Regarded by some as one of the greatest songwriters of the second half of the twentieth century, Bert Berns was also one of the most unknown.
You will remember the tunes but maybe not their source. Bern’s notable songwriting credits include titles such as Twist and Shout, Piece of My Heart, Here Comes the Night, Hang on Sloopy, and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love. Beyond writing, his production prowess in the recording studio includes well-known classics such as Baby Please Don’t Go, Brown Eyed Girl and Under the Boardwalk.
Berns seemed to be a modest man with an urgent mission, and a focused drive not unlike that of Bobby Darin – for good reason. With a damaged heart due childhood rheumatic fever, he was told he’d never live past the age of 21. Thus he yearned to make his short life worthwhile, whatever it took.
51 hits in a half dozen years with songs that he either penned or produced; nobody else at that time had such success back then. It was just phenomenal.
But there are multiple reasons why Berns remains largely unknown. He was a behind-the-scenes kind of guy in the record-making process and so his name was not familiar to the public. He also wrote under two different names—Burt Russell and his own.
He wrote and produced at studios such as Capitol, MGM, United Artists, Roulette and Atlantic. By 1963, he unseated the legendary hit machine giants Lieber and Stoller to become Atlantic’s key staff producer.
Needless to say, with such success there would be a few feathers ruffled.
[Thanks to Wikipedia and other Internet sources for the detail of this post – RS]
Bertrand Russell Berns
(November 8, 1929 – December 30, 1967),
also known as Bert Russell and (occasionally) Russell Byrd
Born in the Bronx, New York City, to Russian Jewish immigrants, Berns contracted rheumatic fever as a child, an illness that would mark the rest of his life, resulting in his early death. With a damaged heart he was told he’d never live past the age of 21, so he yearned to make his short life worthwhile, whatever it took.
Berns found enjoyment in the New York City sounds of his African American and Latino neighbors he’d grown up with, and this influenced the music and rhythms of his impassioned trademark style. As a young man, he danced in mambo nightclubs, and he went to Havana before the Cuban Revolution.
When he found his way into the New York music business, he did so with all of the gusto and desperation for success that he’d learned from his hard-working parents. He also brought along his mob connections and drew a lot of attention within the record industry in New York during his short, intense career.
Berns liked hanging around the wiseguys. These men wielded the ultimate unfair business advantage, because implicit in all their dealings was the understanding that they would kill anyone who didn’t do what they wanted. He came to be friends with these people, and his music business associates were both intrigued and frightened by his new pals.
Shortly after his return from Cuba, Berns began a seven-year run from being an obscure songwriter in the legendary Brill Building
Berns started out signing as a $50/week songwriter with music publisher Robert Mellin Music at 1650 Broadway in 1960. As an independent writer, he worked with several record labels.
He gained a reputation as a slick, fast-talking, go-getter with a soft spot for Bossa Nova and Afro-Cuban rhythms who truly understood soul music.
His first big hit record was “A Little Bit of Soap“, performed by the Jarmels on Laurie Records in 1961.
Of the numerous towering achievements in Bert Berns’ career, perhaps none had greater impact than his contributions to the genre of soul music. He preferred to work almost exclusively with soulful African-American artists, and his first sessions with Solomon Burke in 1961 were the the very beginnings of the Uptown Soul revolution.
1961 / Berns as “Bert Russell” wrote Solomon Burke‘s 1962 hit “Cry to Me” on Atlantic Records
As a recording artist himself, Berns didn’t do that well. In 1961 under the name “Russell Byrd” he scored his only Billboard Hot 100 appearance with his own composition, “You’d Better Come Home“, peaking at Number 50.
That song would later be recorded by the Isley Brothers, and featured as the B-side of their 1962 single “Twistin’ With Linda“.
Now, around this time, The Twist was becoming a real dance sensation and everyone wanted to cash in on the craze. Hence, “Twist And Shout” was written by Berns and Phil Medley.
The first version of this song was recorded in 1961 on Atlantic Records by a new rising Philadelphia R & B band, the Top Notes and it was produced by a young up and coming staffer by the name of Phil Spector.
