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DERBY 712; JUNE, 1949



The curious case of Jerome Felder, a/k/a Doc Pomus, a well-meaning if underwhelming aspiring singer eventually to emerge as a legendary songwriter, continues here with another fascinating misfire.

Because of his name recognition brought about by his future stardom as a writer, and thanks to his endlessly interesting back story (the first white artist to release a rock record, as well as being someone whose childhood bout with polio left him with a significant physical handicap) it makes these early forays into the release mix far more likely draw attention than they would if it were left entirely up to the subpar musical output they contain.

It also affords us the opportunity to fully chart the story of someone who will emerge down the road in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise… Most who will become famous writing for others will only appear on these pages in the context of those other artists and in those cases it will be the artists who get the lion’s share of the attention in most reviews.

Similarly even in the case of notable artists who start off with inferior performances early in their careers we know that we’ll be charting their upward trajectory over a number of releases and the jump in quality they make along the way will speak for itself.

Not so here, where Doc Pomus will never reach even consistent mediocrity as a performer and when he fades from these pages as an artist, for those who didn’t know of his re-emergence in another realm, there’d be no reason to suspect we’d have any contact with him again. So since we DO know that he’ll be making a grand reappearance on the national stage in due time we can attempt to pick through the wreckage of a stillborn career as a singer trying to piece together evidence that his eventual success elsewhere may have been in the cards all along.

Everything I Do Is Wrong
Of course, if you CAN find something about the bewildering Kiss My Wrist to suggest that Pomus would go on to pen some of the most insightful and heart wrenching stories in rock history then you must be clairvoyant, because there’s nothing here to tip you off that he would be drawing a paycheck in music down the road unless it was by selling it as a clerk in a record store.

What makes Pomus’s long-term story so peculiar isn’t the transformation from singer to songwriter exclusively. That’s a fairly natural career arc and in the coming years it’d be pulled off with great success by a wide array of people whose names loom large in rock history, from Otis Blackwell and Richard Barrett in the 1950’s to Barrett Strong and Eddie Holland at Motown in the 1960’s, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in the 1970’s, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in the 1980’s. Soon to be legends who found that writing was their true calling even while releasing some good songs as performers.

No, the real peculiarity about Pomus’s occupational shift from singer to songwriter is that WHILE he was a singer he was a pretty terrible songwriter. Or at least one who showed absolutely no ability to craft a story with witty lyrics and anything more than shallow clichés.

It’s no different with Kiss My Wrist which at least has the courtesy to let you know by way of the uncomfortable title that what lays within isn’t going to be profoundly deep and you might be better off spending that 79 cents on something else, like breakfast or bus fare (remember, it’s 1949 and so you presumably could do either, or quite possibly both, for 79 cents).

But rather than dismiss it out of hand as not worth anybody’s time this provides us with a chance to peer into his creative mindset at this stage and try and figure out just what he was aiming for musically as an artist and whether his lack of any subtly or inspired song craft may have been apropos for the niche he was attempting to carve out.

I’ll Be The Death Of You
It helps of course to realize where Doc Pomus was coming from. A stocky Jewish kid in his early 20’s, on crutches since youth thanks to contracting polio at age 7, he was turned onto black music by hearing Big Joe Turner in the early 1940’s and one night got up the gumption to get on stage and sing in a club. Based on the records that followed showcasing his… ummm… talents (?!?!)… the performance couldn’t have been too promising but the sheer chutzpah it took for him to put himself out there won over the crowd.

He threw himself into crafting the image he envisioned and with the blissful innocence of youth he probably really believed it might be possible to transform himself into something resembling his idols. But while that youthfulness allowed him to harbor such dreams with a reasonable amount of reckless confidence, they also proved to be his undoing (along with his under-powered voice) because he simply didn’t have the worldliness or even the cultural background to accurately and effectively convey the stories his mind dreamed up.

This is hardly an unusual obstacle for anyone just starting out on any professional road. While you may have good natural instincts and an abiding love of the job at hand, or in other fields you may have the schooling necessary to ply that trade, what you don’t have is the experience which breeds further understanding and knowledge to do that job to the utmost of your abilities.

Pomus was therefore simply guilty of being a novice – in life as well as in music. The clichés he used as the cornerstone of his lyrics at this stage no doubt seemed vital enough from the outside looking in, but once he actually GOT in that world, moved around and rubbed shoulders with those who’d lived the life he was trying to describe the more he must’ve realized how hollow his words actually were.

The story on Kiss My Wrist concerns a guy who gets dumped and while that might be something that anyone can relate to he’s presenting it from a perspective that was alien to him. This was no kid just out of school talking about a teenaged girlfriend breaking up with him after the football game, or even a first “adult” relationship that went awry because of differing life goals or petty jealousies and deceit. Nope, he tries to convince you these are the after effects of a messy long term affair between people on the edges of society, living life on a dead end street.

The details are left purposefully vague yet the tone of the sentiments suggest a couple who had no great prospects in life to look forward to, who fought over rent in a fleabag apartment, who sought temporary escape in frequenting the kind of dives that Pomus may have found alluring as an outsider, but which are anything but enticing if the high point of your week is spending your last five bucks at the bar in the hopes the cheap booze will make you forget your troubles until the hangover hits in the morning.

