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APOLLO 401; MAY, 1949

 
 

 

One of the inevitable truisms in doing a project of this size and scope is that somewhere along the way you’ll be let down by records and artists that you had high hopes for.

Oftentimes you’ll find that somebody’s reputation overwhelms their output, or at least encourages you to focus inordinately on their few high points while ignoring their more frequent lows.

In the case of Doc Pomus we have someone who had no verifiable success as a singer and it’s only his later work as a songwriter for hire that elevated his name into the upper echelon of figures in rock history. But – maybe because of that, or just as likely because he was so widely admired personally by everyone who came in contact with him – there started to be a quiet reassessment of his own recording career which had flown well under the radar in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Nobody was exactly saying that his catalog was filled with overlooked gems or anything, that the listeners of the day missed out on somebody they would’ve absolutely loved had they just had the good fortune to hear his records, but there was a growing sentiment that suggested his musical output was somehow underrated and consistently solid.

I suppose it’s easy enough to see why that claim might not be challenged if this was all the information you had to go on – a legendary songwriter of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in rock, penning huge hits for The Drifters, Elvis Presley, Dion & The Belmonts, et. all, had an earlier career as a singer in which he happened to also be the very first white dude to cut rock records that sold little but were supposedly really good. That might not be so hard to believe and at the very least you’d be intrigued, even excited, to hear them for yourself.

Which is why it’s been such a let down to find out that for the most part they really weren’t any good at all.
 

 

Truism Number Two
Everybody is not good at everything.

In fact nobody is good at every single thing. Not even everything they WANT to be good at.

Doc Pomus might’ve wanted to be a great singer like his idol Big Joe Turner but he simply didn’t have the vocal pipes to come even remotely close to that goal. But then again Pomus, whose polio resulted in him using crutches since he was a kid, also wanted to be the heavyweight champion of the world and often dreamed that he’d be in the ring – on crutches no less – and would knock out his opponents with one vicious punch.

Needless to say he didn’t get that wish either, but that doesn’t make wishing for it in the first place worthless. Dreams are a big part of life – and a big part of becoming a rock star. This is a profession that exists on dreams after all but the downside to it is dreaming makes you vulnerable. You have to dream big to make it in the first place, but once you do those dreams will almost always come crashing down… like they did for Pomus.

Yet Doc still managed to carve out an existence singing in clubs for nearly a decade. He didn’t make much money, got little acclaim and because he was a short overweight white kid on crutches singing black music to black audiences was bound to be seen more as a curiosity than anything else, but he somehow managed to get his foot in the industry and hang around long enough to transition to his true calling, that of a songwriter for hire.

But that in of itself is a success story to be proud of, not to mention admiring the guts it took just to get on those stages in the first place where any ONE of his atypical physical characteristics would be reason enough to draw laughs or scorn, let alone being dealt a hand full of seemingly unplayable cards like he was.

So if we’re let down by the results of the records he made at the time, well… the fact we’re not only talking about those records here seven decades later but that the name ON those records is still widely known and widely admired – albeit for the second phase of his music career – probably means that things turned out okay for Doc Pomus in the end.

But even though that’s surely the case it still is nice to be able to report that THIS record, Naggin’ Wife Blues isn’t half bad. In fact you might even call it pretty good.
 


 

I Work Every Night
The shortcomings of Doc the singer – an under-powered voice which he overcompensates for with volume, not to mention a lack of range, technique and a tendency to barrel through every line as if he were rushing the goal line on fourth down – seem rather insurmountable, but he HAD shown a bit more nuance on some earlier non-rock sides, like Fruity Woman from the year before this, also on Apollo. Yet even there you knew he never had it in him to be a great vocalist.

So what changes things on Naggin’ Wife Blues that at least gets us to find something more tangible to admire about his efforts? I mean it’s the same band comprised largely of club musician friends of his that are playing behind him here who backed him on the flip side, Alley Alley Blues, without doing much to stand out. He wrote both tunes so it wasn’t a case of having a better song to work with necessarily. Which means it must be his voice… right?

Well, yes… to a degree. Oh make no mistake about it, he still has the same deficiencies as always but they’re reined in more here for some reason. I just can’t pinpoint that reason though. The melody is the same structure and pace as most of his other songs. In fact on stage when he was starting out Doc would tell the band just to play basic blues riffs in any key and he’d improvise and that’s apparently what he was still doing even in the studio, so you could swap out these vocals for his other songs and they’d still fit with the backing track for the most part, so there’s nothing about the song’s structure that improves upon his rather limited formula.

I guess it’s just one of those instances where everything sort of clicked and Doc’s voice comes off as evenly paced and measured as we’ve ever heard it. He still has some trouble modulating during the middle verses, letting himself get just a little too exuberant when the lyrics don’t fully call for that, but he never lets it get away from him as he’d done so often on other records.

The band is holding up their end of the bargain in all of this too, as Reggie Ashby’s piano gives us a steady rhythm and Reggie Williams’s guitar chips in with some nice chords to add some flavor to it, but there’s not much of an arrangement beyond those basics and as a result it has a workmanlike feel to it. None of them are trying to do too much, yet are still doing just enough of what it takes to get you in the groove.
 

When We Work Together Everything Is Alright
Surely that modestly low bar we’ve set, as welcome as it may be to see them finally reach it, isn’t enough to drag this up to respectability on its own. His phrasing may be more under control than usual but it’s still nothing to brag about and the band might be churning with reasonable efficiency but nobody’s playing anything that would be noticed on its own. So what does that leave us for areas that might be improved?

Oh yeah, the lyrics. The thing that – in time – Doc Pomus would go on to be known for.

That MUST be it!

Ummm, yeah… sorta anyway.

Let’s look at it this way, there are some pretty decent lyrics stuffed into Naggin’ Wife Blues which does indeed elevate the proceedings and help to make the record modestly enjoyable throughout. The problem is if you don’t listen closely they almost seem to belong to two totally different records!

I don’t mean he stole them from two other songs, but rather it’s as if he started writing about one topic and got sidetracked and it wound up being about another topic. They’re certainly tied in with one another, but it’s confusing at best and intentionally misleading at worst, which is a shame because there’s a few really good lines in here that shows he already was able to come up with some vivid imagery to put a song across.

The title of the song would indicate that this is a story about a guy with a battleaxe of a wife who berates him for everything he does, shows him no respect in public and offers no amorous physicality in private. On top of it all she probably has a running dialogue with everyone that stops by, from the milkman to the paper boy and all of the neighbors in their apartment building, about Doc’s foibles.

But he starts off by telling the listener, who are acting surrogates for the boys down the pool room or the corner bar, not to inform his mistress that he’s back in town because he’s afraid that harping wife of his will find out and shut their illicit romance down.

His MISTRESS?!?! I gotta be honest, I didn’t see that one coming!

We’ll pass over the improprieties of the affair for the time being, as these two seem like they need more qualified marriage counseling than can be provided by a rock history writer on a music blog, but suffice it to say the “plot” that’s set up by this introductory stanza is at the very least something a bit more juicy than your standard “my girl is leaving my sorry ass because I’m such a jerk and now I’m sad” storyline that is found on so many records.

Here Pomus isn’t sad at all, something the spry musical romping going on behind him makes clear enough even if you weren’t following the script closely, and so this situation which has him warning his buddies not to tell his wife for fear of reprisal and yet sounding excited while telling them, winds up coming across as contradictory.

But it’s not about the nagging wife, even though she gets the title and opening line to dupe you into thinking it IS about her, but rather the rest of the song focuses on his girlfriend who is bound to break up his marriage and who he just got done saying he can’t see her for that very reason, but whom he then starts talking about in such glowing terms that you can actually hear him getting increasingly horny as he goes on.

Doc lays out all of her great qualities, most of which have to do with the fact she’s the complete opposite of his little woman in that she doesn’t ask for nor expect anything out of him and would do whatever he asked of her up to and including sleeping out in the cold.

By the time he gets to the… ahhh climax… we actually hear her rapturous screams as he apparently ditched his friends and hightailed it to her apartment for a quickie in spite of being afraid of getting caught for his transgressions.

Actually that’s Williams providing the girl’s screams, but the payoff is effective all the same, but just not quite as impactful if he had made the entire situation a little clearer.
 

Ready For My Evening Ride
It doesn’t need a re-write just some editing. Better yet, how about a two sided record, not Part One and Part Two exactly, but rather two sides of the same coin?

The one that keeps the title Naggin’ Wife Blues would lay out his ongoing problems with his betrothed with far more depth, giving us some humorous and likely exaggerated details about what he sees as her shrewish behavior, maybe even poking fun at himself by complaining about things that she’s entirely justified in being upset about… like him coming in on payday somehow owing money to half the neighborhood from his various stops on the way home – blowing his check on three card monte games and buying a stake in someone’s crackpot invention for growing odorless garlic or something.

Then the OTHER side, let’s go ahead and give it a ridiculous name like Perfect Paramour Blues, would have him espousing on his ideal woman who is giving him all of this love that he’s not getting at home. As a kicker he could even end it by saying his wife finally divorced him, he got hitched to his sweetheart and now she’s nagging him just like his ex had done for years.

Oh well, I suppose that’s a little TOO ambitious for the record industry in 1949 but by stretching out the condensed version of the story that we get here it might’ve made a little more sense trying to figure out just which one he was singing about the whole time.

But what’s here is still the best we’ve gotten out of Doc Pomus the artist and for that we should be grateful. It’s never enjoyable tearing down a legendary figure, even if he was legendary for something other than what we were reviewing specifically.

While Naggin’ Wife Blues won’t win any awards, nor would it really even be worthy of being a minor hit during an era when there were just ten spots on the local territorial charts and no more than fifteen spots nationally to house all of the best records in rock, jazz, blues, gospel and black pop, there’s still enough here to make hearing it worth the effort and that counts for something.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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