Human Needs, Dirty Deeds


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.

Lee Ballinger, CounterPunch’s music columnist, is co-editor of Rock and Rap Confidential author of the forthcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing. He can be reached at: Rockrap@aol.com

October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?