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Believe it

AKA Doc Pomus reveals a rare songwriter



The old adage that "truth is stranger than fiction" is somewhat self-evident in that even the wildest tales of the imagination spring from some kernel of actuality. In terms of cinematic storytelling, though, there is little doubt that fiction holds the upper hand over fact—story creators, executors and consumers all generally gain power the further away they get from the truth.

The beauty of the relatively recent surge in documentary filmmaking lays in the order-of-magnitude increase in access to the great mass (and mess) of humanity from whence all stories arise. Because even if it's true that most humans live mundane lives (as a romantic, I believe the opposite), the laws of probability (as a rationalist, I do subscribe) dictate that some number of those stories truly are stranger than fiction.

Take, for example, the story of Jerome Solon Felder, born in Brooklyn in 1925. The son of Jewish immigrants, the husky Felder was an extremely active boy until his parents sent him, at age 6, to a summer camp to avoid the polio epidemic in the city. But the disease found him there, resulting in a physical life constrained first by crutches and then, after an accident as a young adult, by a wheelchair.

The young, suddenly sedentary Felder found solace in the radio, and was particularly drawn to the music upswelling from a dynamic generation of African-American musicians, whose struggles and expressions of pain mirrored Felder's own sense of ostracism. At the age of 17, his presence at a blues club was questioned by the owner of the place, and Felder's response that he was a blues singer was met with the challenge of proving it.

He enjoyed a moderately successful career as a songwriter and singer, until the age of 31, when perhaps the best song he had ever written and sung was killed by the record company who bought it, most likely because they discovered its source to be not a prototypical long-suffering black man but a long-suffering Jewish cripple from Brooklyn.

So Felder began writing songs for other performers, first for his childhood idol Big Joe Turner and then for an increasingly diverse array of blues and R&B artists like The Drifters ("This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance For Me"), Dion and the Belmonts ("A Teenager in Love"), Ray Charles ("Lonely Avenue") and even Elvis Presley ("Little Sister," "Suspicion," "Viva Las Vegas").

From there, Felder's life exploded, as he would collaborate with notables like Phil Spector, Dr. John and B.B. King. Bob Dylan sought out Felder to help him with lyrics during a dry spell, and Felder discovered a young talent in the early '60s by the name of Lou Reed (if those tidbits alone don't qualify as stranger than fiction, I don't know what would).

Felder's huge personality and even bigger heart would endear him to musicians, artists and beautiful women, several of whom became long-term companions. He would get elected to both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Early on in his career, the savvy Felder invented a stage name for himself, and "Doc Pomus" was born. AKA Doc Pomus is the film that tells his nearly unbelievable story, and if you need any further proof of how enjoyably and soundly truth beats fiction in this case, consider this: Jimmy Scott, a once-notable jazz vocalist whom Felder had unsuccessfully championed during his life, sang at Felder's funeral in the early '90s and was subsequently rediscovered.

Yeah, you can't make this stuff up.

AKA Doc Pomus plays at the Roxy Theater Fri., Nov. 8–Sun., Nov. 10.

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