1961 / The Top Notes / “Twist And Shout” / written by Bert Berns and Phil Medley, later credited as “Bert Russell” / arranged by Teddy Randazzo with musicians including saxophonist King Curtis, guitarist John Pizzarelli, and drummer Panama Francis, with backing vocals by the Cookies.
When Berns got to hear the final mix, he told Spector that he had “messed up his song” and predicted a quick demise for the single. He arranged to have it redone by the Isley Brothers and produced it himself to spite Spector’s butchered version. (The Beatles were inspired by the Isley Brothers cover.)
Berns opted to produce, and thus demonstrate to Spector what he had intended to be the “sound” of the record. The resulting recording captured the verve of an Isley Brothers performance, and became the trio’s first record to reach a Top 20 position in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
1962 / the Isley Brothers / “Twist and Shout” on Wand Records / written by Berns and Phil Medley / produced by Berns
It’s interesting to hear how the original Top Notes version differs from the Isley Brothers and then the famous Beatles version.
1962 / Berns also hit the charts in late 1962 with the Exciters’ recording his song “Tell Him” on the United Artists label
1963 / Garnet Mimms / “Cry Baby” / written by Bert Berns with Jerry Ragovoy /Berns, as an independent producer working with several record labels, made important records with
Atlantic Records (1963–1965)
Berns’s early work with Solomon Burke brought him to the attention of Atlantic label chiefs Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegün. Early success would lead to deals with Atlantic Records, where Berns negotiated with Wexler and Ertegun to create Web IV, his own publishing company.
In 1963, as staff producer, Berns replaced Atlantic Records’ legendary house producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at Atlantic.
When Jerry Wexler fired Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (over an audit!), he brought Bert Berns in to work with the stable of artists who made up the house that Leiber and Stoller helped build.
Among the first tasks Wexler presented to Berns was to carry on the brilliant legacy of Leiber and Stoller’s work with Ben E. King.
Now, Berns had no intention of recreating the style of his predecessors. Instead, he attempted to take Ben E. King in a more contemporary / soulful R&B direction, beginning with the stupendous “That’s When It Hurts.”
1964 / Ben E. King / “That’s When It Hurts” / written by Bert Berns and Gerald Wexler
1964 / Solomon Burke “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” / written by Bert Berns, Solomon Burke and Jerry Wexler
1964 / the Drifters “Under the Boardwalk” / written by Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick
1965 / Barbara Lewis “Baby I’m Yours” / written by Van McCoy
Working further with Ben E. King, Berns recorded his rollicking “Let The Water Run Down” and his soulful “It’s All Over” and “Cry No More.”
1965 / Ben E. King / “Let The Water Run Down” / written by Bert Berns and Gerald Wexler
1965 / Ben E. King / Cry No More / written by Berns and Ragavoy
1965 / Wilson Pickett / “Don’t Fight It” / written by Pickett co-wrote with Eddie Floyd or Steve Cropper
1965 / LaVern Baker /”Fly Me To The Moon” / “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” / Bert Berns production
Ben E. King once said “You don’t just sing Bert Berns’ songs, you have to feel them.” And the extraordinary feeling vested in the records he made with Berns is deeply embedded in the grooves of the Atco tracks these two giants made for Atlantic Records between 1963 and 1965.
But as Bert would later create his own BANG and Shout record labels in 1965, his collaboration with Ben came to a sudden end. “After Bert was gone, it was all over for a lot of us,”
Though none of the dozen plus sides proved to hit commercially like Ben E. King’s earlier recordings with Leiber and Stoller, King expressed great affection for Berns and their work together. “Bert’s music had more guts,” he said. “The writing Bert Berns made back then was perfect.”
British Invasion (1964–1965)
Berns went to England three times between 1964 and 1965, where he produced a number of British Decca songs. With many of Berns’s songs being recorded by British Invasion bands such as the Beatles (“Twist and Shout“), the Rolling Stones (“Cry to Me“) and the Animals (“Baby Let Me Take You Home“), Berns became the first American record producer to travel across the Atlantic to work in London.
1964 / The Animals / “Baby Let Me Take You Home” / written by Bert Russell (a.k.a. Bert Berns) and Wes Farrell
On his first trip to the UK, he became enamoured with the taut sound of Belfast’s Them – specifically, the band’s abrasive frontman, Van Morrison.
This would be one of the first studio productions Berns did with Morrison.
1964 / Them – Baby Please Don’t Go / Song originally written by Delta bluesman Big Joe Williams & recorded in 1935.
BANG Records (1965–1967)
Berns formed his own record label, BANG Records, in 1965. BANG was founded with his Atlantic Records partners, with the label’s name derived from the initials of each of their respective personal names—in order, Bert Berns, Ahmet Ertegün, Nesuhi Ertegün, and Gerald (Jerry) Wexler. BANG became home to many great artists.
“Hang On Sloopy” is a 1964 song written by Bert Berns and Wes Farrell, originally titled “My Girl Sloopy“.
According to Rick Derringer, guitarist and founding member of the McKoys, the original version of Sloopy was written by a “high school kid in St. Louis” and sold to Berns. The inspiration for the song is said to be Dorothy Sloop, a jazz singer from Steubenville and a student at Ohio State University.
The original version of this song was recorded and made a hit by R&B vocal group, the Vibrations. You can hear Bert’s Carribean influence in the style of this recording.
1964 / the Vibrations / “My Girl Sloopy” / written by Bert Berns and Wes Farrell
When the rock band the McCoys covered “Hang On Sloopy” in 1965, the song peaked at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number five on the UK Singles Chart.
As an aside…
In 1965 the Toronto group Little Caesar and The Consuls released a recording of “Hang On Sloopy“. It became a Canadian hit, reaching number 50 on the Billboard pop chart. In 2019 the band re-recorded Sloopy along with some new retro-sounding originals on an album called “The Music Of My World“.
2019 / Little Caesar and the Consuls (Since 1956) / “Hang On Sloopy”
More BANG recordings:
The Strangeloves “I Want Candy” / written by Bert Berns, Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer
1965 / Van Morrison and Them / “Here Comes The Night” / written by Bert Berns
When Them disbanded in 1966 following a crash-and-burn residency at LA’s Whisky a Go Go, Van Morrison retreated to Belfast, Ireland.
Now, Berns, with an ear pinned to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver records, and an eye on the mainstream market, pursued his prey.
He signed Morrison to his BANG label, lodged the princely sum of $2,500 into a bank account and flew the singer over to New York in the spring of 1967.
In New York they recorded his first solo sessions with the finest studio musicians in the city – arranger Garry Sherman, engineer Brooks Arthur, guitarists Eric Gale and Hugh McCracken, drummer Gary Chester, pianist Paul Griffin and background vocals by Cissy Houston and her girls.
The two-day recording session at A&R Studios yielded eight songs, including “Brown Eyed Girl.” Originally titled “Brown Skinned Girl,” the song was captured on the 22nd take of the first day and would become one of the most popular songs of the twentieth century.
Van Morrison “Brown Eyed Girl”
Without Van’s knowledge or input, Berns assembled the singles from those sessions into the album “Blowin’ Your Mind” – a move which later infuriated Morrison. This was of course a precursor to Morrison’s masterpiece “Astral Weeks” LP.
The “Blowin’ In The Wind” album included the 10-minute “T.B. Sheets” written by Van Morrison – clear evidence that Berns saw Morrison as a truly visionary artist.
There is a long-standing, story of Morrison’s emotional state during the song’s recording. Michael Ochs, in the liner notes for the 1973 album T.B. Sheets, wrote that “after ‘T.B. Sheets’ was recorded, the rest of the session had to be cancelled because Van broke down in tears.”
The story as told in the song takes place in a room where a young girl lies dying of tuberculosis and is visited by the story-teller. The overwhelming pain and guilt he feels leads to a desperate feeling of wanting to escape from the enclosed room smelling of death and disease.
The album also included Berns’ “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye),” recorded years earlier with Solomon Burke
Much has been written about the creative genius and creative conflict shared by Bert Berns and Van Morrison. But the two worked together to the end of Berns’ life, and his role in Van’s historic career is indisputable.
In 1966, Diamond signed a deal with BANG Records, then a subsidiary of Atlantic. His first release on that label was “Solitary Man” which was his first true hit as a solo artist.
1966 / Neil Diamond / “Solitary Man” / written by Neil Diamond / Produced by Bert Bern
Diamond began to feel restricted by BANG because he wanted to record more ambitious, introspective music. Berns wanted to release “Kentucky Woman” as a single, but Diamond was no longer satisfied writing simple pop songs, so he proposed “Shilo“. BANG believed that the song was not commercial enough, so it was relegated to being an LP track on “Just for You“.
Diamond was also dissatisfied with his royalties and tried to sign with another record label after discovering a loophole in his contract that did not bind him exclusively to WEB IV, but the result was a series of lawsuits that coincided with a slump in his record sales and professional success. A magistrate refused WEB IV’s request for a temporary injunction to prevent Diamond from joining another record company while his contract dispute continued in court, but the lawsuits persisted until February 18, 1977, when he triumphed in court and purchased the rights to his BANG-era master tapes.
Needless to say, Diamond was no longer a fan of BANG.
Shout Records (1966–1967)
It’s an understatement to say that Bern’s greatest passion was R&B and Soul music and he was regarded affectionately by many black artists as the “White Soul Brother”.
With BANG Records releasing predominantly rock and roll, he formed Shout Records in 1966 as an outlet this passion.
Bert Berns became a founding father of the New York Uptown Soul genre, with rhythm and blues and soul music making up the vast majority of his body of work. A number of artists ranging from Jimmy Radcliffe to The Exciters released records on Shout.
1967 / Freddie Scott – “Are You Lonely for Me Baby” / written and produced by Bert Berns / back up vocals were performed by Cissy Houston and the Sweet Inspirations.
1967 / Erma Franklin – “Piece Of My Heart” / written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns
In 1968 this song came to greater mainstream attention when Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin on lead vocals) covered the song and had a much bigger hit with it. The song has since been remade by several other singers, including Dusty Springfield on her 1968 album Dusty… Definitely, Bryan Ferry on his solo debut album These Foolish Things in 1973. It was recorded by Sammy Hagar on his first Geffen Records release, Standing Hampton, which hit the airwaves in 1982, and reached platinum status , Faith Hill in 1994 and Melissa Etheridge in 2005.
Berns’ final Shout sessions were with Erma Franklin and “Piece of My Heart” was rising up the charts when, sadly, he passed away.
Death and legacy
He had a history of cardiac trouble as a result of his heart being damaged from rheumatic fever contracted during childhood, died in his New York apartment of heart failure on December 30, 1967, aged 38.
Bert died, leaving Ilene as a 24-year old widow. She subsequently re-released material from such BANG Records artists as Neil Diamond and Van Morrison.
BANG under Irene Berns discovered Mississippi singer-songwriter Paul Davis.
She relocated BANG Records to Atlanta, Georgia in 1970 and presided over a decade of success with Paul Davis (“Ride ‘Em Cowboy“, “I Go Crazy“, “Sweet Life“).
in 1979 Irene Berns sold BANG Records to Columbia Records.
Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin, a book on his life and career, was published in 2014.
A musical, Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story by Daniel Goldfarb, premiered off-Broadway in 2014 at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
A documentary film titled BANG! The Bert Berns Story, co-directed by Bert Berns’ son Brett Berns and Bob Sarles, premiered at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival to great acclaim.
|1||–Austin Taylor||Push Push||2:08|
|2||–Hoagy Lands||Lighted Windows||2:39|
|3||–The Jarmels||A Little Bit Of Soap||2:12|
|4||–Russell Byrd||You’d Better Come Home||2:22|
|5||–Sammy Turner||Pour It On||2:27|
|6||–Little Jimmy Dee||I Should Have Listened||2:37|
|7||–Solomon Burke||Cry To Me||2:28|
|8||–Gil Hamilton||Tell Her||2:25|
|9||–The Isley Brothers||Twist And Shout||2:32|
|10||–Gene Pitney||If I Didn’t Have A Dime (To Play The Jukebox)||2:26|
|11||–Ruth McFadden||Pencil & Paper||2:40|
|12||–Ben E. King||Gypsy||2:39|
|13||–The Hockadays||Hold On Baby||2:29|
|14||–Mel Torme*||You Can’t Love ‘Em All||2:29|
|15||–Marv Johnson||Come On And Stop||2:10|
|16||–Betty Harris||I’ll Be A Liar||2:57|
|17||–The Wanderers (8)||You Can’t Run Away From Me||2:33|
|18||–Jimmy Radcliffe||Moment Of Weakness||2:03|
|19||–Garnet Mimms||Look Away||2:30|
|20||–The Drifters||One Way Love||2:28|
|21||–Roy Hamilton (5)||You Can Count On Me||2:21|
|22||–The Vibrations||My Girl Sloopy||2:51|
|23||–Little Esther Phillips*||Mo Jo Hannah||2:20|
|24||–The Rocky Fellers||Killer Joe||2:19|
|25||–The Mustangs (21)||Baby Let Me Take You Home||2:06|
|26||–Lulu||Here Comes The Night||2:51|
|1||–Tami Lynn||I’m Gonna Run Away From You||2:46|
|2||–Solomon Burke||Everybody Needs Somebody To Love||2:50|
|3||–Wilson Pickett||Come Home Baby||2:33|
|4||–Garnet Mimms||It Was Easier To Hurt Her||2:45|
|5||–The McCoys||Hang On Sloopy||3:51|
|6||–Tammy Montgomery||If I Would Marry You||2:42|
|7||–The Knight Brothers*||Come On Girl||3:25|
|8||–Larry Hale||In Front Of Her House||2:35|
|9||–The Drifters||I Don’t Want To Go On Without You||2:46|
|10||–Kenny Hamber||Show Me Your Monkey||2:08|
|11||–Ben E. King||Cry No More||2:50|
|12||–The Exciters||Run Mascara||2:18|
|13||–Pat Embers||You’ll Never Leave Her||2:09|
|14||–The Pussycats (2)||You Maybe Holding My Baby||2:35|
|15||–Moses K &The Prophets||I Went Out With My Baby Tonight||2:35|
|16||–Patti LaBelle And The Bluebells||You Forgot How To Love||2:23|
|17||–Garnet Mimms||I’ll Take Good Care Of You||3:32|
|18||–Barbara Lewis||Better Not Believe Him Aka Sorrow||2:33|
|19||–Bobby Harris (3)||Mr. Success||2:40|
|20||–Roy C*||Gone Gone||2:41|
|21||–Freddie Scott (2)||No One Could Ever Love You||3:32|
|22||–Don Varner||Mojo Mama||2:36|
|23||–Van Morrison||Brown Eyed Girl||2:57|
|24||–Erma Franklin||Piece Of My Heart||2:36|
|25||–Otis Redding||I Got To Go Back (And Watch That Little Girl Dance) Aka Look At That Girl||2:06|
|26||–Lorraine Ellison||Heart Be Still||3:44|
Bert Berns Productions
|1||–Ben E. King||Let The Water Run Down
|2||–Freddie Scott (2)||Am I Grooving You
|3||–Knight Brothers||Love (Can’t You Hear Me)
|4||–Tammy Montgomery||I’ve Got Nothing To Say But Goodbye
|5||–The Isley Brothers||You Better Come Home
|6||–Baby Washington||There He Is
|8||–Erma Franklin||Open Up Your Soul
|9||–Roy Hamilton (5)||A Thousand Tears Ago
|10||–Garnet Mimms||One Girl
|11||–Betty Harris||Mo Jo Hannah
|12||–Roy C*||Stop What You’re Doin’
|13||–The Exciters||There They Go
|14||–Hoagy Lands||(I’m Gonna) Cry Some Tears
|15||–Tami Lynn||At The Party
|16||–LaVern Baker||You’d Better Find Yourself Another Fool
|17||–Wilson Pickett||Teardrops Will Fall
|18||–The Shirelles||Twist And Shout
|19||–Patti LaBelle And The Bluebells||All Or Nothing
|20||–Clyde McPhatter||My Block
|21||–Lulu||You’ll Never Leave Her
|22||–Solomon Burke||Beautiful Brown Eyes
|24||–The McCoys||I Wonder If She Remembers Me|
|25||–Arsenio*||Hang On Sloopy
|26||–Russell Byrd||Hitch Hike Part 1||2:24|