Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Here Comes the Nght by Joel Selvin

Joel Selvin is a bit of a rock journalism legend.  You gotta check out his website with his excellent writing and podcasts.  A real treat is his four-part podcast called Van Comes to America.   

Selvin's recently released biography Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues has a much broader focus than Bert Berns.  The Bert Berns story touches on early rhythm and blues of the early ’60s, Neal Diamond, Van Morrison, the Brill Building, Atlantic Records, Bang Records, etc.   

The Bern's story was ultimately a tragic one.  His heart was damaged by rheumatic fever as a youth and he was not expected to live to see 21. Although his name is little remembered today, Berns worked alongside all the greats of the era—Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, anyone who was anyone in New York rhythm and blues. In seven quick years, he went from obscurity to producer of numerous top songs like Twist and Shout, My Girl Sloopy, Piece of My Heart, and others.

Berns’ drive to succeed led him to use his Mafia associations to muscle Atlantic Records out of their partnership and intimidate new talents like Neil Diamond and Van Morrison, whom he had signed to his record label. Berns died at age 38 in 1967 from a long-expected heart attack.  Berns’ widow asked Van to provide his promised amount of music which led to his famous 30-odd tracks of monotonous strumming and nonsensical lyrics, some of which were  thinly-veiled attack on Berns. 

Here are some edited comments by various readers and reviewers:   

Mike Callahan   -   A look into the way a nobody with real talent works his way into the corrupt business of R&B records. Lots of inside stories. Especially liked the story of the recording of the Isley Brothers' Twist and Shout… An ugly business at times as people - some talented, some not - are scratching their way to their lifelong dreams. Some sell their souls along the way.

James H. Lynch   -   I feel that Selvin spends too much time telling the tales of Berns' contemporaries, until the last few chapters, which focus squarely on him.

A. G. Krakow   -   The book weaves the story of Berns, and the reason why this genius has been overlooked, with the backstory- which is essentially a history of R&B once rock and roll entered the lexicon and the culture. Selvin doesn't mince words when describing the players: I was a bit taken aback by his description of Jerry Wexler because it is so blatantly honest. The entire book is that honest. 

Mystery Fan   -   Because he had a rheumatic heart condition, Berns was destined to have short career, basically from when he produced and wrote the Jarmels’ A Little Piece of Soap in 1961 to Erma Franklin’s Piece of My Heart in 1967. Selvin brings out a lot of the “dirty business”—mob connected operations, the conflicts, the slimy business, the marital affairs. 

ALAN WARNER   -   One of the best rock books this year. An absolutely essential read for anyone who's interested in rhythm 'n' blues and the legendary record labels of years gone by. 

Gwendolyn a. bell   -   There are some nice tidbits about the Brill Building and its writers as well as Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Red Bird label acts including the Shangri-Las and more. Some of these early acts influenced and were covered by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. 

Waxwing Slayne   -   Most histories of the Brill Building era treat Bert Berns with hissing contempt, but Joel Selvin's fast-paced overview of Berns and his milieu shows you the complex man beneath the bad toupee. Selvin doesn't whitewash Berns' tendency to screw-over his artists, or his mob connections and willingness to use them, but he gives due to the man's joie de vivre, his rapport with musicians, and what nobody can deny: his ability to create more than a few unforgettable hit songs. Berns was vulgar and obnoxious, and hurt some people who didn't deserve it (and some who did), but songs he wrote, produced or brought to market have contributed much to the "gaiety of nations" and "increased the stock of harmless pleasure in the world". The book is so rich with offhand characters and tantalising byways, it makes you realise that there are many more great tales yet to be told of this wonderful period in American music.

Luigi Facotti   -   Mr. Berns has been a featured character in a variety of books on Atlantic Records, Leiber and Stoller and the Brill Building/1650 Broadway songwriting teams. Some of these (most of them autobiographical) place Mr. Berns as a peripheral/ephemeral figure to Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Mike Lieber and Jerry Stoller while other, more balanced and more recent histories treat him as a seminal architect of the era and as the salvation of Atlantic Records.

The story of Bert Berns is fascinating - from his early days incorporating ritmo diablo into pop music and for all the inside scoop on the Atlantic, Red Bird and BANG/Shout labels and their interactions with the New York Cosa Nostra and their associates, Morris Levy, Hy Weiss and Tommy Vastola who have variously been cited as the inspiration for the Soprano's Hesh Rabkin. Slevin's coverage of the influence of the Cosa Nostra on the "dirty business of rhythm and blues" is long overdue and should be read slog side Knoedelseder's 1993 book on the Mafia and MCA Records Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia. His account of the Red Bird "dollar" deal is a welcome expansion on previous allusions to this momentous event that probably led to the sale of Atlantic to Warner 7 Arts in 1967 while he is to be credited in noting that the Phil Spector's legendary "Wall of Sound" owed much to Frank Guida's "Norfolk Sound" with U.S. Bonds. Dance 'Til Quarter to Three / Twist up Calypso.

Berns' impact on the evolution of soul/R & B music was major with many of the individuals highlighted in the book owing their legendary status to his song selections and productions, e.g. the soul legends, Solomon Burke, Erma Franklin, Lorraine Ellison and Freddie Scott. Berns' producer colleagues, Tom Dowd, Jerry Ragavoy and Arif Mardin receive good marks while Jerry Wexler, despite being the legendary catalyst for Aretha Franklin becoming the Queen of Soul and playing a major role in the evolution of southern soul with Stax, the various Muscle Shoals studios and Criteria with the Dixie Flyers, comes across as a less than lovable curmudgeon sequentially alienating Jim Stewart, Rick Hall Muscle Shoals, Lieber and Stoller, Bert Berns and Ahmet Ertegun. Others who garner less than sympathetic coverage in the telling of the Bert Berns story are Van Morrison and Neil Diamond.

Jeffrey Crawford   -   Joel Selvin writes brilliantly about both the music and the business. If it was only about the crooked world of pop music it would have lacked soul, but Selvin clearly loves the music. However, it's also about the corruption, payola and links to the Mafia, dubious songwriting credits handed out to mobsters, and how much bands and artists were ripped off by the guys in suits. Among others, Dick Clark is revealed as a bit of a crook.

This is not just about Berns, but also about the formation of Atlantic Records, the great Brill Building and Aldon songwriters, the arrival of Phil Spector, the careers of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin and many others. Some anecdotes are hilarious, some of them are sad. And at the centre of it is Berns, a driven man with a shonky ticker who was living on borrowed time.

D. Cavanaugh   -   I never knew who Bert Berns was, but I knew his songs on my AM radio (it had 4 transistors!) in 1962. Those songs have now taken on a whole new life for me. I bought his anthology albums. It takes two CDs to cover the highlights of his short career. These songs sung by talented and hungry artists, and created with his production genius, are still gems to listen to. Those were the days. Now the twenty year old musicians buy copies of ProTools for their laptops and record themselves in a vacuum, then try to sell their stuff on iTunes. I listen to the piped-in popular music they play in the gym or the hardware store and shake my head. The quality in popular music is gone man, gone.

Elisa Brooks   -   This is an amazing, torrid tale. Interesting insight in the record business. There are so many vignette's of history, music, songs we all know, musicians we all loved and stories we never knew.

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