Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Bert Berns



Bert Berns has a certain notoriety among Van fans.  Van had his troubles with Bert and Van fans tend to take the side of their hero – Van the Man.  But the Bert Berns story is an incredible chapter in popular music history that deserves looking into.  Berns has few equals as songwriter, producer and record executive.  He is largely unknown but he wrote major sixties hits like Twist and Shout, Piece Of My Heart, Hang On Sloopy, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, Cry To Me, Cry Baby, Here Comes The Night and Tell Him among his hundreds of songwriting credits.  He also produced “Under The Boardwalk,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Baby I’m Yours” and dozens of other standards.  He also championed the likes of Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, The Isley Brothers, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, The Drifters and Jimmy Page.
All of this was achieved in a few short years up to 1967 when he died of a heart attack at the age of only 38.  Despite his achievements he remains largely unknown and hasn’t received his dues - induction into either The Songwriters Hall of Fame or The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. 


Early Life
Bertrand Russell Berns was born on November 8, 1929 and died on December 30, 1967.  He was born to Jewish immigrants and spent an impoverished early life in the Bronx that was compounded by being struck down with rheumatic fever which almost killed him.  Berns showed interest in music from an early age.  His parents wanted him to stay focused on classical piano, but he fell in love with the eclectic music of his Bronx neighbourhood.  His Black and Latino neighbours provided a soundtrack of soul, R'n'B and Cuban quajira music

Music came to have an increasing importance in Berns’ life.  In his teens he practised the guitar and began going to music clubs. Eventually he hatched a a scheme to buy a nightclub in Cuba.  He pooled his money with his friend Mickey and went to Havana to oversee the club they had purchased.  On arrival they found out that it was actually a whorehouse.  Berns transformed the brothel into an underground club specialising in local quajira music.  However, communist guerrillas began to increasingly make life difficult in Havana so Berns returned to New York.   


Breaking into the Music Business
Bert with Phil Spector and friends
Berns began to take the collection of songs he had written to offices in the Brill Building in search of way into the music business.  Eventually he found work with a small music publisher across the street from the Brill building. He was paid $50 a week to write and plug songs. 
Bert Berns & Jerry Wexler
Shortly thereafter, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler seized the moment – partnering with Bert in a new publishing company, WEB IV Music, whose name would be an acronym: W (Wexler) E (Ertegun) B (Berns) IV.  Months later in 1965, Bert declared his desire to make records on his own label.  Rather than risk losing Berns altogether, Wexler grudgingly agreed to the creation of BANG Records.  Bang, with its smoking gun logo, was also named for its four founding partners – B (Bert) A (Ahmet Ertegun) N (Neshui Ertegun) and G (Gerald Wexler). 


What Bert Berns did in the first year of Bang is nothing less than astounding.  He signed The Strangeloves and The McCoys, writing and releasing back-to-back standards with  “I Want Candy” and “Hang On Sloopy.”  He took a chance on Neil Diamond and fostered, with the team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, all of his early classics – songs like “Cherry Cherry,” “Solitary Man,” and “Kentucky Woman.”  He also checked out European talent.  At the invitation of Decca he went to England and worked with Lulu and eventually brought Van Morrison to New York and helped start his solo career, producing “Brown Eyed Girl” and “TB Sheets.”
Bert appeared unstoppable.  And with Bang Records home to an ever increasing roster of pop and rock artists, he formed a new subsidiary label, Shout Records, to exclusively release recordings of his greatest passion – soul music. 


In the midst of all this success, Berns discovered he had heart problems.   A world-renowned heart surgeon Michael DeBakey suggested a new form of bypass surgery.  

As the twilight of Bert's life approached, a fierce struggle ensued over control of Bang.  First Wexler and Ertegun tried for more control of the label.  Then they gave Berns a buyout ultimatum. With their relationship in tatters and events threatening to spin completely out of control, they forever went their separate ways.  Bert walked away sole owner of WEB IV and Bang.
Berns began to face new challenges. Conflict erupted with Van Morrison over creative decisions. Then things broke down with Neil Diamond, culminating in a dramatic showdown between the two men over Neil's intention to leave Bang.


Days later, Bert Berns was dead.  He left a wife and three babies, the youngest only two weeks old.  On December 30, 1967, Berns was feeling fatigued and laid down for an afternoon nap.  Moments later, there was a knock at the door – it was Tommy Eboli, a mob-connected friend.  He had a dream that Berns was calling him – “I need you” – and came rushing over to the apartment, only to discover a distraught new widow.   
In the last days of his life, Bert Berns made two of his greatest and most introspective records – “Piece of My Heart” and “Heart Be Still” – songs that provided not only clearest evidence of what legendary arranger Garry Sherman called “the consummate producer,” but also autobiographical insights into deepest loves and fears. 


This is only a brief insight into the the man who deserved more recognition for his work.  For more information check out the Bert Berns website or go to the Wikipedia reference to Berns. 
In recent times CDs have been released which give a snapshot of Berns' talent across a range of music styles.  The following are worth checking out: 

The Heart and Soul of Bert Berns (2003)  -  includes 10 of Berns' best work.
Twist and Shout: The Bert Berns Story - Vol. 1: 1960-1964 (2008)  -  features 26 of Berns' R&B and rock hits.

Mr. Success: The Bert Berns Story - Vol. 2: 1964-1967 (2010)  -  a further collection featuring 26 of Berns' R&B and rock hits.



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