Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bert Berns' Seven-Year Itch

by Andy Schwartz

“Okay…so you scratch your head, you look at the guy who represents the company and he’s dead serious. Furthermore, he’s telling you all the sweet things a weary producer loves to hear:  ‘Money’s no object…Get all the down cats you need…Just give ‘em soul.’ So you finish scratching your head and you reach for the nearest phone. You’re cooking, you’re really cooking! So you call Teacho Wiltshire to make the arrangements, and he says ‘okay.’ Then you get tensed up because it hits you like a rock about all the things you’ll need – songs, the right artists, the right sounds…Give ‘em soul. The next couple of days your desk is piled up with all the great R&B records of the past, including a few original things which will knock everyone out. And then, right smack between all that sweet confusion, all the empty and grotesque coffee containers and crushed cigarette butts, it was there. I mean pow!” 

- Bert Berns, from his liner notes for Capitol LP George Hudson Presents Give ‘Em Soul

Really, it’s all there, in his own words – maybe not the details, but the atmosphere of a Bert Berns production. You feel the sense of near–desperate improvisation, the need to make something out of nothing. The desk “piled up with all the great R&B records of the past” – the better to pinch a time–tested hook, riff, or chorus. The “original things that will knock everyone out” – because after all, the same Berns original (or a variation of it) already knocked everyone out the previous two times he cut it with other singers, and if it didn’t…hey, third time’s the charm, right?

And always, the insatiable demands of Capital: To give ‘em soul, or a Western–flavored folk song, or a Latin boogaloo, or a dance named for a zoo animal because that’s what’s happening right now or at least what somebody thinks might be happening in about three weeks which is when they’re planning to release this record he’s trying to create from nothing. The red light is on in the control room, the union clock is running, the studio bills are starting to pile up, but Bert is cooking, he’s really cooking and…pow!

In this hothouse atmosphere, in a career that spanned just seven turbulent years, Bert Berns created a handful of songs and recordings that echo to the present day: “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers, “My Girl Sloopy” by The Vibrations, “Here Comes The Night” by Them, “Piece Of My Heart” by Erma Franklin, “Brown–Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “Tell Him” by The Exciters.

“His unique voice as a songwriter, producer and record man is so deeply ingrained into the fabric of pop music, it has become common parlance,” writes veteran music journalist Joel Selvin in the introduction to his forthcoming biography Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns &; The Dirty Business Of Rhythm & Blues. Berns’ songs, says Selvin, “have been covered, quoted, cannibalized, used as salvage parts and recycled so many times, his touch has just dissolved into the literature. His name may be lost, but his music is everywhere.”

There are the records everyone knows. There are the records everyone should know but that arrived stillborn, or expired soon after delivery: “My Tears Are Dry” by Hoagy Lands, “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” by Dotty Clark, Ben E. King’s searing “It’s All Over,” Lulu’s towering rendition of “Here Comes The Night.” And then there are the records that make you scratch your head – like the guy in the Give ‘Em Soul liner notes – and wonder who thought that sounded like some kind of a hit.

Time: There never seemed to be enough of it for the child born to a Russian Jewish immigrant couple in the Bronx on November 8, 1929, to whom his free–thinking father gave the name Bertrand Russell Berns in honor of the renowned British philosopher. Bert was fourteen when he contracted rheumatic fever, a condition that he knew even then would shorten his life.

A bright but restless and inattentive student, he never graduated from his Miami boarding school. He liked to sing, play the piano, and strum his nylon–string acoustic guitar. Bert dug the big bands and Latin dance orchestras he heard at Grossinger’s, the fabled kosher Catskills resort where his parents were wed and where they spent every August for the rest of their lives. During a trip to Cuba in 1958, he immersed himself in the island’s rich musical culture: The chords of “Guantanamera” would form the basis for many a Bert Berns song to come. But at the age of 30, he was still living in his parents’ Bronx home, having failed at such music–related ventures as the first record by future Las Vegas lounge queen Eydie Gormé.

Things began to pop when an old–school music publisher, Robert Mellin, hired Bert to be his firm’s conduit to teenage music. Berns and the African–American songwriter Phil Medley came up with “Push Push,” recorded by Austin Taylor in a somewhat goofy but undeniably infectious production rife with Berns’ trademark Caribbean undertones. The Laurie Records release struggled to #90 on the Hot 100 – Bert’s first song to make the charts. September 1961 brought a career breakthrough when a Richmond VA group called the Jarmels made it all the way to #12 with his song “A Little Bit of Soap.”

Bum ticker be damned: Bert Berns was off and running. In the summer of ’62, he took the Isley Brothers all the way to #2 with “Twist and Shout,” a Berns/Medley song and a Bert Berns production. On February 11, 1963, it became the last song recorded by the Beatles in nearly nine hours of recording for their debut album Please Please Me. (“Twist And Shout” was later covered by Johnny Rivers, Mae West, Booker T. & the MGs, The Mamas & Papas, and Rodney Dangerfield, among others.)

