Various artists

Forward/Rhino R2 71878, 1995

The phenomenon of tribute albums has been a mixed blessing. Certainly the post-Beatles if-you-don't-do-your-own-material-you-stink syndrome, never all that artistically valid in the first place, has been dealt a long-overdue blow. Then again, some songs simply should not be redone, as anyone who bought the Zeppelin pastiche The Song Retains the Name found out in a big hurry.

Cover artThe greatest of all the tribute albums, therefore, skirts the issue by paying its homage, not to a performer, but to a songwriter, and one of the best ever to be translated into wax: Doc Pomus, born Jerome Solon Felder in 1925 and reborn in the Forties as a bluesman par excellence. Not exactly what one might have expected of a Jewish kid from Brooklyn with polio, but once Doc got his groove, first as a singer and then as a songwriter, you couldn't imagine him doing anything else.

Pomus wrote hundreds of songs. Some, notably with collaborator Mort Shuman, are revered as pop classics. Some are the purest kind of R&B. And some simply defy categorization. The fourteen songs included in this collection add substantially to the level of defiance. Los Lobos pounce on "Lonely Avenue" and extract from it the maximum degree of fright. Lou Reed strips "This Magic Moment" to its emotional core. Shawn Colvin finds the uneasy undercurrents beneath "Viva Las Vegas". Dr. John imbues "I'm on a Roll", which he wrote with Pomus two weeks before Doc died in 1991, with all the what-the-hell attitude that defines New Orleans. Rosanne Cash, struggling to maintain her reserve during "I Count the Tears", actually makes me cry. The only real misfire here is Brian Wilson's attempt at "Sweets for My Sweet"; his ravaged voice and shrill pseudo-wistfulness serve only to remind us how much we miss the Drifters. The Searchers, even.

There are two or three good reasons to drop everything and go buy this disc. For one thing, you'll be helping out the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which gets the proceeds. Gerri Hirshey's liner notes get to the heart of the man as easily as to the subtexts of the songs. And, perhaps more to the point, if you've ever wondered about the precise meaning of the ter