A song can be the result of a long and roundabout journey, one with roads off the beaten path that dart off here and careen there.
Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue” indicates some hard traveling. There’s much history in what inspired Pomus. There’s history in the making of the song and there’s history in the impact of the song.
“Lonely Avenue” offers perspective on the pain of Calvary’s hill – and the pain of a junkie. The journey behind the song included a childhood trip that Pomus, afflicted with polio, made to Warm Springs, Georgia. Among the others seeking treatment in Warm Springs was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just elected President of the United States. There Pomus experienced the thrill of meeting FDR. More than 40 years later, Doc would meet John Lennon, but Lennon appeared the most thrilled on that occasion. “It’s such a pleasure,” Lennon declared,”to finally meet the legendary Doc Pomus.”
“Lonely Avenue” was at the start of something big in Liverpool. And across the Atlantic, on the streets of New York City, the song is associated with the rigorous driving of the composer, who found a happy place, hosting his own birthday parties with Popeyes fried chicken and adult beverages, maybe not that far from Lonely Avenue.
Doc Pomus (born Jerome Solon Felder), a friendly, athletic kid, was forced to deal with the tough breaks early. How early? At age 7. It was then he was struck by polio, a disease that afflicted an average of 13,000 to 20,000 Americans each year of the 20th century before a vaccine was introduced in 1955. By that year, at the age of 30, Doc Pomus was working hard in the music business. Doc didn’t wallow in the blues. He learned to sing them. Better yet, he learned to write them. On his “Lonely Avenue,” Pomus described a strong case of the blues, one emerging from behind the wheel of a specially equipped two-door Chevy.
Pomus biographer Alex Halberstadt places us in the car along with Doc in Lonely Avenue, The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus. Halberstadt reports that Pomus wrote “Lonely Avenue” while driving his Chevy following an afternoon he spent tinkering with his brakes and crutches.
“Lonely Avenue” doesn’t conjure a typical, desolate strip, like some back road. There’s heartache and abandonment on every corner. Pomus created an avenue where the unlucky in life and love stagger and drift aimlessly. The way ahead doesn’t seem that smooth either. The words Pomus came up with cut hard. Deep pain lingers. Halberstadt notes Pomus copped a “leaden 2/4 beat” from “How Jesus Died,” a song by the gospel group, the Pilgrim Travelers. Doc’s working his hand-operated Chevy as it moves with the beat.
Now my covers they feel like lead
And my pillow feels like stone
Well I’ve tossed and turned so ev’ry night
I’m not used to being alone
I live on a lonely avenue
My little girl wouldn’t say I do
But I feel so sad and blue
And it’s all because of you
I could cry, I could cry, I could cry
I could die, I could die, I could die
Cause I live on a lonely avenue
Doc’s Chevy pounded the New York streets as he worked on his song, one that evoked the feelings conveyed by the Pilgrim Travelers. The gospel group’s recording of the song is both stark and thrilling. Whether heard from a sacred or purely musical perspective, the power of the song’s story is undeniable. While Doc was taking his ride, images of pain like that of Christ on his lonely walk up Calvary’s hill or of a 7 year old boy at summer camp contacting polio may have been considered. Doc Pomus could pack a lot of loneliness and imagery in a song.
Ray Charles recorded a compelling version of “Lonely Avenue” in 1956. It peaked at #6 on the R&B charts. The performance by Charles is haunting and infectious. According to Joel Alan Friedman in Tell The Truth Until They Bleed, the darkness in the song registered with those feeling desperate over more than lost love.
“Mac (Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John) always said that was the ‘junker blues’ – junker being the old term for junkie,” explained Doc. “It’s a certain kind of monotonous, sad, melodic and lyrical line that, because of the continuity involved, for some reason has always attracted junkies. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, I imagine they’re shuffling along to it or something. All the junkies, Mac told me, thought I was a junkie. They said somebody who wasn’t could never have written ‘Lonely Avenue.” Mac couldn’t believe how straight I was.”
The junkie’s perspective is different than what is gathered from the story of Calvary, but Ray Charles could work his way through various emotions. He learned his music in the church and learned of life’s rough edges on the streets. Charles’ earthy and moving version of “Lonely Avenue” is informed by both worlds.
