Roxanne Tellier: The Forgotten Man – Bert Berns
Imagine, if you will … writing not one, not two … but literally dozens of top ten hits, for groups as diverse as The Beatles, Solomon Burke, Edwin Starr, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin and Barbara Lewis. Yeah, that’s lightning, baby …
But you have probably never heard of him, although you’ve heard every damn song he wrote, co-wrote or produced in those few years. Songs like “Piece of My Heart,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Hang on Sloopy,” and “Under the Boardwalk.” 51 songs that topped the charts, 20 of those massive hits launched in 1964 alone.
You’d think that Berns would be legendary, his name tripping off our lips as easily as those of his contemporaries Phil Spector, Jerry Wexler, or Ahmet Ertegun. But his legacy remained buried until fairly recently, when noted music writer Joel Selvin released Berns’ biography, “Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business Of Rhythm and Blues,” and a new bio-musical “Piece of my Heart: The Bern Berns Story”, debuted at New York’s Signature Theater.
Berns died in December 30, 1967, at just 38 years of age. 47 years later, he’s finally getting the recognition he deserved.
“Berns left a lot of important enemies behind him when he died in 1967. Neil Diamond hates him (Van Morrison — mixed feelings at best). Jerry Wexler, who was his best friend and mentor, told me he would have nothing to do with the book: “I don’t know where he’s buried, but if I did, I’d piss on his grave.” Joel Selvin
Born in the Bronx in New York City in 1929, Bertrand Russell Berns contracted rheumatic fever at 14, which left him with a damaged heart. Told he’d never live past the age of 21, he yearned to make his short life worthwhile, whatever it took. When he found his way into the music business, he did so with all of the bravado and desperation for success that he’d learned from his immigrant parents, and his Black and Latino neighbours, incorporating the music and rhythms he’d grown up with into his trademark style. He also brought along his mob connections.
Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector, Bert Berns
He muscled his way into a gig as a Brill Building songwriter, where he met and worked with luminaries of the sixties; Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Leiber and Stoller, before catching the attention of Jerry Wexler, head of Atlantic Records, and morphing into a record producer.
“He became wealthy within two years of his first hit, “A Little Bit of Soap” by the Jarmels in 1961. He kept a fishbowl in his penthouse where he stuffed royalty checks he was too busy to take to the bank.” Joel Selvin
In 1962 Berns and Phil Medley wrote “Twist and Shout” for the Isley Brothers. Modeled on the classic Mexican tune “La Bamba,” the song peaked at number two on the R&B charts, and was immortalized by The Beatles the following year.
This is the original version of the song, one of the first records produced by Phil Spector before his “Wall of Sound” days. Berns told Spector he had ruined the song and missed the energy and point completely. Berns, of course, was right.
Then things got sticky. As the new wunderkind, Berns was helping to shape the sounds that would cement Atlantic Records reputation in the field of rhythm and blues. But Jerry Wexler, once Berns’ mentor, was about to find himself in trouble. Leiber and Stoller (“Hound Dog (Big Mama Thornton)” “Stand By Me” (Ben E. King),” who had made Atlantic rich through their distinctive writing, had brought in a young Phil Spector as a producer. Suddenly it was Spector getting all of the credit for their sound. Wexler grudgingly gave in to their request to be granted producers credits on record labels and sleeves, but when the duo asked for a written contract confirming producers’ royalty, he went ballistic. Their accountant demanded an audit which showed that Leiber and Stoller had been underpaid by $18,000.
Although the duo decided not to sue for the money, Wexler fired them. Which left a gap just big enough for Berns to slip through, and he grabbed the opportunity, working with both the Isley Brothers and Solomon Burke to great success. By 1964, Atlantic was back on track.
Berns had no qualms about using his associates with organized crime connections to get what he wanted. He used his mob associations to get out of his partnership with Atlantic Records, who owned Bang Records and Web IV publishing, claiming them for his own. Organized crime figures such as Tommy Vastola and Sonny Franceze controlled a great deal of the rhythm and blues scene in New York City at that time. And Berns knew he had to strike while the iron was hot, by any means available.
