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APOLLO 401; MAY, 1949

 
 

 

A long ways off from mid-1949 where we find ourselves today, somewhere around 1956 I think and years after he had quite unintentionally become the first white rock singer, Doc Pomus was in Atlantic Records outer offices waiting to see label head Ahmet Ertegun to pitch him some songs he’d written.

By that time Pomus had been shifting his focus from singing to songwriting more and more. He’d never been much on making records as an artist, though he’d recorded frequent one-off sessions for a wide variety of labels since 1948, but the records never sold much, largely because the records weren’t very good. But Pomus was an enthusiastic live performer and whether it was due to the sheer novelty of a short stocky white Jew on crutches singing black music in black clubs around New York, or whether his stage act was appreciably better than his studio work, that had been how Pomus had earned his living, such as it was, for nearly a decade. But he was now in his thirties, putting on even more weight and whatever novelty aspect there’d been seeing him in the 1940’s was wearing thin by this point. Furthermore his brand of singing, or shouting as it were, was losing its appeal even in those seedier venues he specialized in and so with few other options he turned halfheartedly to writing songs instead.

While waiting in the lobby he saw two younger kids, barely in their twenties, who were also waiting to see Ertegun. The three got to talking and it turns out they were songwriters too, their names were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the rising superstars of the rock writing field who’d already had some big hits and had recently signed with Atlantic as the first independent producers in music. Doc’s name rang a bell with the duo thanks to some of the better tunes he’d written for others, among them Ray Charles and Doc’s idol Big Joe Turner, but at this point they were all just mostly being cordially friendly and polite.

All of a sudden a light went off in Stoller’s head and he jumped out of his seat and to the astonishment of everyone, Pomus included, started singing one of Doc’s long forgotten songs from his days as a performer.

This was that song.
 

 

What In The World Is Your Name?
One of the things about doing this project that I was aware was bound to happen and regarded with a fair amount of trepidation was the inevitability of slaughtering a few sacred cows. It’s never an enjoyable task, though it’s a necessary one at times simply because if you start pulling your punches on something you feel deserves a panning so as not to offend somebody, be it an artist, a record exec or a fan, then you might as well hand over your credibility along with it. The only way these reviews and their scores mean anything at all is if what’s written truly reflects the opinions of whomever is writing it.

Not everyone will agree with my opinions on the merits (or lack thereof) for each song, nor should they agree, dissent IS encouraged after all, but the number one responsibility you have when starting out is to make your views clear and then try and make your case for why you have those views. But that said you know that by tearing down a figure who is pretty universally renowned for their work you’re setting yourself up for criticism or outright derision by their supporters, in the process running the risk that it won’t be the record itself that gets discussed but rather the reviewer’s opinion. For a figure who engendered such love and respect on a personal level, let alone professionally, this becomes even more problematic.

By all accounts Doc Pomus was one of the nicest guys in rock ‘n’ roll, endlessly engaging with whoever he met, even the irascible Lou Reed who seemed to take perverse pleasure in being rude and offensive to scores of people who had the misfortune to cross his path was sweet and deferential to Doc.

Throw in Pomus’s star-crossed personal history, crippled by polio at a young age and for years forced to navigate life on crutches until his weight sent him to a wheelchair in mid-life, this is clearly not someone you’d take even perverse pleasure in criticizing… yet thus far that’s what we’ve done and will continue to do, at least when it comes to his recorded output.

So that’s why the appearance of this record, Alley Alley Blues had me optimistic and even somewhat eager to get into because it was the closest thing to a “hit” that Pomus ever enjoyed and thus something that was bound to give some indication as to how he at least was able to make the most of his modest vocal talents and eke out a living on the New York club scene in the late 1940’s.

But I’m sad to say that after scrutinizing it more deeply he’s in for another panning.
 

The One Cat I Adore
Why was it that Mike Stoller suddenly remembered a record that was seven years old at the time and probably had sold less than two or three thousand copies when it came out? Was he one of those three thousand who bought one, perhaps the ONLY Caucasian among who had a copy outside of Doc’s brother?

No. But it turns out you didn’t have to buy Apollo 401 to have heard it, nor did you even have to drop a nickel in a jukebox that might’ve been carrying it. You just had to turn on a radio.

Now we know that there still weren’t a lot of radio outlets that played rock ‘n’ roll music but Doc singing this song was played a LOT around New York City. The song but not the record… for Alley Alley Blues had begun life as a commercial he cut for a Alley Clothing on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street in Brooklyn, a store with exclusively black customers. Thus it was played on the few stations in the city catering to that audience and Stoller, just a teenager but already immersed in black music, heard it on Symphony Sid’s show.

Because the clothing store bought a lot of ads it got a lot of spins, though of course Doc got no direct publicity for it, since it wasn’t as if the dee-jays were announcing his name or anything after the commercial. But Apollo Records in town were hip to who had sung it and Bess Berman tracked Pomus down and asked if he’d want to cut the song as a full-length record.

By now Pomus had done a few sessions for various labels and admittedly didn’t put much effort into the songs he wrote for them, thinking it only a way to get a few bucks – cash up front, there were no royalties going to be paid, even if the records had bucked the odds and wound up being hits. As a result he’d just jot down some lyrics the night before and attach them to a basic structure that was interchangeable with virtually any other song in a similar vein.

But maybe he approached this job for the clothing store differently. Maybe he’d been self-conscious about writing full songs for his own stab at stardom and so he gave less than his best effort, whereas this was a song for a purpose other than giving himself name recognition. Or maybe he just got some clothes out of the deal and felt he owed it to them to earn them by giving them something they’d actually like. But whatever the case the tune with its distinctive “alley, alley, alley” refrain was catchy enough to have some appeal, especially after being heard nightly on the biggest shows aimed at that community.