“Lonely Avenue” was a big breakthrough for Pomus. And the hits kept coming. His songs were recorded by Bobby Darin, The Drifters, Joe Turner, Dion and the Belmonts and others, including Elvis Presley.
Doc Pomus wrote over 20 songs for Presley, but the two never met. On June 9, 1972, Pomus was at the New York Hilton where Presley was holding a press conference. Surely this would be the best chance for the two to meet. Doc wheeled his chair toward the podium but was stopped by Colonel Parker (the J. Edgar Hoover of the music business). Parker acted as if he just wanted to talk, but really he wanted to keep the rotund guy in the wheelchair from his boy. Never mind that the guy in the wheelchair had written “A Mess of Blues,” “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame,” “Kiss Me Quick,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Little Sister” and other hits for Presley. Pomus thought again of that day a little more than five years later as he watched Presley’s funeral on TV. Just two weeks earlier he and Presley talked on the phone, making plans to finally get together.
At a BMI awards dinner in ’73, Pomus finally got to meet John Lennon. The two talked throughout the evening. Politics were discussed but music was covered as well. Lennon told Pomus how the Beatles had used part of the melody from “Save The Last Dance For Me” in “Hey Jude.” More historical was Lennon’s revelation that “Lonely Avenue” was the first song the Beatles ever rehearsed together. The next year Lennon would produce Harry Nilsson’s version of “Save The Last Dance For Me,” perhaps Doc’s best known song (co-written with longtime collaborator Mort Shuman). It’s Nilsson at the mic, but it’s Lennon’s sound that carries the recording.
All Out Efforts .… There are lonely streets in San Francisco, some not that far from the theater district and legendary restaurants. A short distance from the galleries and posh restaurants is the Tenderloin. The depressed, disconnected and despondent walk the neighborhood’s streets. Some streets in the Tenderloin are tougher than the lonely strip Doc imagined. But a walk back up the hill, in the vicinity where Sam Spade tried to make sense of things in The Maltese Falcon, leads to the architectural splendor and breathtaking views of Nob Hill. At 1111 California Street, near the Fairmont and The Top of the Mark is the Masonic Auditorium. On the night of December 18, 1993, residents and tourists walking past the auditorium may have felt some trembling, but the shaking was coming from inside. Van Morrison was leading his magnificent band in a powerful rendition of “Lonely Avenue.”
Morrison and his band, featuring blues great Jimmy Witherspoon, presented a 15 minute medley of blues and rock standards with “Lonely Avenue” serving as the centerpiece. Played harder, faster and louder than on other renditions, including the one on his album, “Too Long In Exile,” Morrison brought a new flourish to “Lonely Avenue.” Featured on the album , A Night In San Francisco, this version of Doc’s classic is sensational. Morrison and Witherspoon revel in the high energy, taking turns on the vocals. The two great performers bring the song to a close as the intensity mounts. Morrison and Witherspoon, joined by the back-up singers, lay it all on the line, belting out “I could die, I could die, I could die, ’cause I live on a lonely avenue, a lonely avenue.” Loneliness has rarely sounded so triumphant. The crowd in the Masonic Auditorium roared its approval at the conclusion of the medley (entitled “Lonely Avenue/4 O ‘Clock In The Morning” on the album), no doubt already thrilled with the evening. Every artist who appreciates a smart audience wants to excel in San Francisco. Morrison not only excelled that night, he owned the town.
Doc Pomus, however, on any given day or night, held court at his apartment on West Seventy-second Street in Manhattan. It was there he hosted his birthday parties, with Popeyes fried chicken and dirty rice that his guests, numbering in the hundreds, could wash down with beers or even champagne, delivered in a crate by John Belushi and put on ice in the bathtub. This wasn’t a Nob Hill soiree, but try imagining a better night than one that included greeting Doc Pomus on his birthday, listening to the great songs on his Wurlitzer and munching on a drumstick.
The life of Doc Pomus inspires. He had a lot of tough breaks early in life and even with his achievements as a songwriter, there were still some tough days ahead. Yet he persevered, always making new friends, and continuing to write. In 1980, eleven years before Doc lost his battle with lung cancer, he gave B.B. King a tape of his most recent songs. King won a Grammy the next year for his recording of one of them, “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere.” It was a song that got to the heart of how Doc Pomus felt about his life, the struggles he faced, and his hopes. That better world was far from Lonely Avenue.