing live in Las Vegas (1969 through 1972), the second a selection of the original demos submitted to Elvis.
The demo CD takes us from Heartbreak Hotel through classics like Teddy Bear, Trouble, Burning Love and Way Down.
'Writing for the King' by Ken Sharp is a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of politics, money, inspiration and great trivia about Elvis and the songs he turned into classics. And his new book, Elvis : Vegas '69.
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