Bert Berns: Original Rhythm and Blues

Bert Berns was a pioneer of a new style of rhythm and blues, one that pulsated with Afro-Cuban notes.

| May 2014

  • Bert Berns wrote many of the songs that we still know today, and was a pioneer of the golden age of rhythm and blues.
    Photo by Fotolia/Barbara Helgason
  • "Here Comes the Night" by Joel Selvin is a definitive account of the golden age of rhythm and blues, as well as a harrowing and tragic telling of the life and career of Bert Berns.
    Cover courtesy Counterpoint Press

Throughout the course of a meteoric career fueled by uncanny talent and a fury to succeed, Bert Berns wrote some of the most indelible songs of the 20th century: "Twist and Shout," "I Want Candy," and others. Here Comes the Night (Counterpoint Press, 2014) is the result of author Joel Selvin's sixteen years of research and writing of the life of Bert Berns. This excerpt from the introduction shows a man at the forefront of a new movement in rhythm and blues.

Bert Berns was one of the great originals of the golden age of rhythm and blues. He prospered and thrived under the auspices of Atlantic Records, a company devoted to authentic, vibrantly musical rhythm and blues records at the forefront of the art form. Under the beneficent encouragement of Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, Berns developed into one of the leading record men of his day. His records with Solomon Burke established Burke as one of the most formidable figures of the rhythm and blues world, shoulder to shoulder with peers such as Sam Cooke, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and Ray Charles. He brought the heart of the mambo into rock and roll—not the supple Brazilian samba rhythms found in records by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller or Burt Bacharach, but fiery Afro-Cuban incantations that pulsed with sex and sin. Almost alone among his contemporaries on the New York scene, Berns traveled to England as his song “Twist and Shout” rose as an anthem to a new generation of British musicians, where he made key records in the country’s pop transformation. As he devoted more time to running his own record label, Bang Records, Berns started the careers of future giants Van Morrison and Neil Diamond.

All the time Berns was making records, he was in a hurry. After falling ill with rheumatic fever as a teenager, Berns was told he wouldn’t live to see twenty-one. He didn’t even start in the record business until he was thirty-one years old, and once he started, success couldn’t come quick enough for him. He devoured his career. He vaulted from the ranks of the amateur into the highest realms of the music world in less than two years, and his ambition never flagged. The ever-present damaged heart drove him relentlessly, as it filled his waking hours with the terror of death, fears he masked with a carefree, happy-go-lucky façade. Tick…tick…tick. Only a few intimates knew that Berns was standing on a trapdoor. It leaked into his songwriting. Other writers could employ the songwriting clichés around hearts without irony, but for Berns, these similes and metaphors were his life. The cries by his singers came from deep within Berns. He was a man with a bum ticker and he carried his doom like a cloak around his shoulders. For Berns to write take it…take another little piece of my heart was a plea straight from his life. When his own dark tragedy combined with the pathos of his music, his life took on epic dimensions.

At the end of his life, as the stakes rose sharply and events spiraled out of his control, Berns associated with big-time operators in organized crime, both personally and professionally. It caused a fissure in his world, but Berns was comfortable with these men and what they represented. He was a man who needed to take shortcuts. Threatened by a fatal catastrophe, surrounded by a world where moral boundaries blurred easily, Berns broke some eggs making omelets. In the end, his inflexible fate collided with his greatest aspirations and their frustration, a cataclysmic denouement of almost operatic grandeur.

As long ago as 1976, Ben Fong-Torres in Rolling Stone called Berns “one of the great untold stories of rock and roll,” but there are a number of reasons why the story of Bert Berns has never been told before.

The performers rather than the creators of this music have been traditionally celebrated. Berns died more than forty years ago and never hired a press agent. Also he made powerful enemies during his lifetime who worked hard to erase his memory and diminish his accomplishments. When I first called Jerry Wexler, the man everybody most associates with Berns’s career, and told him I planned to work on this book, Wexler’s affable tone disappeared. “I’ll tell you this,” he said. “I don’t know where he’s buried, but if I did, I would piss on his grave.” On the other hand, when I told Wexler some time later that I had completed some initial chapters, he asked to read them and phoned back almost immediately. “Mesmerizing,” he said. That didn’t mean he changed his mind about helping with the book. “Hell, no,” he said. His own recollection of Berns captured in his published memoirs appears to have been largely cribbed from Charlie Gillett’s book on Atlantic Records, Making Tracks.

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