Envisioning himself a player, Berns spent time in pre-Castro Cuba working in nightclubs, absorbing Latin-American rhythms, and hobnobbing with shady characters. Berns' Latin influence can be heard on "Twist and Shout," "A Little Bit of Soap," "Hang On Sloopy," and especially his work with the Drifters ("Under the Boardwalk," "I've Got Sand in My Shoes").
Berns returned to New York, and in 1960 went to work for Robert Mellin Music writing and plugging songs. Berns drifted to Atlantic in 1961 where he wrote and produced Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett and The Drifters, creating some of the greatest uptown soul on record. Like all of the greats, Berns had an ability to bring out the best in the singers he worked with. Berns style may have been a bit goofy (loud clothes, defiant hairpiece, dangling cigarette) but his passion was unassailable.
Solomon Burke has spoken disparagingly of Berns (calling him a "paddy motherfucker," according to Jerry Wexler), but Berns produced Burke's best work. "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" swings at midtempo with a gospel intensity. Burke's spoken sermon intro simultaneously rouses the tent and winks at his own background as a lay preacher. When the horns enter, Burke responds with gut-rattling force. "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)" is soul.
Ben E. King's "Let the Water Run Down" jams to the Bo Diddley beat with charging guitar and piano. King's impassioned vocal emphasizes both the pain and the relief of tears. Even better is Berns' work with The Drifters.
"Under the Boardwalk" is one of the great productions of all time, wherein Berns balances a bewildering array of Latin-esque percussion (including castanets, a ratchet and a triangle), strings, a loping bass line and Johnny Moore's career-topping vocal.
Besides the amazing arrangement, Berns was also able to capture an emotional moment. Lead singer Rudy Lewis had been found dead of a drug overdose in his hotel room the night before, and it was too late to cancel the session. There wasn't even time to transpose the song into a more suitable key for Moore, but Berns was able to channel Moore's emotion from shock and grief into blissful relief: from the punishing heat of the summer sun to the subterranean cool under the boardwalk.