O-o-h child



A Friday, Fleet Street, and a flow

of men and women power-dressed

and knocking off for weekends

in the rolling Cotswold hills.


And me, who never had a proper job at all,

now gazing over hipster latte

at the stripey men and at the women in stilettos

as the next song in the café starts.


A blast of brass and then a slinky groove,

a woman’s warming voice intoning to her child

that things will soon get easier, that life will brighten

in the darkness of their struggle to survive.


The suits and the stilettos pass, but in my mind

I see the starving child and hear her momma’s words,

their chances less than average of finding

ease and sunlight on the lethal streets.


The world still fortified against their kind,

designed by men in suits

and ladies in stiletto heels.

Stan Lewis, 1927-2018


In southern soul news: I confess I only just registered that Jewel/Paul/Ronn owner and Shreveport legend STAN LEWIS passed away a month ago.

Here’s a great shot my pal Muir Mackean snapped of Stan outside his record store, on the 1985 travels that produced (the newly-reissued) Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted… more detail at https://www.offbeat.com/news/stan-lewis-obituary/

Say it again: the return of my Country Soul tome

Say It One Time42780016

The author copies of BMG’s “30th Anniversary” edition of my first book just showed up, complete with a foreword by country-soul king William Bell (right) dozens of previously-unseen photos taken in 1985 by my accomplice Muir Mackean. Here are the first few paras of the new introduction I wrote for it…

NAMED AFTER an extemporary yelp in the fadeout of Kip Anderson’s bereft 1968 single “I Went Off and Cried,” Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted was my first book. Revisiting it for the second time in 30 years, it feels, in places, as callow and earnest as I was myself at age 26, when I wrote it. I’d retroactively fallen in love with a sub-genre of American popular music that barely had a name, and I was close to evangelistic in my desire to turn people on to it.

The book’s original 1987 subtitle was The Country Side of Southern Soul, its cover sporting an awkward splice of a tuxedoed Ray Charles wearing a Stetson hat. (Tuxedo = soul, Stetson = country: you get the drift.) Brother Ray had, of course, been one of the prime movers in bringing black and white music together—he followed up his groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music albums from 1962 with the even more explicitly titled Country & Western Meets Rhythm & Blues, a.k.a. Together Again, in 1965—but not even he used the term “country soul,” which became part of the revised subtitle for Say It’s 1998 reissue and stays in place for this updated edition. I’m fairly sure I first encountered the phrase in Charlie Gillett’s groundbreaking history The Sound of the City (1970).

As I now look back to the early 1980s, when I first wrote about music for the NME, I ask myself why “country soul” got under my skin to such a degree that I decided to write a whole book about it. Naturally I loved the music, but there was more to it than that: something poetic, something almost mystical. Learning, as a schoolboy, that Aretha Franklin had recorded her breakthrough Atlantic single “I Never Loved a Man”/“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” in a tiny studio in (of all places) Alabama—engineered, moreover, by a local white man named Rick Hall—gave me a thrill and instilled a curiosity that led me on a long and winding journey to—well, the very studio where Franklin made that record…

Don’t delay: Buy Say It One Time for Brokenhearted here…

Say it one more time…

SIOMT_cover 2

A heads-up that my first book finally has a US publisher after 30 years. BMG reissues this revised and expanded edition on August 14th, complete with tons more pix by Muir Mackean and a foreword by William Bell – one of the great country-soul singers.

Here’s what BMG themselves have to say about it:

“Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted was the first of many titles by renowned UK music journalist Barney Hoskyns. Thirty years after its publication he revisited the modern-day classic for this revised and expanded anniversary edition that marks the book’s first publication in the US. Fascinated by the collision of country and soul music in the Southern states, Hoskyns and photographer Muir MacKean set out on a journey through the American South to explore the phenomenon of primarily black singers and primarily white musicians joining forces in the 1960s to create musical magic in an era of racial tension. From Memphis to Muscle Shoals to Nashville, they sat down with dozens of the architects of what’s come to be known as Country Soul to capture a story that is as inspiring as it is historically important.”

His Name was Prince


Yesterday morning I had a private tour of the new Prince exhibition at London’s O2 centre… This is the unedited version of a Times piece I wrote about it.


