Author Interviews
5:22 pm
Sun May 25, 2014

Obscure Producer's Clear Impact On 'The Dirty Business' Of R&B

Originally published on Sun May 25, 2014 6:57 pm

Many of the hit-making songwriters of the 1960s are remembered by name: Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Lennon-McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland. But the man who wrote (or co-wrote) classics like "Twist and Shout," "Piece of My Heart," "Hang on Sloopy," "I Want Candy" and "Here Comes the Night" remains unknown to all but the most ardent music fans.

Bert Berns was a record producer and songwriter who appeared Zelig-like throughout the rock and soul scenes of the 1960s. His little-known story is told in a new book by Joel Selvin called Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues.

Bert Berns lived the credo: "Eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die." For good reason.

"When Bert Berns was 14 years old in 1945, he suffered rheumatic fever. Scarred his heart. He was told he wouldn't live to be 21-years old," Selvin tells NPR's Arun Rath. "He dropped out of school and pretty much became a ne'er-do-well."

Berns wouldn't find his voice as a songwriter until his 30s, but once he did — blending mambo with rock 'n' roll — he quickly became a hot commodity.

"He was making hit records, living in a penthouse, and had a fishbowl stuffed with royalty checks he was too busy to take to the bank," Selvin says.

Berns's hit-making abilities brought him to the attention of Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, and the two formed a partnership and a deep friendship. That relationship would go sour, though, when Berns used mafia muscle in a contract negotiation.

"Gangsters were a common part of the scene," Selvin says. "It really isn't outside the parameters of kinda everyday business dealings in the dirty business of rhythm & blues."

Berns came of age at a time when singers and songwriters were two separate entities — and each side was easy to influence. So when Berns started working with singer-songwriters like Neil Diamond and Van Morrison — artists who wanted to control the arc of their careers more than Berns had ever encountered — it was a turning point.

"It was uncommon for artists at that point to have any say ... or have an opinion that mattered," Selvin says. He adds, "There was a lot of conflict."

Guitars were broken in anger, relationships were strained.

"And of course as his life is shortening and the symptoms of his heart disease are becoming more pronounced and the pressure is mounting on him with the Atlantic deal going south, and the gangster business partners ... the whole thing leads to quite a cataclysmic denouement," Selvin says.

Bert Berns died in December 1967 at the age of 38. As Selvin concludes:

"His career perfectly encapsulated the height of the New York rhythm & blues scene from 1960 to 1967. You know, when Berns died, it was all over."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Thanks again for listening. Once again, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Holland-Dozier and Holland. Many of the hit-making songwriters of the 1960s are remembered by name. But do you know who wrote these classics?

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDLEY OF SONGS, "TAKE ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE OF MY HEART," "MY GIRL SLOOPY," "I LOVE CANDY," "HERE COMES THE NIGHT")

RATH: All those songs were written or co-written by record-producer Bert Berns. His little-known story is told in a new book by Joel Selvin called "Here Comes the Night." Berns lived the credo, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. For good reason. Doctors told Bert Berns at an early age that death was never far away. Here's Joel Selvin.

JOEL SELVIN: When Bert Berns was 14 years old in 1945, he suffered rheumatic fever. Scarred his heart. He was told he wouldn't live to be 21-years old. He dropped out of school and pretty much became a ne'er-do-well. And he had some vague show business ambitions but he didn't get into songwriting and the professional music business until 1959 when he was 30 years old.

RATH: And you write about how the shadow of his illness comes across in the lyrics of a lot of his songs.

SELVIN: It's the first thing I noticed that attracted me to Berns' music, is he is a songwriter and record producer, wants to push his singers to the edge of despair, right at the dawn of hysteria. That's when I discovered the pathology behind it. He had a line for a song that he wanted to finish and he took it to Jerry Ragovoy. And Jerry and he had written a bunch of songs together and Ragovoy heard the line and said, yeah, and sort of worked out the rest of the song. The line Berns had was take it, take another little piece of my heart. He was dead within six months.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG PIECE OF MY HEART)

ERMA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Come on, come on, come on, come on, hey, take another little piece of my heart now baby...

SELVIN: He recorded it with Erma Franklin, Aretha's sister. It's probably his last really big hit record.

RATH: Something else that's fascinating about him, which is a really important factor in his story and the story of the music, was he spent some time in Cuba, in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

SELVIN: Well, Berns was smitten with Latin music at an early age. And when he tripped across the combination of mambo and rock 'n' roll, that's when he found his voice. "My Girl Sloopy" is one of the most pure Afro-Cuban R & B experiences that ever hit the charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL SLOOPY")

THE VIBRATIONS: (Singing) Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on. Hang...

