Author discusses life, legacy of Bert Berns

The enigmatic life, times and oft-overlooked legacy of writer-producer Bert Berns is captured by veteran music writer Joel Selvin in the recent bio, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues (Counterpoint).

The former San Francisco Chronicle music critic and widely published author discussed the book May 31 on Greasy Tracks.

The complicated life of writer-producer Bert Berns is chronicled in Joel Selvin’s latest book. (Photo courtesy of Counterpoint)

Berns — stricken with rheumatic fever as a youth, lived most of his adult life with the knowledge that the childhood illness would lead to his early demise — died in 1967 at the age of 38, six months after he produced the Top-10 hit, “Brown-Eyed Girl,” effectively ushering in Van Morrison’s solo career.

Driven by a restless, competitive spirit, the urge to make a mark and a sense that the clock was ticking down for him, Berns began his career as a writer in 1960 at the famed Brill Building in Manhattan. While not in the sought-after location of “Tin Pan Alley” in the borough, it was a start and Berns rose quickly through the ranks.

In 1962, the Isley Brothers recorded their second album which featured “Twist and Shout,” a track that Berns had co-written as Bert Russell — one of three names he used. More importantly, the upstart Berns produced the Isley’s effort to “show” recently signed Atlantic staff producer Phil Spector how the record should sound.

In the years that followed, Berns wrote and produced at Capitol, MGM, United Artists, Roulette and Atlantic. By 1963, he unseated the legendary team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to become Atlantic’s staff producer, having a hand in such classics as “Under The Boardwalk” (The Drifters) and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” (Solomon Burke).

He Ain’t Give You None: Jeff Barry, Bert Berns and Van Morrison in 1967. Morrison was signed to Berns’ Bang Records and had his first solo single, “Brown-Eyed Girl” with Berns producing. Morrison did not look back on the experience favorably. (Photo courtesy Counterpoint)

This was a time when renowned writers Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Jerry Ragovoy were penning chart-topping classics and a new breed of label bosses like Ahmet Ertegun were taking recorded music to new levels as a business. It was also an era where ground-breaking producers Spector, Gerald “Jerry” Wexler and Tom Dowd made their mark.

Berns singlehandedly put Morrison on the charts, first in 1965 with the band Them which took Berns’ written and produced “Here Comes The Night” to No. 2 in the U.K. When the Belfast Cowboy went solo in 1967 with the Berns-produced “Blowin’ Your Mind” album, it was released on the independent label — Bang Records — which Berns help found in 1965.

The label — named using the first letters of the first names of the four founders: Berns along with Atlantic Records executives Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun and Wexler – had its share of hits: “Brown-Eyed Girl” (Morrison), “Kentucky Woman” and “Cherry Cherry” (Neil Diamond), “Hang On Sloopy” (The McCoys) and “I Want Candy” (The Strangeloves), each of which had Berns writing or producing.

Studio trailblazers: Jerry Wexler (left) Bert Berns and Tom Dowd at work at Atlantic Records in New York City. Wexler was a force in the industry as a producer and was responsible for signing top talent. Dowd played a pivotal role in defining recording techniques such as implementing multi-tracking and popularizing stereo in the 1960s. (Photo courtesy Counterpoint)

The final year of his life proved to be chart-friendly for Berns. In addition to the success of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” the Berns-written and -produced “Are You Lonely For Me Baby” by Freddy Scott went to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart — the track was also recorded by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas that year and later by Al Green and Hank Ballard, while being an early 1970s concert staple for Jerry Garcia when not playing with the Grateful Dead. He hit the Top 10 when Erma Franklin cut “Piece of My Heart” — co-written with Ragovoy — which was later recorded by Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968 where it went to No. 12.

In the oft-cutthroat music world, there was a dark side to Berns’ business dealings as he allegedly employed mafia connections help him wrest sole control of Bang, while intimidating Morrison and Diamond to sign with his label.

Atlantic braintrust: Jerry Wexler, Bert Burns, Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun. (Photo courtesy of Counterpoint)

Selvin wrote for the Chronicle for nearly 40 year and has contributed to Rolling StoneMelody Maker and Billboard among other publications. He has authored or collaborated on a dozen books, including: Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock & Roll, Free Love and High Times in the Wild WestMonterrey PopThe Treasures of The Hard RockSly and the Family Stone: An Oral History; as well as biographies on Ricky Nelson and Sammy Hagar.

His next work — due to be published in the fall — is The Haight: Love, Rock, and Revolution which again brings Selvin’s writing with photos of the late Jim Marshall together. The duo had collaborated on a number of endeavors in the past, the first being the Monterrey Pop book in 1992. Selvin related how hundreds of photos by Marshall — who died in 2010 — some never-before-seen, were discovered and many will appear in the book.

Click here for Selvin’s interview

The longest-running soul-based program in the state, Greasy Tracks airs on Saturdays, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

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