Was Bert Berns the Greatest White Producer of Black Soul?


YESTERDAY I WAS lucky enough to see the UK premiere of Bang!, Brett Berns’ exceptional doc about his dad, who co-wrote and/or produced at least a dozen of the greatest R&B/soul records to come out of New York City in the ’60s: ‘Cry to Me’, ‘Cry Baby’, ‘Piece of My Heart’, ‘I’ll Take Good Care of You’, ‘Are You Lonely For Me, Baby’, ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘It’s All Over’, ‘I Don’t Want to Go On Without You’, ‘It Was Easier to Hurt Her’, ‘Tell Him’, ‘A Little Bit of Soap’ and ‘Down in the Valley’.

(That’s without even mentioning his considerable success with such white “pop” artists as the McCoys, the Strangeloves, and of course Them/Van Morrison and Neil Diamond.)

Bang! is a thrilling, moving and at moments very funny film about a remarkable character, a Jewish hustler who loved African-American singers, Cuban dance rhythms, and Italian mobsters in equal measure. In a Q&A after the Doc’n’Roll screening in London, Brett Berns said “the sands of time” had covered over his father’s achievements, and that he’d set out years ago with the principal aim of getting Bert into the Rock & Roll of Fame. That finally happened this year, a testament to Brett’s perseverance and belief, but it’s been an arduous process. I recall meeting Joel Selvin in New York in 1998 when was he was doing preliminary research for his ace Berns biog Here Comes the Night, a primary source for Bang!, with excerpts narrated by Steve Van Zandt.


Thank god Brett had the presence of mind to start interviewing acquaintances and colleagues of his father’s long before he was able to garner any interest in the project: Bang! really feels like a labour of love and devotion, boasting irresistible interviews with Bert’s take-no-shit widow Ilene (Brett’s mom); with an enthroned Solomon Burke and with Betty Harris and Brenda Reid (of the Exciters); with surprisingly endearing mobster Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia (who brought the great Freddie Scott to Berns); with his greatest writing partner Jerry Ragovoy; and with a host of the hilarious music-biz Jews who adored Berns (though not with Jerry Wexler, the G – as in Gerald – of Bert’s Bang! label, and someone who doesn’t emerge from the film too well despite being Brett’s godfather).

Doubtless as a result of project’s slow-building momentum, Brett was eventually able to interview Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Van Morrison – all of whom were touched directly or indirectly by Bert – but predictably they don’t provide much more than cliché in conversation (and Van doesn’t mention the fact that Wassel once smashed an acoustic guitar over his head in New York’s King Edward Hotel… or perhaps Brett had to edit it out).

The only gaping omission in this fine film is any vivid impression of Berns himself, given the regrettable absence of interview footage with the man. But there is a wonderful piece of session audio in which Bert coaches the magnificent Betty Harris through the opening line of ‘It’s Dark Outside’ – and it tells you all need to know about this deeply soulful cat and the big heart that gave out on him on a bitterly cold day at the end of December 1967.

See Bang!, read Here Comes the Night, and plunge back into those gloriously overpowering soul ballads.

Oh, and here’s a MOJO piece I wrote on Berns back in March 1998…


Bert Berns: The Soul Man with a Huckster’s Heart

HE WAS, said Jerry Wexler (above right), “a paunchy, nervous cat with a shock of unruly black hair”. He looked like a vaguely disreputable cross between Gene Vincent and Denholm Elliott. He liked the company of gangsters, and he boasted that he’d run guns and dope in the Havana of the 1950s.

But Bert Russell Berns was also a master of symphonic soul, of the uptown New York sound that combined cascading orchestration with drenching gospel vocals. He made the kind of records Bacharach and David might have cut had they ventured down to Stax, or Pomus and Shuman down to Muscle Shoals: stupendous soul singles like Betty Harris’ ‘Cry To Me’, Solomon Burke’s ‘Goodbye, Baby (Baby Goodbye)’, Ben E. King’s ‘It’s All Over’, and Freddie Scott’s ‘Are You Lonely For Me’. In partnership with Jerry Ragovoy, Berns wrote and produced orgasmic soul ballads by Garnet Mimms and Erma Franklin, whose scorching ‘Piece Of My Heart’ has been covered by everyone from Big Brother & the Holding Company (1967) to Shaggy (1997).

