Rock’s Forgotten Forefather

Out now on DVD, a poignant documentary delves into the workingman genius of Bert Berns

Bert Berns with R&B icon Solomon Burke

In the late 50s and early 60s, popular music was transformed by rock’n’roll.

Rhythm and blues, one of the cornerstones of the style, was largely confined to the African American community, but when white teenagers began buying “race records,” the music started to evolve. Sam Phillips recorded white artists playing black music with a country influence and created rockabilly, another important influence. By the early 60s, labels like Atlantic and Chess were having financial success selling rock’n’roll records to a white audience. The producers and owners of Chess, Sun and Atlantic have long been known for their contributions to the genre, but Bert Berns, the man who helped bring soul music and Latin rhythms to the ears of white listeners, has been largely overlooked.

Berns get his due in BANG: The Bert Berns Story, out now on DVD. The film was directed by his son, Brett Berns, and rock documentary heavyweight Bob Sarles, producer of ten years of artist tribute docs for the Rock Hall of Fame. The story is based on Joel Selvin’s 2014 book Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues  (Counterpoint Press). The story is told using archival footage, photos from the Berns family, tapes made at recording sessions during the 60s and interviews with the people who knew and worked with Berns – producers like Jerry Leiber and Jerry Ragovoy and artists including Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Ronald Isley and Cissy Houston. Appreciations from Keith Richards and Paul McCartney fill in some of the musical blanks.

Selvin got interested in Berns in 1970, after reading Charlie Gillett’s book, The Sound of the City. “Gillett identified Berns as someone who produced a specific kind of record, with artists like Garnet Mimms, The Isley Brothers and Solomon Burke.” Selvin says. “I was sold. Who is this guy? Not a lot of information about him was available. I started investigating, looking for his name on 45-rpm record credits. In the 90s, I went to a concert at San Francisco’s Maritime Hall. Bert Berns’ daughter, Cassandra, was backstage. I met her and her brother, Brett. A couple of weeks later, Brett and I exchanged information. I had all these records he didn’t know about and he had his father’s life story, with all the gangster connections, and details about his career. We were up all night talking and pretty much decided that night to do a book.”

Berns started out as a songwriter, moving on to produce records while he was working at Atlantic Records with Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and other legends. He learned quickly and created hits like The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” recorded on the fly in a three minute session, and The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.” With Atlantic’s financial help, he formed Bang Records. He soon charted hits by Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, The McCoys (“Hang on Sloopy”), and Erma Franklin, who released “Piece of My Heart” on Shout Records, Bang’s soul music subsidiary. Berns had contracted rheumatic fever as a teenager, and was not expected to live very long. This looming death sentence made him desperate for success and intensified the emotional content of his songs.

On his way to the top, Berns befriended gangsters like Tommy Eboli, from the Genovese crime family, and Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia. When Berns had a dispute with Neal Diamond, the mob beat up Diamond’s manager and tossed a stink bomb into a nightclub he was performing at. His mob connections may be one reason that rock lovers and historians aren’t aware of his contributions.

“He left behind powerful enemies that went to great lengths to see his memories were suppressed,” Selven says. “The guys at Atlantic, Ahmet and Jerry Wexler, were well connected and in charge of writing their own history. They would not get involved with my Berns project. Ahmet once got picked up by gangsters and taken to a meeting he never scheduled. It was Tommy Eboli’s guys. There’s no question that Berns’ mob connections have played a part in quashing his reputation, despite the influence he had on the development of pop music.

“He was the first to bring the Cuban and Afro-Cuban music of New York into mainstream rock. Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie brought it into the jazz world; Berns brought it into pop. This was real Afro-Cuban stuff, with roots in Santeria and Yoruba music from Africa. He also brought in the deep soul feel of the south with songs like ‘Cry Baby’ and ‘Piece of My Heart.’ He wrote songs about darkness and fear of death, masquerading as teenage records. They’re desperate and urgent, more metaphysical than your ordinary ‘my-baby-left-me’ song. They’re not sad, they’re suicidal.”

The details of Berns’ personal life and his working relationships are supplied by emotionally expressive interviews that Brett Berns filmed with musicians like Solomon Burke, Cissy Houston, Betty Harris, Van Morrison, Jerry Goldstein and Bob Feldman. They share many poignant, personal details with the camera. “Brett got a lot of great interviews, informed by the fact that he was Bert’s son. They unburdened themselves to him in a way they wouldn’t have for anyone else. With his sister, Cassie, he’s pursuing the memories of the father they never know. They were so young when he died; all they know of him are the stories they’ve gotten from other people.

“While we were working on the book and the film, Brett and Cassie rented an office in 1650 Broadway, once a center for young pop songwriters and producers. Their father’s ghost haunts the hallways, keeping them company as they work on bringing his name back to life.

“We’re still in touch,” Selvin concludes. “This is not just a book, or a movie, it’s a mission. Berns’ career was only seven years, but we’ve been working on the book and the film for 16 years, on an off. It’s an epic story that needs to be told.”

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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