All through the 1950s, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler (along with Ahmet’s brother Nesuhi Ertegun and the gifted engineer Tom Dowd) had made musical history and impressive profits at Atlantic Records. Yet by early 1961, the label had turned stone cold and for eight long months failed to produce one Top Ten single; its two biggest stars, Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, both had defected to other companies.

It was Bert Berns who brought Atlantic back from the brink. Beginning with the December ’61 session that produced “Cry To Me,” Berns produced five consecutive Top 20 R&B songs for Solomon Burke including “If You Need Me” and “You’re Good For Me.” He succeeded Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller as producer of The Drifters, and brought forth “Under The Boardwalk,” “At The Club,” and “Saturday Night At The Movies.” Other Berns productions for The Vibrations and Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles failed to hit big. But they served notice on the industry that Atlantic could still create great pop/r&b records in–house and not simply license masters from smaller labels (cf. Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz” on the fledgling Stax Records of Memphis).

When Bert Berns made his second trip to England in October ’64, his fame as the co–composer of “Twist and Shout” preceded him. The brash, chain–smoking, toupee–topped producer was “an American archetype, a species entirely unknown in Britain – the Broadway record man,” writes Joel Selvin. “He reeked of Marlboros, cheap cologne and hit records...Berns called the shots and Decca’s rules were out.” Through his contacts at Decca Records, he hooked up with a band of Belfast hard cases called Them and their sawed–off lead singer Van Morrison; together they spent four days in the studio knocking Berns’ “Here Comes The Night” into shape. The single shot to #2 in the UK and even breached the US Top 30.

Berns’ original Atlantic version of his “My Girl Sloopy” by The Vibrations (co–written with Wes Farrell) only reached #26 R&B in ‘64, but the following year a rewrite of the song would become The McCoys’ #1 Pop smash “Hang On Sloopy.” The McCoys were on BANG, a new label founded by Berns with financial backing from the Atlantic partners and thus named for Bert, Ahmet, Nesuhi, and Gerald.

BANG became the launching pad for a struggling Brooklyn singer/songwriter named Neil Diamond, lofting him into the Top 20 with five successive singles beginning with “Cherry Cherry” in the summer of ’66. Less than two years after “Here Comes The Night,” Them were yesterday’s papers – but Berns sensed the raw talent in Van Morrison, and produced the sessions that begat the Irishman’s US #10 hit “Brown Eyed Girl” and his BANG debut album Blowin’ Your Mind! – the one with the ugly pseudo– psychedelic cover and ten minutes of blues torment called “T.B. Sheets.”

In his relentless climb to the top of the pops, Bert Berns had many helpers. Some were label owners, some were co–writers and publishers, some were studio musicians and engineers…and some were straight-up gangsters, to whom the fast–moving, streetwise record man turned for friendship, financing, and muscle. There was Tommy Eboli a/k/a Tommy Ryan, a mainstay of the Genovese family going back to the reign of Lucky Luciano; the Columbo underboss John “Sonny” Franzese; and Patsy Pagano, Berns’ lead negotiator with Jerry Wexler when the BANG/Atlantic relationship turned sour.

We can only guess at the effect these dark eminences might have had on Bert Berns’ career in a post–Sgt. Pepper world. On December 30, 1967, he died of a massive heart attack at age 38, leaving behind his wife Ilene and three children, the youngest born just three weeks before.

In his 2011 book Save The Last Dance For Satan, Nick Tosches quotes Joe Smith of Warner Bros. Records on what it took to buy out Van Morrison’s contract from the tangled web of BANG that Berns left behind: “I had to meet a guy at six o’clock at night on the third floor of a warehouse on Tenth Avenue in Manhattan. The guy said to bring the money [$20,000]. I wasn’t feeling very good about that…” But the deal got done, no out–of–town record executives were killed or injured in the process, and in November 1968 Van Morrison released his Warner debut, Astral Weeks. To the best of my knowledge, Morrison has never spoken publicly about his relationship with Bert Berns, not even after “Brown Eyed Girl” was named to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004.

Neil Diamond likewise remains silent. When in 2011 Sony Legacy released the outstanding and long–overdue anthology Neil Diamond: The BANG Years, 1966–1968, the singer wrote a reflective essay that fills fourteen pages of the accompanying booklet. In his text, Diamond name–checks everyone from his high school singing partner Jack Packer to studio engineer Brooks Arthur, while Bert Berns is referred to only as “an ‘independent producer’ (who unbeknownst to me had some nefarious silent partners)…” Elsewhere, Diamond refers to being signed by Jerry Wexler and to “being an artist on Atlantic Records” (which distributed BANG – Diamond never made a record on the Atlantic label).

