Bert Berns was an extravagantly talented songwriter and producer who brought Latin rhythms to soul music and soul to rock and roll.
Before Berns’ amazing seven-year run was cut short in 1967 at age 38 by a fatal heart attack, he produced “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison; “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters; “Baby, I’m Yours” and “Make Me Your Baby” by Barbara Lewis; “Cry Baby” by Garnet Mimms; “Cry to Me” by Betty Harris; “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye),” “Got to Get You Off My Mind” and “If You Need Me” by Solomon Burke; “Killer Joe” by the Rocky Fellers; “A Little Bit of Soap” by the Jarmels; and “Here Comes the Night” by Them.
In addition, he wrote or co-wrote “Twist and Shout” (Isley Brothers, The Beatles), “Hang On Sloopy” (The McCoys), “Piece of My Heart” (Erma Franklin, Janis Joplin), “Tell Him” (the Exciters), and “I Want Candy” (the Strangeloves, Bow Bow Wow), among many others. Berns (a.k.a. Bert Russell) also was a partner in the Atlantic offshoot labels Bang and Shout.
Universal has a new collection of songs written and produced by Berns, and though it’s a little light – only 10 songs – and they aren’t all the ones I would have chosen, it is nice to see weird old Bert get some of the recognition he so richly deserves. Songs on the disc include Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Cry to Me,” Mimms’ “Cry Baby,” Franlin’s “Piece of My Heart,” the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” and “You’ll Never Leave Him,” a lesser Drifters tune “I Don’t Want to Go ON Without You,” Freddie Scott’s “Are You Lonely For Me Baby,” and two from a guy I have literally never heard of: Hoagy Lands.
Bert Berns was born in the Bronx in 1929. Berns’ Russian immigrant parents were so intent on ensuring the success of their dress shop that they put Bert and his sister in an orphanage rather than raise them. Berns studied classical piano as a child, and worked as a record salesman, music copyist and session pianist in his teens and twenties.
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.
In 1965 Berns went into partnership with Jerry Wexler and the Erteguns to form the Bang (B – Bert, A – Ahmet, N – Neshui, G – Gerald) and Shout labels. The Strangeloves, The McCoys, Neil Diamond, and Van Morrison all were big winners on Bang. Berns had worked with Them (with Morrison on lead vocals) in London in 1964 (and had discovered a session guitarist named “Little” Jimmy Page). When Them broke up, Berns signed Morrison to Bang.
On “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Berns removes the perpetual cloud from over Van Morrison’s head and the result is transcendent. You can literally hear Morrison smile as he breezes through sweet memories of a summer love gone by. After a great bass and guitar intro, Morrison’s wistful reflection has real meat – we can see and feel the scenes of verdant hollows, misty mornings, waterfalls, and the greenest of grass behind the stadium. Berns’ little touches are everything: a comforting organ enters for the second verse, hand claps bolster the third, and the bridge turns the bass and guitar intro inside out to neatly convey the passage of time. Most important, Van has never again sounded so at home in his skin.
Then there was some trouble at Bang. Berns wanted more control of the publishing. Wexler alleges that Berns’ affinity with an unsavory element was increasing. Berns sued the partners for breach of contract and went his separate way. Shortly after that Bert Berns died, taking his talent and his secrets with him.