Berns was a visionary. When his song “Twist and Shout” hit it for the Beatles, he was one of the few to travel to England, looking for the next big thing for his own record label, Bang Records.
He believed he’d found gold in Belfast’s Them, and singer Van Morrison. He produced and composed their 1965 hit “Here Comes the Night.” When the band broke up, he brought Van Morrison back to New York to record eight songs for a proposed solo album. The album, “Blowing Your Mind!,” contained the hit “Brown Eyed Girl.” Morrison, not having read his contract very well, was put up in a hotel room and given $2500. , and only discovered the album had been released when a friend mentioned that he’d just bought a copy.
Berns and Morrison
Trapped in a hotel room in a strange city, and further distanced from society by his thick Irish accent, Van Morrison became despondent, and dove into heavy drinking. As a writer, he’d moved on from the pop-proto punk sounds of Them, and was writing what would become the Astral Weeks album. Frustrated and alone, he hated what Berns had released.
In a 1973 interview with writer Donal Carvin, he said, “I wasn’t really happy with it. He picked the bands and tunes. I had a different concept of it.”
Jeff Barry, Berns, Van Morrison, 2 Unidentified
Berns operated in a world where morals shifted with the wind. “The mavericks, chancers and pioneers bribed and cheated in a world where prostitutes were routine business expenses.” Using his mob friends to control the young writer, he had an associate break a guitar over Morrison’s head. Van Morrison was signed to Berns’ Bang Records, and he wasn’t going anywhere until he’d fulfilled his contract. This lead Morrison to a period of personal and financial distress, including a contract clause that prevented him from performing on stage or recording in the New York area.
Frightened and depressed, Morrison struggled through until signed by Warner Brothers, who managed to buy out his contract with Bang Records.
“Morrison fulfilled a clause that bound him to submit thirty-six original songs within a year to Web IV Music, Berns’ music publishing company, by recording thirty-one songs in one session; however, Ilene Berns (Bern’s widow) thought the songs “nonsense music … about ringworms” and did not use them. The throwaway compositions would come to be known as the “revenge” songs.” Wikipedia
“Piece of My Heart” was written by Berns and Jerry Ragovoy, and was originally recorded by Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sister) in 1967. It became a Top 10 R&B hit in the U.S., but of course, really hit it big when Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company covered it in 1968.
Berns poured his own sense of impending mortality into all of his writing, so it is likely that he preferred the Joplin version. “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” Joel Selvin
Noted cultural writer Ellen Willis wrote of the difference between the Franklin and Joplin versions of the song: “When Franklin sings it, it is a challenge: no matter what you do to me, I will not let you destroy my ability to be human, to love. Joplin seems rather to be saying, surely if I keep taking this, if I keep setting an example of love and forgiveness, surely he has to understand, change, give me back what I have given”. In such a way, Joplin used blues conventions not to transcend pain, but “to scream it out of existence.”
And he was a musical packrat, hiding away bits of songs, or phrases, never forgetting an inflection or musical motif, and rewriting chord changes to “La Bamba” and “Guantanamera,” over and over again, using the same basic song structure to morph “My Girl Sloopy” to “Piece of My Heart” without missing a beat.
Here’s Just some of Berns’ hits….
1) The Drifters – Under the Boardwalk
2) Make Me Your Baby – Barbara Lewis
3) Cry to Me – The Rolling Stones
4) Otis Redding – Down in the Valley
5) The Isley Brothers – Twist and Shout
6) Here Comes the Night – Them
7) Van Morrison – Brown Eyed Girl
8) Baby Let Me Take You Home – The Animals
9) I Want Candy – Bow Wow Wow
10) Twenty Five Miles – Edwin Starr
His impact on the business of show is unmistakeable. And yet his musical legacy was a footnote, until Selven, and Berns three children – who were just two weeks, ten months, and two-and-a-half years old at the time of his death – brought his contributions back into the light. Better late than never.
Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday
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Roxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’.