“In the end, Berns’ career almost perfectly encapsulated the height of the New York independent record scene,” Joel Selvin summarizes. “He walked onstage in those days after the emergence of rock and roll when the New York music business utterly dominated the pop music universe. When he died seven turbulent years later, the day was done. Corporations started buying up the few independents still standing. New songwriters and new songs stocked the hit parade. The pop music world turned a page.”

The man is gone, but the songs live on. No bullshit: They really do. L’shanah tovah and thank you, Bert Berns.


"Push Push" mp3
by Austin Taylor, 1960.
available on The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist & Shout 1960-1964

"You'd Better" mp3
by Russell Byrd (Bert Berns), 1961.
available on The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist & Shout 1960-1964

"If Your Pillow Could Talk" mp3
by The Edsels, 1962.
out of print

"Hully Gully Lamb" mp3
by The Renaults, 1962.
out of print

"Cry To Me" mp3
by Betty Harris, 1963.
Lost Soul Queen

"Raise Your Hand" mp3
by Junior Lewis, 1963.
out of print

"Come On And Stop" mp3
by Marv Johnson, 1963. 
Available on The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist & Shout 1960-1964

"It's All Over" mp3
by Ben E. King, 1964.
available on Stand By Me

"If I Didn't Have A Dime" mp3
by The Furys, 1964.
out of print

"Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" mp3
by Hoagy Lands, 1964.
out of print

"Hello Walls" mp3
by Little Esther, 1964.
available on The Best Of Esther Phillips (1962-1970)

"Here Comes The Night" mp3
by Lulu, 1964.
available on The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist & Shout 1960-1964

"If I Would Marry You" mp3
by Tammy Montgomery, 1964.
available on The Bert Berns Story - Mr Success Volume 2: 1964-1967

"My Girl Sloopy" mp3
by The Vibrations, 1964.
available on Very Best Of The Vibrations

"There They Go" mp3
by The Exciters, 1965.
available on Something to Shout About!

"Ain't Gonna Cry No More" mp3
by LaVern Baker, 1965.
out of print

"Come Home Baby" mp3
by Wilson Pickett ( with Tami Lynn), 1965.
available on In the Midnight Hour

"A Little Bit Of Soap" mp3
by Garnet Mimms, 1966
available on Cry Baby

"Up In The Streets Of Harlem" mp3
by The Drifters, 1966.
available on Rockin & Driftin: Drifters Box

"Killer Joe" mp3
by The Kingsmen, 1966.
available on The Best of The Kingsmen

"Solitary Man" mp3
by Neil Diamond, 1966.
available on The Bang Years: 1966-1968

"I'm Gonna Run Away From You" mp3
by Tami Lynn, 1966.
available on Love Is Here & Now You're Gone

"Are You Lonely For Me Baby" mp3
by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, 1967.
available on King & Queen

"Madame George" mp3
by Van Morrison, 1967.
available on Bang Masters

"Baby Come Home" mp3
by Led Zeppelin, 1968.
available on The Complete Studio Recordings


Holly George-Warren said...

Great essay, Andy! I once saw Solomon Burke at the Cannery in Nashville. At the lip of the stage was a dolled-up woman with a rose -- she handed it up to the massive Mr. Burke. He immediately recognized her and introduced her to the audience as Mrs. Bert Berns, the widow of a great man, producer & songwriter whom he loved...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful ! Thanks Andy, TB !

Anonymous said...

If Berns had done nothing but Twist & Shout, Piece of My Heart and Here Comes the Night, he'd still be one of my favorites. But though I've known about Pomus & Shuman, Lieber & Stoller and the Erteguns for years, I only discovered Berns fairly recently. He's way overdue for a good biography, and I'm looking forward to reading Selvin's book.

JohnnyDiego said...

Just one question:
How many times can I play "Hully Gully Lamb" by The Renaults before the MP3 wears out?
Fantastic! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Really great essay. I've always wanted to know about Berns. He wrote and produced so many great records but seems largely overlooked. I'm glad to see this rectified and am looking forward to the bio. (Just Googled it and the intro is up at )

I may be wrong but I'm under the impression that he and Van Morrison were not on good terms and the end.

Also, one complaint: a whole article about Berns without mentioning the burning sides he cut with Freddie Scott!?!

Thanks for another great piece.


Dan Hodges said...

Splendid essay, Andy. I've added The Furys' "If I Didn't Have A Dime" to my discography at (on the page for the theme of "The Happiness of Love").

stoney said...

Great stuff. I am glad to see this blog is still running. I hope you keep it up in 2013!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the article.

Will Rigby said...

Good one, Andy. Strangely, I was just thinking a couple of days ago that I didn't know as much about BB as I oughta. Thanks to you and Ted.

Gustavo Gomes said...


Jimmy Holcomb (Treblephone) said...

Just finished the biography about Bert and am looking so forward to hearing all these songs I just read about....thank you very much.