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SAVOY 5545; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 

 


Another rock ‘n’ roll first, this one probably a bit unexpected, for who among you thought the very first rock release by a white artist would be this record?!

If you didn’t, don’t worry you’re surely not alone.

 

The Pott Calling The Kettle Black
Rock ‘n’ roll of course was invented entirely by black artists and performed by such almost exclusively* until 1952 when Bill Haley jumped on board and thus began a gradual influx of Caucasians over the next few years. Eventually by the mid-60’s or so the racial makeup of rock was roughly split 50/50 where it’s remained ever since, the ultimate cultural melting pot.

But that integration had to begin somewhere and in a way Doc Pomus is the perfect figure to bridge that divide, as he was ideally representative of the racial-ambiguity among early white rock performers that led an intrepid few to forsake the social and cultural advantages their natural pigmentation afforded them and plunge into a world where THEY would be the minority outsiders.

Much like Johnny Otis (* = the betting favorite at the post for this blog as to which white artist would have this “first” designation), Pomus was born to white parents, which I suppose wasn’t his fault because like most babies he wasn’t consulted on the matter. But once the self-identity choices were left in his own hands he made the conscious decision to immerse himself in black culture which is how he came to find his true voice.

At the risk of getting (far) ahead of ourselves, Doc Pomus’s role in rock’s evolution of course wasn’t limited to this statistical first. Far from it. Few figures in rock’s first two decades of ANY background would make as big of an imprint on the music as Pomus would, but in his case most of that would come after he gave up trying to perform it.

By the late 1950’s he was established as one of the best songwriters in the business which is where he’d make his name and cement his legend. During that time it’s doubtful anyone buying his classic compositions performed by The Drifters, Dion & The Belmonts, Ray Charles and the ultimate white-Negro Elvis Presley, were even aware Pomus once sung this kind of music before any of those artists had even cut their first record.
 


 

Roll It Up
The story of Doc Pomus, the polio-inflicted overweight Jewish kid on crutches who fashioned himself a new name and identity (originally he was Jerome Felder) and began performing as the only white in black clubs when he was just out of his teens, is the stuff of legend if only for the amount of sheer ballsy confidence it required to even attempt it. But stripping away that fascinating background we’re left simply to consider the results once he’s in the studio – or on stage – and like all artists what matters isn’t the road he took to get there, but what he does once he’s in front of the microphone.

I’m sure Doc wouldn’t want it any other way.

Unfortunately My Good Pott is notable ONLY for those side conditions. Without them we’re probably not reviewing this even though it IS roughly serviceable early rock, recognizable for sure, mildly competent maybe, but even with its perverse storyline (for the day that is) the record itself is otherwise mostly unmemorable.
 

 
 

The song refers to marijuana, in case you thought it was about a cooking apparatus, and he cloaks it in just a flimsy enough disguise to suggest it might be about a girl, but that’s not fooling anybody in the know, which of course meant the entire audience for this sort of record.

These types of songs were fairly commonplace from the 1920’s-1940’s but the appeal of them all, this one included, always seemed to be merely in the NOTION of what they’re singing about is taboo and thus they’re breaking the stigma in a sly way with a wink and a smile which the hep audience is supposed to appreciate and feel as if they’re in on the “secret”. But like a five year old saying a dirty word the novelty wears off as soon as you realize there’s no one around to scold you for it, nor anyone around to be impressed by your risking censure for daring to utter it aloud.

So that means the music is going to have to be strong enough to carry My Good Pott in case the potency of the drug fails to elicit a high on its own. But the rhythm is very basic, almost a simplistic distillation of what made rock stand out, here carried mainly by piano and lightly swinging drums augmented by a horn section that like so many of the day is a step behind the curve in its construction.

Yet that rhythm, as rudimentary as it is, winds up being the best aspect of the record. “Best” of course is a relative term and here it refers to just being the most recognizable feature in an otherwise bland and unimaginative arrangement. It doesn’t do anything to stand out but the fact it exists ties it in with more ambitious rock sides that used something similar as the underpinning to more exciting tracks.

The horns, as stated, don’t help, though they’re not hurting it much either. The brass section employs trumpets and as we all know from past reviews the trumpet’s lingering prominence in arrangements remains a dubious proposition for many a rock release as they were still being played with jazzier inflections unlike the more boisterous saxophones which had shown far more variance already and thus distanced rock from what preceded it. But even though it’s the sax that get the solos here they’re not very exciting ones and so it all just blends in.

