The colorful career of a songwriting master gets woeful treatment.
The saga of Brill Building-era songsmith Doc Pomus received a superior short-form recounting in Ken Emerson’s 2005 book Always Magic in the Air; this tome, which appears to owe a great deal to Emerson’s research, presents Pomus’ story in full-length, infuriatingly “novelistic” style. Born in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Jerome Felder was crippled by polio at the age of six; as a teen, he immersed himself in black New York’s R&B and jazz nightlife, and, under the pseudonym Doc Pomus, he forged a career as a Big Joe Turner–styled blues shouter. He went on to pen hits for Turner and Ray Charles; in partnership with young collaborator Mort Shuman, he authored huge successes for talents as diverse as the Drifters, Dion, Elvis Presley and Andy Williams. Halberstadt’s narrative bogs down in the mid-’60s, when Pomus’ career collapsed after a divorce, his split with Shuman and the demise of Tin Pan Alley’s publishing empire following the arrival of Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters. The story doesn’t regain momentum until its latter stages, when Pomus, after a hard-knocks decade as a professional gambler, returned to eminence co-writing with Dr. John. (Pomus died in 1991.) Halberstadt slathers on the color and presumes to know his subject’s interior life, but the work feels under-reported and emotionally untrue, and he evinces precious little understanding of what made the music tick. Worse, the book is clotted with factual and chronological errors: For instance, Pomus is depicted listening to Billie Holiday’s album Lady in Satin in 1957, a year before its release. And one hopes the publisher corrects the frequent misspellings of songwriting giant Jerry Leiber’s name. Most annoyingly, Pomus’ own voice is largely absent; known as a hipster’s hipster and a Rabelaisian storyteller, he is heard only in a few fascinating journal excerpts. The real Pomus takes a back seat to Halberstadt’s lugubrious, wannabe-hip prose and bogus interior monologizing.
Doc Pomus will always be cool; this book is a drag.