Bang! The Bert Berns Story

Last Friday I watched the documentary Bang! The Bert Berns Story at TSL in Hudson, NY. If you have any interest in Soul and Pop music,, or just in the music business, of the 1960’s you should see this film. One of the things about this film that impressed me is that all of the interviews were with people who were there and involved in the story. No one was asking Bono what he thought of the subject.

If you are not familiar with Berns, and many are not, he either wrote songs for, discovered, or produced some very interesting artists including; the Drifters, Garnet Mims, the Isely Brothers, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, The Animals, Them, Van Morrison, The McCoys, Neil Diamond, and Erma Franklin. He wrote Twist and Shout, which was covered by none other than the Beatles. He wrote Cry to Me and Everybody Needs Somebody for Solomon Burke, both covered by the Rolling Stones. He wrote Here Comes the Night for Van Morrison and Them and Hang On Sloopy for the McCoys. Also, he wrote Piece of My Heart and Cry Baby covered by Janis Joplin.And He is also credited with reviving Atlantic records after they had lost most of their important acts.

He was intriguing on many levels. Having a heart defect from a bout with rheumatic fever, which in the 1950’s and 60’s was a death sentence, he was told by doctors that he would probably die by the age of 21. He didn’t enter the music business until he was thirty and died by the time he was thirty-seven. But he accomplished much in those short years. He quickly built up a publishing company that was coveted by the heavy hitters at Atlantic records; Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler. They agreed to back him in a record company Bang!, for Berns, Ahmet, Nasuhi, and Gerald (Wexler’s real name). This label was targeted toward pop music like Neil Diamond and Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. Berns also founded Shout records for Soul artists Like Erma Franklin, Freddie Scott (who recorded the original of Are You Lonely For Me Baby, covered by Al Green).

The movie chronicles a time when the mob was intimately involved in the music business. Without giving too much away, Berns gets screwed royally by Wexler while Ahmet Ertegun allows it to happen. Nesuhi (who handled the jazz side of Atlantic) stands up for Berns but to no avail. Yet, Berns prevails in the end. Bert, however, was not so solicitous when Neil Diamond wanted to get out of his contract.

It never stops surprising me that some people refuse to accept that the mafia was involved in the music and entertainment business. I got into a spirited discussion about this with someone in an online music history course once. If you grew up where I did, where there was a bookie joint on almost every corner, you wouldn’t have such doubts. We had a neighbor who was a “TV repairman”, however his shop was filled with pinball machines and jukeboxes (convenient ways to skim cash or launder money) . We brought our TV to him to be repaired and he accepted it. When we never got it back repaired we didn’t ask any questions, we just bought a new TV.

As I said, the principals in this documentary were deeply involved in the story and include, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Keith Richards, Ronald Isely, and Van Morrison, as well as Berns’ wife Ilene.

It is mentioned, but not explained, that Van Morrison had a heated dispute with Berns. What actually happened was that Van had recorded a number of tracks for Bang!, including first versions of Beside You and Madame George, which would reappear on the Iconic Astral Weeks, as well as some that might be pop singles like Brown Eyed Girl., but he was not ready to release them and certainly wasn’t recording an album. Berns went with his instincts and while Van was out of the country he released them as an album that he called Blowing Your Mind, with appropriately cheesy graphics. Needless to say, Van was not happy.

Apparently, Van forgave him as he called Berns before his death and the two talked on the phone about songwriting. But, after Bert’s death Morrison wanted out of his contract. Bern’s wife Ilene, a strong businessperson herself, didn’t want to release Van. So he complied with the terms of his contract by recording a CD’s worth of unacceptable music, including nonsense and rudeness. As I write this I am listening to Van’s The Authorized Bang Collection which contains the original album in excellent audio fidelity, along with some great alternate versions and, yes, the Contractual Obligation Session. This is the first availability of these tracks with Morrison’s involvement and blessing. These sessions contain some very heady stuff for 1967.

Berns was the first American producer to go to Britain to record British artists. Led Zeppelin wanted to memorialize him on their first album (recorded not long after his death) by recording Baby Please Come Home (Tribute to Bert Berns) however the track was not released until their album Coda. We would not have Van Morrison as we know him if not for Bert Berns. Berns, upon hearing that Them broke up, sent Morrison a one way ticket to New York and asked him to record. He was insightful enough to give Morrison the freedom to record not just hits like Brown eyed Girl but also songs that would lead him to Astral Weeks and his other artistic accomplishments.

In short – see this movie, it’s good.

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