One of the most audacious, musically gifted and influential songwriters and producers of the 1960s whose maverick, one-of-a-kind style encompassed crossover genres of pop, Latin rhythms, R&B, rock and roll and soul is going to be inducted with the 2016 class to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non performer on April 8. However, you probably never heard of this giant of the industry, Bert Berns, whose amazing story is recounted in the World Premiere documentary Bang! The Bert Berns Story.
Berns’ life, career and musical artistry are a fascinating mix of surreal behind the scenes power and celebrity at a time when the music industry was in the thrall of mob influencers, and autocratic dynamos like Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler. But as icons like Janis Ian have insisted, with all of their sinister mayhem and mastery, those in the industry were a kinder and gentler bunch than those in the industry today.
If knowing that the roots of the current trends in music are steeped in the past, then the documentary directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles reveals how music grounded some of the very finest musicians currently recording. This work is an important template and substantiated diagram of the history of the music business in the 1960s. It is both an illuminating chronicle of songwriting and producing icons, like Berns, and the performers on his team whose music is still being played and spun out in new recordings.
Berns grew up in the Bronx. The filmmakers clarify that the overshadowing monolith that impacted Berns’ “live fast, accomplish all” mantra occurred when he contracted rheumatic fever. The disease affected his heart which became enlarged as the years progressed. Daily, Berns lived with this cornering darkness that, like an early death sentence from which he was destined to have no medical reprieve, spurred him into bursts of energy that produced dynamic results. As a youngster with the disease, which had yet to be completely understood and which in later years was solved with daily doses of penicillin (my brother also had rheumatic fever but was spared Berns’ fate), Berns was prescribed bed rest and told to do nothing which excited exertion.
Berns’s parents bought him a piano to give him something to do that was not strenuous. He mastered it and song writing and gained inspiration and passion to be a dance performer (he often danced in Mambo clubs), or, at the least, be involved with the wonderful music that he grew up with in his neighborhood-African American and Latin. Out of a hunger for more Berns went on a life-changing visit to pre-revolution Cuba (where he met shady characters that provided fabulous stories). After his return with no job, no fulfillment of promises from various music quarters and his mom slipping him money to pay for “the dump” he lived in, he finally was able to pull in $50 a week as a songwriter with Robert Mellin, an old time publishing company.
Around this time (1960), he met Ilene Berns who was his lucky star and together they worked with synchronicity and synergy to realize his ambitions. From 1960 until his death in 1967, Berns’ life was a celebrated whirlwind of hits with his first “A Little Bit of Soap,” recorded by the Jarmels (1961). With Phil Medley he wrote “Twist and Shout,” the bombshell hit recorded by the Isley Brothers and later, The Beatles. He had hits with Solomon Burke and the Exciters and was producing on his own when Jerry Wexler and the likable Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records could no longer ignore this upstart genius whom they needed to bring in under their influence to receive a piece of his action. From there Berns went on to create his own labels and gain incredible success. All appeared to be on the upswing until a certain gentleman came calling.
As the filmmakers manifest again and again, through interviews with his wife Ilene, performers Barbara Harris (she died after the interview), Cissy Houston, Solomon Burke (he died after the interview), Ronald Isley, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, SONY CEO Doug Morris, fellow song writers and interviews with Van Morrison and Sir Paul McCartney, we discover Berns was a brilliant innovator and charming, frenetic guardian spirit of music. He positioned himself to achieve pivotal positions in the industry out of a desperate “Mexican jumping bean” urgency. He was driven to satisfy his musical mission as the clock and his enlarging heart ticked toward finality.
With the gravelly, rough and appropriately punched-up voice-over narration by Steven Van Zandt, filmmakers unspool archival black and white footage and photographs from the streets of the Bronx, to Cuba, to Manhattan and elsewhere. They reference Berns’ life into music success and glory that was soon eclipsed but never forgotten by Ilene and the pantheon of performers and close friends who adored him. All the footage combines to form a diorama that encapsulates the high points and lows of his life. Its theme always hints at the somber underbelly in the light-speed Berns’ race to stave off death by indulging in that which he loved, supporting his family and writing and producing chart-busting music.
To their great credit and vision toward down-to-earth reality and authenticity, documentarians Berns and Sarles also interview, and discuss in the narration with supporting photos, the shady characters that sometimes used muscle to provide Berns with the help he needed against others’ Machiavellian machinations. The commentary is at times humorous and heartfelt as wise-guys “tell it like it is” with typical wise-guy accents. And at times there is an element of fear and dread, until one considers that fear was Berns’ daily portion as the cloud of heart attack grew imminent, a cloud that he had lived with even as a child just after contracting the fever and receiving the diagnosis.
When we consider that Berns was the first American record producer to travel across the Atlantic to work in London after the British Invasion exploded onto the scene, a place he visited three times, we begin to realize his ubiquitous artistic influence. When we consider that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and even Janis Joplin (“Piece of My Heart”) recorded his powerhouse songs, adding their spin to his greatness, we begin to see how that ineffable, intangible something that is perhaps divine ordination, whether imagined or faith-filled, effervesced through his veins and sparked his desire to make a legacy for himself and especially for his beloved family.
Bert Berns was the producer who gave Van Morrison and Neil Diamond their shot at fame. And this isn’t even a tip of the iceberg in the life and career of this amazing artist whose knack with song arrangements was better than most. If he enjoyed rubbing elbows with wise-guys in the mob underworld which was in-your-face in the music business in the 1960s, at least their taste wasn’t bad. It was a business which produced some of the most ground-breaking music in the 20th century, music that still holds sway.
Because of the vision of directors Brett Berns and Bob Sarles, their documentary Bang! The Bert Berns’ Story has a refreshing “no holds barred style” so that the intriguing facts about the history of that time resonate beyond what documentaries about the 1960s are usually able to achieve. The music is dynamite. The directors masterfully shape the documentary with Van Zandt’s narration carving into and away from the interviews, music, and archival footage. This effects a memorable portrait of a king whose deposing by death happened far too soon.
The film is a must see, not only to revel in a time authentically revealed in its music and grittiness. It is a film which reveals how greatness is fleeting. We are not guaranteed the next day. Berns understood this more than most and that knowledge made him forge a legacy of which many would be proud.