The Fascinating Story of White Soul Brother #1
You probably heard a Bert Berns song today. If you heard “Tell Him,” “Twist and Shout,” “Cry to Me,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Hang on Sloopy” or “Piece of My Heart,” you heard a song he wrote. If you heard “Baby, I’m Yours,” “Under the Boardwalk” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” you heard a record he produced. Berns’ enormous catalog of deeply-felt songs and deftly-produced records puts him in a league with the best of the Brill Building’s songwriters and New York’s golden age pop producers. When Phil Spector lost the Latin soul of Berns’ “Twist and Shout” with a frantic rendition by the Top Notes, Berns picked it back up the next year and minted a classic with the Isley Brothers. And when Berns felt he’d accomplished everything he could as a writer and producer, he founded Bang records, stormed the charts in 1965 with the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” and signed Neil Diamond and Van Morrison.
Born in 1929, Berns was thirty-one when he finally found his way into the music industry as a $50-a-week songwriter for Robert Merlin’s publishing company. His first hit came the following year with the Jarmel’s “A Little Bit of Soap,” and over the next seven years he minted more than fifty pop chart singles. Berns’ early love of Afro-Cuban music permeated his songs, as did the deep, personal feelings he poured into his lyrics. Labeled by his African American artists as “the white soul brother,” he pushed them “to sing it like he meant it.” Session dialog of Berns coaching Betty Harris, as well as Van Morrison during the recording of Blowin’ Your Mind!, give the viewer a feel for his artist rapport. Testimony from family, artists, production and business colleagues testify to the exalted status in which he was held. The interviews are highlighted by his savvy and tough widow, Ilene Berns, and the tough but artistically sensitive Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia.
Berns broke into production with Atlantic, helping the label through the fallow period that followed the departure of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He wrote for and produced Solomon Burke, the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett and others. By 1964 his songs were doing double-duty as fuel for the British Invasion, with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Animals all covering Bert Berns tunes, and Berns himself producing Them’s version of his own “Here Comes the Night.” He would eventually sign Van Morrison to Bang, produce a hit and fall out, as he also did with Neil Diamond. His relationships with his publisher and his Atlantic partners also soured as the piles of money became tall enough to fight over, but the interviews conducted for this film demonstrate how deeply respected and loved he remains by his former colleagues. His songs and his records provide the lasting epitaph, but this 90 minute documentary connects the dots and names the legacy. [©2017 Hyperbolium]