So we’re left focusing on the man in the spotlight, someone atypical to be sure but performing with the best of intentions, completely sincere in his efforts and striving mightily to be more than merely a curiosity, a groundbreaking figure and little else.
 

Just One Touch
Doc Pomus’s role model was Big Joe Turner, whom we’ll be meeting shortly and whose voice was the envy of all his peers, strong and resonant, able to be heard over the roar of artillery fire if need be, all without losing so much as a hint of his ability to shade each line with a wide arsenal of inflections.

Doc Pomus is no Big Joe Turner. But then again who is?

Pomus tries his best and while he was a beefy guy his voice comes more from the larynx than the diaphragm and it simply doesn’t carry well enough for the type of singing he wants to project. As a result his voice sounds thinner and more reedy than would be effective. Only midway through when he almost starts shouting does the urgency come close to replicating the obvious example of Turner’s delivery and even so it’s but a shadow of his avowed inspiration.

Making matters worse are the backing vocalists, who sound like a cast of bewildered drunken middle-aged men dragged off bar-stools in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, telling you all you need to know about their work ethic, their lot in life and their decided lack of ambition, not to mention their abilities as singers, which is pretty much non-existent. Their answering Pomus on the title line in nasal and vaguely ethnic deliveries sours what should be the most naturally rousing aspect of the song in the usually reliable call and response effect. Here it’s just grating.
 

Ready To Flip
Yet all of this, while unfortunate, doesn’t obscure the most surprising shortcoming of My Good Pott which is the song itself, as written, is so disappointing. For a figure like Pomus, who’d go on to write as many immortal songs as almost anybody, to have such a weak composition to try and sell himself with is just disheartening.

There’s no story here, just a collection of random verses extolling the virtues of marijuana. In today’s world where smoking a blunt is widely accepted, increasingly legal and far from stigmatized, the lyrics don’t even draw a smile. Truthfully, societal repression of the era aside, they shouldn’t be worth more than a smirk even in 1948.

Weed has a sweet smell… you don’t say! What a shocking revelation! Somebody notify the press.

He enjoys it more than he should? Wow, okay, but the same could be said about masturbation, fried foods or the Russian Ballet for that matter, it’s still not anything that is worth singing about unless the WAY it’s sung – and written – stands out for some reason other than the mild stigma attached to the act of lighting up itself and here that’s definitely not the case.

The biggest problem is My Good Pott doesn’t lead anyplace, which I suppose may be ironically appropriate for the act of getting baked but also for the type of endless bandstand journeys that Turner and others specialized in, where they’d sing the same song for hours without repeating a verse, the momentum building with the audience’s anticipation… and participation… helping to create a mood to carry the song even higher (no pun intended). But on a record that needs to clock in at under three minutes that’s a talent that is of absolutely no use and the type of songs relying on that kind of delivery wears thin pretty quickly, especially since none of the individual lines are memorable.

The song just wanders as a result, an amateurish, if enthusiastic, third rate club performance. The sad thing is there ARE signs that he knew what he was doing but just didn’t have the command of his own abilities, or that of the writing, producing, band-leading aspects, to pull it together.

The best you can say is despite of its many shortcomings it churns along effectively, never loses sight of the melodic thrust, there are no wild incoherent indulgent horn solos to dampen the mood as happened so often around this time, the backing vocalists, while ill-suited for their roles, at least deliver their lines in the right frame of mind, and Pomus himself sells it like the true believer he was.

But the same could be said for dozens of other far less notable and compelling figures than Doc Pomus.
 

 

Which brings us back to the obvious… Pomus was indeed an alluring character on stage back then to black audiences who accepted him as one of their own, but there’s also the inescapable perception that it was almost entirely because he was white, crippled and committed to black music which made him a curiosity, rather than embracing him for an appreciation of his talents.

That’s not in any way meant to downplay his legitimacy and certainly his presence on the scene, even if it was confined to small clubs in New York and New Jersey and a handful of records that were barely heard, was important for opening up the mere idea that this music as a whole had appeal across demographic borders. But that’s all it means at this point because the product he was putting out was subpar and we don’t give bonus points for merely being first at anything.

Rest assured Pomus will have no shortage of acclaim on these pages over the next two decades, but while this record is indeed notable in an historic sense for cultural reasons, it’s ultimately dismissible for musical reasons, which in the end is what we grade things on – a level playing field for everybody.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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