“He was a great writer, a great man,” said Solomon Burke. “‘Cry To Me’ [1961]… was really soul music. It wasn’t like pop at that time, it wasn’t country, it wasn’t like R&B. The only way it could be classified was soul music. That’s when it all started.” High praise from a man who, according to Jerry Wexler, actively disliked the cocky, street-smart Berns.

Berns had learned his smarts in the Bronx, where he was born to Russian immigrant shopkeepers on 8 November 1929. He studied classical piano as a child, and possibly even attended the famous Juilliard music school. Employment during the ’50s came in a variety of forms: work as a salesman, as a music copyist, and finally as a session pianist. Smitten with salsa, he headed south to Cuba and soaked up the quajira rhythms of Havana – rhythms that would come to serve him well in the early ’60s. (Jerry Wexler remarked that Berns made a virtual cottage industry out of the chord changes to ‘Guantanamera’.)

Returning to New York at the end of the ’50s, Berns took a job as a songplugger with Robert Mellin Music, just down the road from the Brill Building on Broadway. Under the pseudonyms Bert Russell and Russell Byrd, he wrote songs – and even recorded them – for labels like Laurie and Wand. With Phil Medley he wrote ‘Twist And Shout’, a song massacred by Jerry Wexler and Phil Spector when they produced a sorry version for Atlantic vocal group the Top Notes, but then revived by Berns himself when he produced the 1962 version by the Isley Brothers. Other early hits included the Jarmels’ ‘Little Bit Of Soap’ and The Exciters’ ‘Tell Him’.

Work for Atlantic began in late 1960. “He just came off the street one day and started demonstrating songs to me,” recalled Jerry Wexler. “He had so many ideas and licks that I said, ‘We’re gonna produce some records together’.” Taking over the Drifters from the departing Leiber and Stoller, Berns produced ‘At The Club’, ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’, and the group’s last great single, ‘Under The Boardwalk’ (1964), with its sombre Berns-Wexler-composed B-side ‘I Don’t Want To Go On Without You’. For Solomon Burke he produced ‘Cry To Me’, ‘The Price’, and ‘If You Need Me’, and co-wrote ‘Down In The Valley’ and ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ (a song Burke described as “our gospel march”). Wexler even put new signing Wilson Pickett with Berns for one single, the gloriously misjudged but ‘Come Home, Baby’. “Bert had Pickett crooning, something like Ben E. King, and it was a flop,” Wex said.

In 1963, fate had brought Berns together with Philly-based writer-producer Jerry Ragovoy, and he wound up splitting the royalties on the sublime lamentation that was Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters’ ‘Cry Baby’ – backing vocals courtesy of Cissy Houston and the Warwick sisters. “Bert was a meat-and-potatoes four-chord basic kinda guy with a street feel that other people would have killed for,” Ragovoy told Al Kooper. “I think his talent far exceeded mine, but he couldn’t really hear past four chords, and comparatively I was sophisticated. So I would come up with a fifth chord and he’d give me that look and say, ‘What is that, bebop?'” After several more Mimms beauties – ‘It Was Easier To Hurt Her’, ‘I’ll Take Good Care Of You’ – Ragovoy took the uptown soul sound to a delirious extreme with Lorraine Ellison’s volcanic ‘Stay With Me’ (1966).

Booming drums, mournful horns, gospel keyboards, wailing female vocals: these were just some of the ingredients Berns utilised to produce such sobbingly cathartic sides as ‘Cry Baby’, ‘Cry To Me’, and Ben E. King’s 1964 masterpiece ‘It’s All Over’. There’s a lot of raw despair in these records, but it’s a despair held in check by the craft of the arrangements. “I never met anyone who understood pop so well,” wrote Nik Cohn in Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom. “He was an identikit American record man, canny and tough and flash, always money-conscious… he wasn’t a beautiful person but he was intelligent, articulate and he made some good lines.”