RATH: Let's talk about the first of those Bert Berns songs that everybody has heard. Twist and Shout falls in that category.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWIST AND SHOUT")

RATH: I had no idea until I read your book that it was based on "La Bamba."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BAMBA")

SELVIN: He loved "La Bamba." He rewrote "La Bamba" many times. "Twist and Shout" was the first song that Berns demonstrated to Atlantic Records' partner Jerry Wexler. When he met Wexler it would be one of the key figures in his career. And Wexler took the piece of material into the studio with a group called the Top Notes. And a 19-year-old boy wonder was producing that day, a young man named Phil Spector, who was pretty much just as much of a nobody as Berns was.

But, you know, it was his day. He was getting the shot. And he felt compelled to take this piece of material with this kind of natural Latin feel and turn it into a blues shuffle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWIST AND SHOUT")

THE TOP NOTES: (Singing) (Unintelligible) baby, work it on out...

SELVIN: It was just as benign and mediocre and just evaporated the value of the song. Berns was furious and Wexler just told him to shut up. Out of that session, Berns came to the decision that he needed to be the record producer if he was truly going to shepherd his songs' creative destinies. And he took the song to the Isley Brothers over at Scepter Records within a year and cut the biggest selling record that Scepter had had that wasn't done by the Shirelles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWIST AND SHOUT")

THE ISLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) Shake it up, baby. Shake it up, baby. Twist and shout.

RATH: Give us a sense of Bert Berns at his peak. How successful was he?

SELVIN: You couldn't have been more successful than Berns. He not only wrote all these hit songs and produced all these hit records, he saved Atlantic Records at a time when they weren't selling anything. And he developed Solomon Burke and the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk." He started his own label, Bang Records, had a number one record within months. He started the careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. He was making hit records, living in a penthouse and had a fishbowl stuffed with royalty checks he was too busy to take to the bank.

RATH: My guest is Joel Selvin, author of "Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues." You mentioned Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. When you first sort of talked to him about Bert Berns, tell us what his reaction was.

SELVIN: Neither Wexler nor Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun cared to participate in this book. They both bear Berns a considerable animus. What he said was: I don't know where he's buried. But if I did, I'd (bleep) on his grave.

RATH: Wow.

SELVIN: He used gangster connections to muscle his way out of a partnership with the Atlantic guys and they never really forgave him. It's important to understand the relative moral universe which Berns and the rest of the New York City rhythm and blues independent labels operated. Gangsters were a common part of the scene. It's not often spoken of. It really isn't outside the parameters of kind of everyday business dealings in the dirty business of rhythm and blues.

RATH: So Bert Berns starts to unravel a bit. You write about how it's kind of - times are sort of changing, that there had been a distinction between songwriters and singers. They were separate. But now we're getting into a time where he's working with people like Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. And these guys want to make - want to have more control over what they're doing.

SELVIN: Berns was all about hit records. And you're right, it was uncommon for artists at that point to have any say over that kind of decision in their career or having an opinion that mattered. Van Morrison "Brown Eyed Girl" was a record Berns understood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROWN EYED GIRL")

VAN MORRISON: (Singing) ...and you my brown eyed girl...

SELVIN: And that was a big hit record for Van. It launched his solo career and it's beautifully produced by Berns. When Van Morrison returned later that year from Ireland to record a second album, the songs he had were the songs that eventually showed up on the album "Astral Weeks." Now we all know "Astral Weeks" was one of the great poetic visionary albums of our time. It doesn't sound like a hit record. And Berns was quite frustrated with Van and his artistic instincts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY THAT YOUNG LOVERS DO")

MORRISON: (Singing) The way that young lovers do.

SELVIN: There was a lot of conflict. Van broke a guitar in the studio. One of Berns' gangland associates broke a guitar over Van. It was a very difficult relationship. And of course as his life is shortening and the symptoms of his heart disease are becoming more pronounced and the pressure is mounting on him with the Atlantic deal going south and the gangster business partners and Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. The whole things leads to quite a cataclysmic denouement.

RATH: And with his end, you know, he died 38 years old, December of 1967. You know, had he survived, was there any place for him to go or it kind of felt like the end even if he hadn't of died at that time.

SELVIN: One of the things that fascinated me about the Berns story was how his career perfectly encapsulated the height of the New York rhythm and blues scene from 1960 to 1967. You know, when Berns died, it was all over. Soul music would never get greater than Aretha Franklin. Leiber and Stoller had retired. Phil Spector was living as a recluse. Goffin and King had split up. Doc Pomus, one of the great songwriters of the era was running poker games in a fleabag hotel on Broadway. It was just the end of an era. Nobody knew it at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE NIGHT")

MORRISON: (Singing) Wow, here it comes...

RATH: Joel Selvin's new book is called "Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues." Joel Selvin, thanks. This was fascinating.

SELVIN: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE NIGHT")

MORRISON: (Singing) Here comes the night. Whoa, whoa, whoa, yeah. I could see right out my window looking down the street my girl with another guy....

RATH: And for Sunday that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. We're back next weekend. Until then, have a safe holiday and a great week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG HERE COMES THE NIGHT)

MORRISON: (Singing) ...the night. Here comes the night.... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.