“Berns had the magic, the fairy dust,” said Joel Selvin, a music writer at the San Francisco Chronicle for 37 years and the architect of this wonderful, sprawling saga of the business of music in the mid-20th century, an era when hits were recorded in the blink of an eye, the art of the hustle was perfected and songwriters ruled the world of the 45-rpm single.
2014 is indeed the year of Bert Berns. With a documentary film and a Broadway show in the works, history has finally caught up with this Bronx-born Renaissance man who—as a songwriter (with 51 charting singles including the timeless ”Piece Of My Heart,” “Hang On Sloopy” and “Twist and Shout”), staff producer at Atlantic Records and co-founder of Bang Records (where he jump-started the careers of Van Morrison and Neil Diamond)—packed a world of passion and genius into seven short hit-making years, before dying at 38 of a heart attack (precipitated by the rheumatic fever he contracted as a teenager).
Selvin, himself a music man par excellence (with books, columns and a radio show/podcast), is the perfect choice to chronicle Berns’ amazing life. “Berns’ productions were all kind of luminous,” said Selvin, for whom this book was clearly a labor of love. Record collectors will drool over his loving attention to priceless B-sides like the Drifters’ “I Don’t Want To Go On Without You” as well as to the stunningly talented arrangers and studio musicians who also labored—luminously—in obscurity. Paul Griffin’s lilting, heartbreaking piano intro to Erma Franklin’s original version of “Piece Of My Heart” and Garry Sherman’s arrangement of anything are required listening. Beyond Griffin and Sherman, Berns worked with the best: Jerry Ragovoy, Solomon Burke, the Exciters, Betty Harris, Lulu (the original singer of “Here Comes The Night”), Ellie Greenwich.
No matter his collaborators, Berns’ fascination with the Afro-Cuban guajira and mambo beats (think “Guantanamera” the next time you hear “Hang On Sloopy”) and his deeply soulful quest for the hook (he came up with the “come on, come on” used both in “Piece Of My Heart” and in Garnet Mimms’ “Cry Baby”) are the cornerstones of his greatness. Elsewhere, Selvin takes you inside productions like the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” a model of taste, grit and sass. The horns build, the Isleys gospelize and Berns sprinkles his fairy dust. If all you know is the Beatles cover, school yourself on the peerless original.
Selvin labored over the manuscript for 16 years (he had 60,000 words at one point), finally settling on chronologically-arranged chapters with headings that help codify a wild tapestry set in New York, London, and Los Angeles. Artists, producers, writers, song pluggers, mobsters and label-owners intertwine, but only rarely completely intersect—yet Berns is the nexus of it all. The saga of Atlantic Records, where Berns got his start, has often been told, but Selvin gets inside the politics that, in the end, ruled the art. There’s a fabulously funky stew of con men, side characters (Dion’s take on pompadoured songwriter Wes Farrell: “It was the first time I’d seen a guy with manicured fingernails!”) and juicy studio tidbits (Greenwich, after brainstorming, runs into the studio to add new backup vocals to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools”). And Selvin nails the pathos and pettiness of a business where nothing is sacred, save the almighty dollar: at Berns’ funeral, Neil Diamond arrives to ask the grieving widow for his contractual release.
“I wanted to pull back the curtain and make these people real again,” Selvin said. “I think that serves everybody.” It certainly serves history. This panoramic book illuminates the corners of Berns’ world and all who dwelt in it, and spotlights a time in American popular music the likes of which we’ll never see again. Calling all music buffs and students of popular culture: Dig this thrill-ride of a read. Enter the magical land of Bert Berns. Shake it up, baby…twist and shout!
– Christine Ohlman
(If you’re hungry for the music, The Bert Berns Story volumes one and two, on Ace Records, are the place to start)