So it probably WASN’T the record itself that Mike Stoller had heard during this time but rather the commercial, a different entity altogether, albeit utilizing the same idea. Obviously they couldn’t cut a song about a store and sell it commercially, even putting aside any legalities involved, so Doc we-wrote it for the purposes of making it into a record, changing it from a pitch for sharp threads to a sexual come-on that was dirtier, or at least more suggestive than most of what was out there in this day and age.

It’s easy to see why this – of all of his efforts – had the best chance for leaving a mark. The story is entirely appropriate for a song renamed Alley Alley Blues because the alley is where the story emerged from as well as being the setting of the tale itself.
 

Filled Me With Ecstasy
Doc’s telling about getting sexual favors in this out of the way locale, a scene that – at least in the film noir influenced images I have of the late 1940’s city – is colorfully plausible. It’s a black and white scene of course, probably a light mist in the air which keeps pedestrians on the sidewalk moving quickly with their heads down while he himself is getting head just fifteen or twenty feet to their right. But shrouded in shadows and with the din of the traffic passing by nobody really hears the sounds drifting out of the darkness… and if they did most would surely quicken their step so as to get further away from the illicit nocturnal activities going on just out of sight.

It’s then left to Doc to fill us in on this woman with loose morals, something he does with some genuine relish. But his enthusiasm alone can’t obscure the fact that aside from the chorus, which itself is mostly just hinting at the X-rated activities rather than laying them out in explicit detail, there’s not much here in the way of either a coherent storyline OR titillating imagery.

For someone who made his name as a lyricist Pomus’s lyrics to date have ranged from bad to putrid and if this rises above that it still only gets us to mediocre at best. As far as we can figure it these two children of the night, no doubt both bedraggled and hungry but with basic human urges that need fulfillment, have passed each other a few times over the last week or so and caught each other’s eye. Maybe they genuinely find each other attractive but by the sound of it I’d say it’s more like they sense the dull ache of loneliness in one another and figuring that neither of them has much to lose they hook up for a quickie in the nearest available spot they can find… the alley.

It’s a gratifying experience for them shall we say and to show how desperate both of them are for some human connection they both impulsively declare their lust for one another rather than try and play it cool and keep some dignity, though I suppose if it comes to anonymous sex with a stranger in an alley you’ve run out of dignity months earlier, so what does it matter?

This is actually the most inspired segment, maybe something Stoller picked up on if he DID hear the actual record, as guitarist Ralph Williams, who’d go on to join Sonny Til’s Orioles in the early 1950’s, uses a falsetto voice to portray the girl who showers Pomus’s character with shallow plaudits for his performance – in the alley that is, not as a singer – and it definitely lends a theatrical air to it all, low rent though it might be.
 

I Wouldn’t Look For Any More
The music all of this is attached to is pretty basic, Williams’ guitar getting an early showcase just to give it enough thrust to launch into the song, while the piano of Reggie Ashby handles the most notable accompaniment behind Pomus’s vocals. John Levy’s bass is discreet but surprisingly effective in setting the warm sounding skeletal rhythm underneath them and even gets a moment at the very beginning that makes you sit up and take notice even though it’s probably more because thus far in rock the bass rarely gets even that small of a window to make itself known. But there are no horns, no drums, nor much chance for either of the two lead instruments that are present to solo, so they just play fills in the brief breaks between verses which puts more of the burden on Pomus’s vocals.

Mmm, here’s what we were dreading having to bring up. Though not shaping up to be a masterpiece by any means, Alley Alley Blues was clearly a better song to sink his teeth into than what he’s given himself to work with before and with a decent vocalist it might even be something that winds up as an example of a average release for rock circa 1949. It’s doubtful even the best singers in the field, be it Roy Brown or Andrew Tibbs, or (considering Pomus’s affinity for him) Big Joe Turner could make it above average, but you never know. Toss in a sax solo or some rim shots that are missing here and it could conceivably pull itself into the higher numbers.

But the painful truth is Doc Pomus can’t sing. Some guys can’t. It doesn’t mean they don’t love the music, hear it perfectly in their heads or feel it deep in their bones, but you don’t sing with your ears or your heart or even your brain, you sing with your mouth, chest and larynx and no matter how much they want to comply with your best wishes, sometimes the components just aren’t amenable to what you want them to do.
 


 

Pomus has no range to speak of, three notes, maybe four before he starts to strain. His tone in that range is thin and reedy, emanating from his throat rather than his chest. At times he holds notes long enough to give the impression of resonance but that’s all it is, an impression, a mirage. At other times he’s out of breath and considering he was a heavy smoker, cigarettes as well as reefer, and would eventually die of lung cancer it’s not hard to see why. Even his effort, which should be his one redeeming quality, seems to vary depending on the line, almost as if he himself is not convinced of his vocation in life.

That’s a harsh thing to say about someone who in fact gave his life to this music and gave a lot of great songs to its evolution, but a man’s got to know his limitations and Pomus, as of this time, clearly did not. He was no singer and if this was in fact the best writing he could muster then truth be told he was barely any more qualified as a writer.

The good thing of course is we weren’t around to tell him this at the time and so he struggled on, living a colorful life to say the least and eventually he began to buckle down as a songwriter and in doing so found his true metier. For that we’re more than happy and we’re even reasonably happy we can say Alley Alley Blues isn’t as bad as his weakest moments to date. But it also isn’t on par with even the average moments of most other artists in rock and in the cold harsh landscape of reviewing records, not personalities, that means Doc Pomus’s singing career winds up being discarded in the alley along with unsold copies of his records.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Doc Pomus for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)