The lyrics are merely generalities bemoaning women who use their one natural advantage in life (namely their desirability), to try and move up in the world by attracting somebody in a slightly higher position, climbing up the social ladder one rung at a time, knowing all the while that they’ll never reach the top in an era where women were simply not “allowed” to have many actual careers to better themselves.

Pomus’s grievances are nothing more than the spouting off of a man who won’t even get one rung higher himself to attract such women and vents his frustration at being ditched with impotent anger, unable to do anything to win her back and unwilling to admit that his own shortcomings are as much to blame as her wandering eye. If you’ve been around the block once or twice you know this guy all too well – he’s the loudmouth at the end of that bar, the one looking merely to vent so he doesn’t have to face the cold harsh reality of his wasted life in the mirror.

But because he gives us only the surface image of this scene, one viewed only from a distance at that, he doesn’t get anywhere near the true emotions that are stirring underneath. It’s an empty rant, not a full-bodied song. He can’t pull out the deeper meanings because he doesn’t know what those meanings are, if he’s even aware they exist. Though certainly his own life was anything but idyllic he simply hadn’t been out in the world enough to understand or convey the full scope of emotions that marks a person’s slow descent into irrelevancy.

For those who live life on the margins it’s that gradual build up of self loathing that eats away at the soul over many years until you’ve become nothing more than a shell of a human being, stripped of all but the simplest of raw emotions which form the emotional truths he needs to be able to mine for this to work. Without a firm handle on that perspective he’s unable to breathe life into the characters he tries to embody and they became one dimensional and thus dismissible.

Tried To Break Me Down
Where it redeems itself ever so much is in the musical backing. This is where Pomus seems to have a clearer vision of the type of record he desperately seeks to imitate. Though he’s made the move from Savoy, one of the most established independent labels with a good track record – especially in terms of high quality production – to the upstart Derby Records label the musicians backing him here are tight and ably constructed.

This is a little surprising when we learn that they’re Freddie Mitchell’s band who we recently met on their own and while all were skilled musicians their initial forays into rock weren’t exactly setting the world afire. Yet here in support of Pomus they seem somewhat transformed as the horn section is sleek and modern and the rhythm gets emphasized in favor of the rather limited melody.

It’s the piano which carries the main thrust of the music and switches up its technique for different sections of the song, even as Pomus’s limited delivery remains virtually unchanged throughout. Mitchell’s tenor sax contributes mightily to the overall feel, both with timely interjections which give some semblance of musicality amidst the very perfunctory structure it’s saddled with and the solo – introduced by Doc with a hearty shout and backed by enthusiastic handclaps – is the unquestioned highlight of the record.

Coming in second in that regard is a solid electric guitar solo which follows the horn. Played with a sharp feel and hollow tone it gives the song much needed airiness amongst the more heavy handed atmosphere Pomus’s atonal shouting creates. This stretch is actually pretty good, the two instruments elevating the song one, very nearly two, notches over the dreck it otherwise was shaping up to be.

To be fair Pomus himself does have one good moment, the rapid fire bridge in which his semi-speaking singing voice isn’t quite as much of a detriment as it had been, barking out the orders Fly, run, swim, walk, obey me this morning, which at least relieves the monotony of his performance, if only ever so briefly. Sadly though even there the lyrics are pretty crass and based on those Neanderthal-like commands it’s certainly not difficult to comprehend why the girl in question left his sorry ass, only why it took her so long to do so.

She won’t be the only one leaving him based on these returns, the audience will be looking for the exits as well and if they convince Mitchell and the band to walk out too then Pomus will be left without a pot to piss in and his performing career will mercifully fizzle out. Alas that will still take a little while so we’re left to suffer through the results until he sees the light and leaves this avenue of musical expression behind for one he’s far more suited for.

Til The Rooster Crows This Morning
Few people in rock’s long sordid history became as well-liked as Doc Pomus and for good reason. Once he found his true calling and honed his craft over time his songs became reflections into his own soul, as well as poignant reminders of all that may still be worthwhile about humanity. His success at it gave outlet to his natural generosity as those in the business sought him out for advice and to merely talk to someone who liked to talk and to ruminate on life.

But the occasional downside of such venerability is that it obscures the truth behind his earlier failures – not personal failures, merely professional flops. His song catalog as a performer isn’t well known enough to engender any widespread praise, but among those who talk and write about Pomus with genuine affection there does seem to be a voluntarily blind spot to just how unsuited he was for this particular career path.

The fact that it led to the one which he WAS right for and would excel at for so long may make his own recording career worthwhile in a roundabout way but it doesn’t – or shouldn’t – obscure the fact that when judging the records and his performances as an artist he was badly overmatched.

Enthusiastic and committed, yes. Talented and effective, not in the least.

I think you’ll find in life that MOST people, even most successful people, don’t wind up making their greatest contributions in the field they started out in. One thing really DOES lead to another as the saying goes and the wonderful thing about it all is that you never quite know what that “other” avenue might be or where it might take you.

That doesn’t make the original goals and the long since forgotten starting point any less important than the eventual landing spot, if anything it makes them MORE important because the tentative steps down a series of dead end streets gradually get replaced by confident steps in the right direction and so you can’t hold the false starts in life against someone.

And we’re not holding records as bad as Kiss My Wrist against Doc Pomus or his impressive legacy, but rather saying that the greatest teacher in life is often failure and the students who aren’t too pig-headed to learn from those losing propositions are the ones who will more often than not be successful in the end.


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