A New DVD Chronicles a Rock Producer’s Brief But Brilliant Career
Studio mastermind and convicted murderer Phil Spector gets all the ink, but he wasn’t the only terrific—and terrifically flawed—music producer working in the 1960s who came to a sad end. Another was England’s Joe Meek, who wrote and produced a ton of adventurous pop before killing his landlady and then himself in 1967, when he was only 37. Yet another was Bert Berns, who racked up a long string of musical accomplishments but also got involved with the Mafia and possibly drug running before dying from heart disease at age 38. Berns’s life was recounted in an off-Broadway play, Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story, and in the 2014 book Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues. The book led to a 2016 movie, Bang! The Bert Berns Story, which has just been issued on DVD.
The film—which features narration by Steve Van Zandt, who inducted Berns into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016—chronicles a career that was astonishing both for its successes and its brevity. In 1960, an unknown Berns signed on as a $50-a-week Brill Building songwriter. By the time he died, only about seven years later, his resume included a stint as the staff producer at Atlantic Records; ownership of two thriving record labels, Bang and Shout; and composing and production credits on a long list of classic tracks. Among them: the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” the Jarmels’ “Little Bit of Soap,” Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” the Exciters’ “Tell Him,” Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” the Animals’ “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy,” Barbara Lewis’s “Baby I’m Yours,” Freddie Scott’s “Are You Lonely for Me, Baby?,” and the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy.” Berns also cowrote “Piece of My Heart,” which became a signature tune for Janis Joplin, and the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” which also enjoyed major success in the Beatles’ version.
Bang! The Bert Berns Story, which includes brief performance clips of some of the producer’s hits, consists largely of reminiscences by many of the artists and industry people he worked with or inspired; and most of them tell colorful and memorable stories about him and the songs he wrote and recorded. Among the interviewees are Paul McCartney; Keith Richards; Ron Isley; producer Richard Gottehrer, a one-time member of the Strangeloves; Sony chairman Doug Morris; Ben E. King; Cissy Houston; songwriters Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Mike Stoller; and even the famously reclusive Van Morrison. Also featured are Berns’s daughter, Cassandra; and his wife, Ilene, who chokes up and walks off camera while discussing his death.
One person we don’t hear from in the movie is Berns himself. Apparently, he never recorded any extensive interviews, which is unfortunate. Laudably—and despite the fact that Berns’s daughter produced the film and his son Brett codirected—it doesn’t sugarcoat its subject: the narration and interviewees allude to the producer’s dark moods, and there are assorted references to his involvement with organized crime. But because the film lacks substantial footage of Berns himself, we have to conjure up his personality from the comments of others. Their recollections do paint a pretty good picture; but I suspect we’d have a better one—including more understanding of what led him down some bad paths—if we could see and hear more of the man himself.
Still, Bang! The Bert Berns Story is well worth your attention, especially if you lived through the 1960s with a radio turned on. The picture may be less than complete, but it’s a fascinating one. And the movie argues persuasively that Berns’s accomplishments deserve much more recognition than they’ve received to date.
John Scott Sherrill, Mr. Honky Tonk. Unless you count the one record that John Scott Sherrill released nearly three decades ago as a member of a group called Billy Hill, this is his debut album. So why does he sound like a polished veteran? Probably partly because he has spent those three decades (and more) writing hits—including 11 chart-toppers—for some of country’s biggest artists, among them John Anderson, Alison Kraus, George Strait, and Patty Loveless. And his interpreters aren’t limited to country: he has also been covered by everyone from Jimmy Buffett and Peter Wolf to Steve Earle and Mick Jagger. Some of the songs that have netted big royalties for Sherrill over the years are included on this album, which also features a few previously unheard tunes. None of them blaze new stylistic trails—Sherrill is mainstream Nashville all the way—but Mr. Honky Tonk is nevertheless first rate. The material reconfirms the artist’s writing talents while also leaving no doubt that Sherrill—who sounds redolent of Anderson and George Jones—can sing ’em as well as he writes ’em.
John Wesley Harding, Greatest Other People’s Hits. John Wesley Harding, a.k.a. Wesley Stace, has written some fine pop/rock material during his long career, but he has also proven to be an excellent interpreter of other people’s songs. Many of his best covers are on this 17-track anthology, which combines material from his earlier albums with hard-to-find singles and previously unreleased performances. The program is about as diverse as you could imagine: it makes room for writers ranging from Bruce Springsteen and George Harrison to Madonna and Conway Twitty. Not everything works or puts a fresh spin on the songwriters’ original recordings, but there are far more successes than failures here. Highlights include Springsteen’s “Jackson Cage” and “Wreck on the Highway,” the latter with Bruce singing along; Phil Ochs’s “Another Age”; Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” a sublime duet with singer/songwriter Kelly Hogan; and a live reading of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” with Reed sharing vocals.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the just-published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters