Bert Berns was one of the great originals of the golden age of rhythm and blues. He first flourished under the encouragement of Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, but Berns quickly developed into one of the leading record men of his day. He produced historic rhythm and blues records such as “Cry To Me” by Solomon Burke, “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters and “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers.
Songs of his such as “Twist and Shout,” “My Girl Sloopy” or “Piece of My Heart” have become bedrock of modern music, recorded by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, among many others. As head of his own record label, he signed and supervised the first solo records by Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. He died at age 37 on December 30, 1967 at the height of his career.
His records with Solomon Burke established the singer as one of the most formidable figures of the rhythm and blues world, shoulder-to-shoulder with peers such as Sam Cooke, James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Ray Charles. A Cuban music aficionado since even before he traveled to Cuba in the days before Castro, Berns brought the heart of mambo into rock and roll — not the supple Brazilian samba rhythms found in records by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller or Burt Bacharach, but fiery Afro-Cuban incantations that pulsed with sex and sin.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Berns suffered rheumatic fever as a teenager, an early death sentence in those pre-open heart surgery days. He dropped out of school and lived aimlessly for many years. He always nursed show business ambitions and tried his hand at songwriting without success. At age 30, Berns took his first job in the music business, $50 a week as a song plugger for Robert Mellin Music.
His first hit was “A Little Bit of Soap” by the Jarmels in 1961. Within a year, he earned a Top Ten hit with “Tell Him” by The Exciters, produced the hit version of his song “Twist and Shout” with the Isley Brothers after 19 year-old Phil Spector and Jerry Wexler took the hapless first crack at the song with a group called the Top Notes on Atlantic, landed the original A-side to the Gene Pitney single, “If I Didn’t Have a Dime,” on the other side of what turned out to be Burt Bacharach’s first hit, “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” and launched a string of hits by Solomon Burke that would help keep Atlantic Records in business.
In 1963, he joined Atlantic as staff producer, replacing Leiber and Stoller as keeper of Atlantic franchise acts such as The Drifters and Ben E. King. He also started his own label, Keetch Records, with singles by The Mustangs and Linda Laurie. He also wrote and produced the Top Ten hit “Cry Baby” for Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters with collaborator Jerry Ragovoy.
After The Beatles had made “Twist and Shout” a worldwide hit that year, Berns also went to England to produce acts for Decca Records (U.K.). He returned the following year to supervise the sessions for Irish rock group Them that produced the No. 2 U.K. hit, “Here Comes the Night,” a Berns song he also produced with vocalist Lulu on the same British trip. He returned in 1965 to produce more tracks with Them. Berns was the first American producer to make records in England.
Berns established his own label, Bang Records, in partnership with the owners of Atlantic Records – the label name is an acronym of their first names; Bert, Ahmet, Neshui and Gerald – and quickly earned a No. 1 hit with “Hang On Sloopy” by the McCoys, a song he wrote and first produced with a rhythm and blues vocal group called the Vibrations. Neil Diamond made his first hits – “Cherry, Cherry” and “Solitary Man” – for Berns, who also supervised the first solo recordings by Van Morrison, including “Brown Eyed Girl.”
In addition to Bang Records, Berns also opened Shout Records for rhythm and blues records such as his song “Are You Lonely For Me Baby,” a No. 1 Billboard Rhythm and Blues hit for Freddie Scott in 1966. He also recorded his version of “Piece of My Heart” with Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister, for Shout, a record that was rising on the charts when Berns finally succumbed to the long-expected heart attack on December 30, 1967.
But the music of Bert Berns never died. His songs have been consistently covered by the biggest names in the music business, featured in movie soundtracks and inspired so many imitations and tributes. His life story has been told in the critically-acclaimed biography “Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues” by award-winning journalist and best-selling author Joel Selvin (Counterpoint Press, 2014). Bert Berns’ life and music is also the subject of the original new musical “Piece of My Heart – The Bert Berns Story” which had its world premiere Off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center on July 21st, 2014. And the documentary “BANG! The Bert Berns Story” starring Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Van Morrison, Solomon Burke, Ronald Isley and narrated by Stevie Van Zandt premiered at The SXSW Film Festival in 2016. Bert Berns was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 – the recipient of the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement.