Bert Berns: Original Rhythm and Blues

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Bert Berns wrote many of the songs that we still know today, and was a pioneer of the golden age of rhythm and blues.
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"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.

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.

The first time I asked him about Berns some twenty years earlier—when I first wrote a small article about Berns in the “Records” page of the San Francisco Chronicle, about the same time Ben Fong-Torres wondered in Rolling Stone about the story—he felt more sentimental. “He was my son,” Wexler said.

In 1960, Berns entered an enchanted village inhabited by a tribe of crazy geniuses. They made records and had no idea they were developing an entire school of art. They worked alongside each other. They collaborated. They competed. They copied each other. They stole from one another. They ate and drank together and used the same arrangers and musicians on their records, which they made at the same studios. They kept offices in the same buildings and rode the elevators together.

Almost the entire music business at the time was housed in two Midtown Manhattan office buildings. The Brill Building contained the established music business dating back to the swing era. Dozens of publishers, songwriters, and assorted ancillaries to the bustling music business kept offices there, from Duke Ellington to Johnny Marks, the Jewish Christmas song specialist who wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Two blocks away, busy warrens in 1650 Broadway teemed with scrappy comers who were practicing the dark arts of rock and roll, would-be usurpers with their eyes on big bucks and the hit parade. The two spheres blended into one seamy mass as rock and roll took over the charts and Berns stepped on the scene.

The story of Bert Berns lies buried under layers of history. Much of his music has gone unheard since its original release. Many of the details of the process have been lost to time. The participants themselves have difficulty recalling long-ago events that did not seem noteworthy to them at the time. “It’s like trying to remember wallpaper you hung forty years ago,” said Artie Butler, the arranger who made so many of these great records.

The rhythm and blues world in New York was a small pond full of big fish—“We were all characters,” said Morris Levy of Roulette Records—and the life and work of Bert Berns was intricately entwined in the inner workings of that little village. Along with Leiber and Stoller, Atlantic Records, Burt Bacharach, Hill & Range, George Goldner, and all the others, Berns made music history.

In a few short years, a handful of hustlers and obsessed visionaries watched the music they made move from tiny dark corners of society into the full glare of the mainstream pop arena, a staggering shift in the culture fed by converging forces of history. It was the richest gold strike in music business history, and the men who made it happen were tough, unscrupulous bastards who made up the rules as they went along.

In the end, Berns’s career almost perfectly encapsulated the height of the New York independent record scene and the fierce world of rhythm and blues. He walked onstage in those days after the emergence of rock and roll where the New York music business utterly dominated the pop music universe. When he died seven turbulent years later, the day was done. Corporations were buying up the last independents standing. New songwriters and new songs stocked the hit parade. The pop music world had turned a page.

These songwriters wrote all these songs expecting them to go up the charts, down the charts, and never be heard again. Shakespeare probably felt the same way. But their music never disappeared. It was embedded in the sounds of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all who came after. These songs became the new standards, publishing bonanzas that turned out to pay dividends long after the initial recordings’ lives on the charts ended. That was never part of the original grift.

Berns wasn’t the greatest of the era, although his best work was as good as anybody’s. But his unique voice as a songwriter, producer, and record man is so deeply ingrained in the vocabulary of pop music it has become common parlance. Songs of his such as “Twist and Shout,” “My Girl Sloopy,” or “Piece of My Heart” 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.

Like Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector, Berns was a disciple of Leiber and Stoller. They all studied at the feet of the masters. Bacharach turned Leiber and Stoller’s baion rhythms into gorgeous, baroque pop. He brought to the rhythm and blues world an uncommon and unexpected continental touch of high-art chamber pop he knew firsthand from conducting Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret act in all the European capitals.

Spector matched the majesty of Leiber and Stoller’s symphonic rhythm and blues with cacophonous mulch he borrowed from producer Frank Guida of Norfolk, Virginia, where Guida presided over clattering, blurry, throbbing productions on records by Gary “U.S.” Bonds and others he released on his own Legrand Records. Guida was an authentic barbaric primitive, and Spector took the basic Leiber and Stoller blueprint and filtered it through that gauzy sensibility to create a truly thunderous sound on his productions with the Crystals, the Ronettes, and other Philles Records acts.

Berns specialized in three-minute r&b grand operas, all emotional drama and gospel fury, always with Arsenio Rodriguez’s ritmo diablo insinuating itself between the lines. He transformed the Leiber and Stoller archetypes into yet another deeply personal scenario.

Drawing from the same rich talent pool of songwriters, arrangers, session musicians, engineers, and artists, these men made almost entirely different records with the same resources. Berns was the funky one, the street cat, the producer who spoke the musicians’ language. He was not a schooled musician like Bacharach, but he could read and write music. He played piano well enough to get his point across and could wring a galloping, signature sound out of his nylon-stringed guitar that stitches its way through a number of his productions, Berns working both sides of the glass.

Like most of his contemporaries, Berns depended on arrangers such as Garry Sherman or Teacho Wiltshire to pencil out his vision, but his records with the same arrangers and sidemen sound distinctly like Bert Berns records and bear little relation to work by the same people with other producers. During his first year in the record business, Berns fumbled around for his voice, but once he cemented his spiritual link to the mambo and rhythm and blues, he instinctively grew into an auteur, an artist who used personal themes to fashion universal messages.

Berns made fifty-one pop chart singles in seven years; nineteen in 1964, his first year as Atlantic Records staff producer, the same year the Beatles and other British rock acts swept America. He made a lot of records that didn’t hit the pop charts but sold r&b, almost took off regionally, bubbled under, and otherwise showed signs of life not indicated by the pop charts. He did records that never charted with important artists such as Tammy Montgomery, Wilson Pickett, and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles that rank among the best of their careers. He wrote or cowrote almost everything he recorded.

Berns worked with every major figure in his field at the time. He was closest to Wexler, but Atlantic founding partner Ahmet Ertegun also encouraged Berns. He wrote songs with Leiber and Stoller, one of the few outsiders the pair ever admitted to their songwriting circle. Burt Bacharach and Berns shared two sides of a crucial Gene Pitney single early in their careers, and Berns later reworked Bacharach productions with session vocalist Jimmy Radcliffe. Bacharach could be seen playing the piano at parties at Berns’s penthouse. Berns and Luther Dixon, one of the vastly underrated producers of the era, created “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers. Phil Spector not only produced the previous, little-known first version of Berns’s most famous song but also produced Berns himself as a vocalist named Russell Byrd.

With the great Aldon Music songwriting teams—Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin—Berns cut important records on their songs. Carole King does not recall meeting Berns—she well remembers his work—but she arranged and played piano on a hit single Berns sang, so they worked in the studio together. Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich were not only close friends with Berns, and pitched in making records on many of his sessions, but they also brought him their discovery, Neil Diamond, for Berns’s record label.

His touch suffused all his collaborations. His enthusiasm could not be contained. He was never a passive cowriter. Even on songs substantially written by Berns’s cowriter Jerry Ragovoy, Berns stamped his hallmarks all over the numbers, preserving at the same time Ragovoy’s voice—funky little touches like the “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon” part in Garnet Mimms’s “Cry Baby.”

Unlike other characters on the scene, Berns could also write songs by himself. Some of his collaborators, in fact, almost appear invisible in the final mix, as if they served as little more than sounding boards Berns rewarded with half the copyright.

He kept at the ready a collection of musical phrases, chord changes, and lyric ideas that he switched around willfully, shamelessly, resorting to familiar motifs that he could often open up in surprising and powerful new ways. He took an almost incidental guitar lick from a record he did with r&b vocalist Marv Johnson and turned it into the dramatic, glistening guitar part that anchors his record with British rock group Them, “Here Comes the Night,” played by twenty-year-old British session musician Jimmy Page. He rewrote the chord changes to “La Bamba” and the unofficial Cuban anthem, “Guantanamera,” over and over again, coming up with remarkably fresh approaches to the same basic song structure.

His songs entered the literature even during his lifetime. “Twist and Shout” reverberated around the world. His “My Girl Sloopy,” recast as “Hang On Sloopy,” was a number one hit in 1965 by the McCoys on his Bang Records, in addition to more than fifteen other versions recorded the same year. Janis Joplin did “Piece of My Heart” with Big Brother and the Holding Company less than a year after Berns made the Erma Franklin original. The British Invasion groups all cut Berns songs—Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, many others. When guitarist Jimmy Page recorded the debut album with his new band, the one track the group didn’t release from the sessions was a cover of Berns’s “Baby Come On Home,” which went by the working title “Tribute to Bert Berns” during those first Led Zeppelin sessions. Although they never met, John Lennon knew who Bert Berns was.

The career of Bert Berns played a huge part in the story of Atlantic Records, the landmark label that pioneered the spread of rhythm and blues. His critical role is largely missing from accounts of the company’s illustrious history, at least in part, because of who was left to tell the story. History belongs to those who write it, and Atlantic partners Ertegun and Wexler spent many years buffing their reputations, painting a picture of their contributions often at odds with the facts. Their appealing personal styles and undeniable feeling for the music allowed then to operate with impunity in the relative moral universe of the rhythm and blues world. “They were a better class of thieves,” said Ben E. King fondly.

Virtually alone among the independent rhythm and blues record labels, Atlantic managed the transition into the corporate era of the record industry. How the label survived may be more a matter of hustle and pluck than vision and strategy, but it is also true that once the company was sold and folded into a corporate conglomerate, Atlantic ceased to be a force in the culture. However, the company’s legacy is a rich vein of American music, a multitude of voices, songs, and records that shaped music around the world.

Songwriter Ellie Greenwich laughed at the idea that they wrote about their own lives. “We wouldn’t do that,” she said. These songwriters were not self-conscious artists exploring their inner lives. They operated under an industrial mandate. Their music’s appeal was designed to sell records; any self-serving “artistic” motives were pointless. Under such strictures, however, these men and women made magnificent music, these glorious records, filled with imagination, wonder and beauty.

Of course, artists have no other experience to draw from but their own and inevitably even songwriters and producers operating within the most commercial parameters will reflect on their own lives. Themes emerge over the course of a body of work. While lyricist Jerry Leiber etched brainy, smart-aleck social commentaries and Gerry Goffin continually returned to dreamy aspirations and wish fulfillment, Berns kept reaching for tears. He wanted his singers crying. He pushed vocalists on his records to the brink, trapped in desperation and fraught with urgency. Why all the tears? Jeff Barry said that if he kept coming back to it, it probably was something more than a professional decision.

Ellie Greenwich may have allowed herself the luxury of distancing herself emotionally from the teen dramas she and her husband Jeff Barry created, such as “Leader of the Pack” or “Chapel of Love,” but Berns couldn’t. His looming mortality magnified every event, every song, every week’s chart positions. This wasn’t just music to Berns. This wasn’t some high-stakes con game for the hip, witty, and clever. This was life and death to Berns. To write his desperate songs, to make these singers sing the songs the way he needed them to be sung, to construct these gothic records as temples of sound, to reach deep into his mad Russian heart and wrench loose the pain and fear, Berns peered into his own dark soul for his music. Every song took another piece of his heart.

Reprinted with permission from Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues by Joel Selvin and published by Counterpoint Press, 2014.

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