Cohn met Berns in “a decaying West Hampstead caff” in mid-1965, on one of the trips Berns made to London to produce Them and Lulu for Decca. Ironically, given the group’s cover of Twist And Shout, Berns could see that the Beatles were sounding the death-knell for Brill Building pop. “These boys have genius,” he told Cohn. “They may be the ruin of us all.” This may be partly what had sparked his interest in Them, and especially in the band’s truculent frontman Van Morrison. “Bert was a very creative, dynamic guy,” Phil Coulter, right-hand-man to Them’s manager Phil Solomon, told Johnny Rogan. “He beat the band into shape. It had always seemed like Van Morrison and a bunch of geezers. But without diluting their rawness, Bert gave them a lot of cohesion.”

The cohesion even extended to the hiring of “Little” Jimmy Page on lead guitar for the session that produced ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ b/w ‘Gloria’. Them had an even bigger hit with Berns’ own ‘Here Comes The Night’, which reached No.2 in March 1965 and even cracked the American Top Thirty. Indeed, Berns believed in Morrison’s talent enough to send him a one-way ticket to New York after Them had split up, and to sign him to the Bang! label he had formed in partnership with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun.

Taking his place on a roster that included the McCoys and Neil Diamond, Morrison soon found that Berns was giving him less than his undivided attention. Apart from the enduringly charming ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’, which made the American Top Ten in August 1967, the tracks cut in New York with Berns – including the epic ‘T.B. Sheets’ and early, Dylanesque versions of Astral Weeks‘ ‘Madame George’ and ‘Beside You’ – left Van deeply unhappy. For all of Berns’ desire to break the mold, his business style was still pure Broadway hucksterism – and utterly inappropriate for Morrison, who recorded a series of songs with nonsensical lyrics to fulfil his Bang contract. (A propos the business style, Jerry Wexler claims that things “started to get funny” with Berns in 1967, and that there “signs that he was running with wise guys”. When Berns sued Atlantic for breach of contract, Wexler and the Ertegun brothers “said goodbye to Bang”.)

The story goes that Berns brought ‘Piece Of My Heart’ to Morrison and asked him to help him finish the song. When Van declined, Berns took the song instead to his old partner Jerry Ragovoy, who came up with the immortal “Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man” opening line and completed most of the verses to go with Berns’ lacerating chorus. Recorded by Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma, it became the twenty-first single on the Shout label that Berns had formed in 1966 as a soul counterpart to Bang – and which had already released one bona fide classic in Freddie Scott’s funky ‘Are You Lonely For Me’. (When Keith Richards was asked to pick his desert island Top Ten in 1986, he chose both ‘Are You Lonely For Me’ and ‘Piece Of My Heart’.)

‘Piece Of My Heart’ was Berns’ last great soul production, but not the end of his influence on pop music. Janis Joplin, for starters, would go on to record ‘Cry Baby’, as well as two further Jerry Ragovoy songs, and the Blues Brothers would turn ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ into their very own sanctified anthem. Occasionally someone else draws on the deep well that was Berns’ musical spirit and offer up a slice of deep orchestral soul in a spirit of homage to the man Solomon Burke – mistaking the man’s heritage – called a “paddy motherfucker”. When Maria McKee and Sam Brown collaborated on a track for McKee’s 1993 album You Gotta Sin To Get Saved, they came up with the ecstatic ‘I Forgive You’, a magnificent tribute to the man who keeled over from a heart attack in a Manhattan hotel room on 30 December, 1967.

“Berns was a soul savant, a backroom white soul brother,” writes his son Brett in the liner-note to a double-CD package of Berns classics serviced to the industry this summer by the Sloopy II Music company that administers his publishing. Jerry Wexler, who did not attend his funeral, said that Berns was “eclectic, a tireless go-getter and hitmaker”. Few unsung heroes of ’60s soul are more deserving of a place in the pantheon.

The Best of Bert

The Isley Brothers: Twist And Shout (Wand, 1962)

Betty Harris: Cry To Me (Jubilee, 1963)

Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters: Cry Baby (United Artists, 1963)

Solomon Burke: Goodbye Baby (Baby, Goodbye) (Atlantic, 1964)

Ben E King: It’s All Over (Atco, 1964)

Them: Here Comes The Night (Decca, 1965)

Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters: I’ll Take Good Care Of You (United Artists, 1966)

Freddie Scott: Are You Lonely For Me (Shout, 1966)

Van Morrison: Brown-Eyed Girl (Bang, 1967)

Erma Franklin: Piece Of My Heart (Shout, 1967)

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