I hadn’t expected the sudden pang of sadness as I walked in and saw all those gaudy, gloriously naff outfits. My eyes went straight to the studded trench coat – slightly frayed – that Prince wore in Purple Rain, and I was intensely aware he wasn’t inside it. He would never wear any of those costumes, or play any of those daft guitars, again.

The clothes looked child-size, tinier even than I remember him being. For all their brocaded opulence, they made him less immortal than he’d seemed in life. As did the other artifacts in the O2’s My Name Is Prince exhibition: the grubby notebooks and yellow legal pads he scrawled his lyrics on; the road-worn flight cases in the special “VIP” rooms; the bar of Dove soap in his backstage makeup box.

I don’t know why any of these relics should have surprised me. For all his “godlike genius” (to use that overblown rock-journo phrase), Prince was as human as the rest of us, a fact made starkly clear by the nature of his passing – an overdose of the “hillbilly heroin” Fentanyl just 18 short months ago. But he operated on a level of enigma, artifice and musical extravagance that bordered at times on the supernatural.

Nik Cohn, the first great rock journo, called Prince the most naturally talented musician in the history of pop; I wouldn’t disagree. A walking one-man mash-up of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger – not forgetting James Brown, naturally – he could somehow do anything and everything. Including, as it turns out, wash his face with Dove soap.

One might legitimately ask why My Name Is Prince, like the record-breaking David Bowie and Alexander McQueen exhibitions, wasn’t put on at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Its curator, Angie Marchese, told me there are no fewer than 8,000 “pieces” at Prince’s old Minnesota home/HQ Paisley Park, so there’s certainly no shortage of items for a far bigger show. Could it be because he was African-American? Or just because he was ultimately less savvy about fashion than Bowie, let alone McQueen?

Yet that’s one of the things I find most endearing about My Name Is Prince. The entire exhibition is a testament to an essentially small-town notion of glamour, a homemade synthesis of glam androgny and neo-psychedelic dandyism that mirrors the synthesis of the man’s greatest music.

Prince never moved to the coasts; never worked with name designers; never became just another papped celeb in Versace or Lagerfeld (or McQueen). All the outfits from 1987 onwards – starting with the faintly revolting orange-peach ensemble created for 1987’s creative zenith Sign ‘O’ The Times – were made by his own team of seamstresses at Paisley Park. That includes, of course, the matching high-heeled footwear that indirectly killed him. Decades of dancing in them did for both his hips and left him in constant agony. Hence the Fentanyl.

If anything about the exhibition disappoints, it’s the relative paucity of items from the pre-Purple Rain years: no jockstraps from the Dirty Mind days, not a lot from 1999, barring typed lyrics for ‘Little Red Corvette’ and other songs from that breakthrough album. (There’s nothing at all from the late ’70s era of ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and his first two albums for Warner Brothers.) There was something so fresh and D.I.Y. about the hybrid new-wave punk-funk of Prince’s formative period; I’d like to have seen more of it at the O2.

But there’s more than enough to compensate for the absence of 2-Tone badges and kinky garter belts: a multitude of bizarrely-shaped guitars; a recreation of the stage Prince used in his last years; the “third-eye” sunglasses designed in 2014 by Minneapolis sisters Coco and Breezy; and notebooks for the Dreams script that became Purple Rain, with dialogue for Vanity rather than her successor Apollonia. (Embossed on one of the exhibition’s encased notebooks are the words “I’m not crazy I’m creative”. But as we all know, there’s a very thin line between genius and madness.)

Prince was such a weird little dude: so self-possessed, so spookily smart, so almost otherworldly. The one time I interviewed him was the oddest pop encounter I’ve ever had. Yet walking bleary-eyed (and a little teary) around this exhibition, I remembered how radical and revolutionary he was: a miniature purple god, part magus, part satyr, as lewd and libidinous as he was emotionally daring. He made Madonna and Michael Jackson sound like hacks.

And even here, walking through the vaults and wardrobes of his thrilling career, he remains an enigma – a man behind a mask.

Words in your ears


A most convivial evening in Islington last night in the company not only of my former MOJO boss Mark Ellen and David “1971” Hepworth but of Tony Fletcher (in the middle, top pic), who talked so infectiously about wicked Wilson Pickett, subject of his great new biography. Both “chat shows” will be available soon in the Word In Your Ear podcast series. Thanks, fellas.

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)