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Human Needs, Dirty Deeds

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I spent almost all of first grade in bed with rheumatic fever. By summer, the doctors told my parents that against all odds I had fully recovered and would have no limitations in life. Bert Berns was not so lucky. He had rheumatic fever as a teenager and was told that due to heart damage he wouldn’t live to see twenty-one. He did, but with such a loud clock ticking in his head he was in a hurry to drink in life and spit it back out. It turned out to be a good way for him to live because his heart gave out shortly after his thirty-eighth birthday. He lived so intensely that longtime San Francisco Chronicle pop music writer Joel Selvin has no trouble filling the 365 pages of Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues ($25, Contemporary).

In 1929, the year of the stock market crash, New York City dress store owner Charlie Berns named his newborn son after noted pacifist and socialist Bertrand Russell. This might have been a political choice, but it also may have subconsciously nudged young Bert onto an artistic path (Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for literature).

Bert Berns was a producer, the man in charge when it came to making records. Toward that end he wrote songs and arrangements, played guitar and piano, sang, and owned a record label.  He recorded artists who were country (Conway Twitty), pop (Lulu, Tony Orlando), folk (The Limeliters), and, above all, rhythm and blues (The Drifters, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, Solomon Burke, LaVern Baker). He teamed with artists who would have even greater success later on: Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Jimmy Page, Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach (who studied with Darius Milhaud and wrote the Shirelles’ beautiful, ghostly “Baby It’s You” before going on to co-write a string of classic songs for Dionne Warwick).

Rock & roll then was not just a new thing but an art form that sometimes still bore the imprint of the big bands and orchestras which had preceded it. Berns embraced this in the music he shepherded to wax and so helped to usher in the first era of symphonic R&B, which ultimately helped to define the music of Isaac Hayes (using the Memphis Symphony as part of his palette), Gamble and Huff with Philadelphia International, and Johnny Pate with Curtis Mayfield. Berns was also in the middle of the epochal shift of gospel into the secular realm, bringing sanctified sounds onto the hit parade with the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and “Twist and Shout.”

He was the first American producer to work in a British studio and British invasion groups such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, and Yardbirds cut his songs. The one track Led Zeppelin didn’t release from the sessions for their first album was a cover of Berns’ “Baby Come on Home.”

At a time when the U.S. government was enforcing an embargo of Cuba, Berns was undermining it with his use of Cuban rhythms and song forms. Selvin writes about Berns’ work with preacher/R&B star Solomon Burke: “’Tonight My Heart She is Crying’ floats on a gentle Afro-Cuban danzon with xylophone, flute, and a bed of tinkling percussion.” Berns made an albumherecomes with groundbreaking Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez  while “Twist and Shout” had “the Cuban guajiro rhythm….It was Afro-Cuban rock and roll. The mystery of the mambo lurked at the heart of this record.”

Berns worked closely with such great Brill Building songwriting teams as Leiber and Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. He collaborated with fellow musical pioneers such as Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. In 1964, the year that the Beatles began their conquest of America, Berns put 19 singles on the pop charts, a big slice of the 51 he racked up in his seven year career.

“Berns wasn’t the greatest of the era, although his best work was as good as anybody’s,” writes Selvin. “But his unique voice as a songwriter, producer, and record man is so deeply ingrained in the vocabulary of pop music it has become common parlance….[His] songs have been covered, quoted, cannibalized, used as salvage parts, and recycled so many times, his touch has just dissolved into the literature.”

Author/musician Ned Sublette adds: “Bert Berns is to me the great rock and roll producer, the one who best combined the Afro-Cuban groove with the gospel shout.”

The all too brief era of Bert Berns’ career (1960-1967) was a time of great change and upheaval in America. As the civil rights movement exploded across the country, clear channel radio stations beamed music from the deep South nationwide, blasting out a soundtrack wrested from slavery and sharecropping. It was probably most often heard on transistor radios, the first of now countless devices which make music listening more mobile. The transistor radio removed music listening from effective parental control while increasing the level of communication, albeit filtered through various third parties, between music listeners of all races and between North and South.

The communication between blacks and whites went in both directions. “When Jerry Wexler sent Wilson Pickett down to Muscle Shoals, the singer looked out the plane window as it landed and saw black people picking cotton. He was met at the airport by [studio owner Rick] Hall, who Pickett had no idea was white. In fact, to Pickett’s immense surprise the entire Muscle Shoals scene—the songwriters, the studio musicians—were young white Southerners.” In all likelihood, their parents or grandparents had been, like the blacks Pickett saw from the plane, sharecroppers too.

But along with making music and making history, there was also making money. This meant being cozy with the Mob and claiming  copyrights that should have belonged to others, all the while “cutting corners, making records on the cheap, not paying royalties, and every other trick they could learn to put a few extra pennies in their pockets.”

Along with so many others, Bert Berns was at least knee deep in all this.  But although they exploited artists, this new breed of music entrepreneurs also helped to create and shape a previously non-existent teen market–the idea that youth has a culture of its own did not exist before the 1950s. The emergence of the teen market was a necessary step on the way to the revolutionary youth culture which followed. In that era even payola—the payment of bribes by the record companies to get radio airplay—had a positive aspect. Payola rates were low and that allowed for music that was fundamentally outside the existing mainstream to get heard.

This could make a writer cynical. But although he deliberately promotes himself as a  “wiseass,” Joel Selvin’s love for and hard-won knowledge of this music infuses every page. His conclusion? “They operated under an industrial mandate. Their music’s appeal was designed to sell records; any self-serving ‘artistic’ motives were pointless. Under such strictures, however, these men and women made magnificent music, these glorious records, filled with imagination, wonder and beauty.”

Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock & Rap Confidential. Free email subscriptions are available by writing rockrap@aol.com.

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