5 Fascinating Facts About Multifaceted Music Executive Bert Berns

Bert Berns is a giant in the 1960s pop music world. As a songwriter, he penned some of the decade’s biggest hits. As a producer, Berns coaxed performances out of his artists, leading to emotional deliveries not appearing on their other recordings. As a publisher, he built a musical empire. As a label owner, he had two successes: Bang Records and Shout Records, both of which consistently placed songs on the charts. He used different names in different situations. He appeared as Bert Berns, Bert Russell, or Russell Byrd. Whatever you called him, he was a force who worked his way up the music-business ladder, achieved monumental success, and then died at 38. Let’s take a look at five fascinating facts about Bert Berns.

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A Case of Rheumatic Fever as a Teenager Damaged His Heart

Born Bertrand Russell Berns on November 8, 1929, in the Bronx, New York, his parents owned a dress shop. As a teenager, Berns began attending the Palladium and discovered the thriving mambo scene. He had battled rheumatic fever, and the music was an escape for the youngster who constantly suffered from a weak heart. Berns wanted to be involved in the music business. He drummed up $700 to match the investment of Sid Bernstein to record a young singer from the Bronx named Edith Gormezano. The pair of businessmen rented an office at 1650 Broadway in Manhattan. The young female singer later succeeded as Eydie Gormé, but success eluded her when Berns took her in the studio. The young songwriter became increasingly frustrated and moved to Havana, where he fell in love with the music and food. But when rebels ousted Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro took control of the country in 1959, he had to return to America.     

Berns Applied An Afro-Cuban Beat to the Twist Craze

Berns returned to New York City and began working for the publishing company Robert Mellin Music. He wrote several songs and finally broke through when The Jarmels reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “A Little Bit of Soap.” Berns then began writing a song with Ray Passman. It was based on “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens. The twist dance craze was all the rage. Everyone was doing twist records. Berns had a lunch appointment and told Passman to meet him afterward to finish the song. When lunch was over, Passman was nowhere to be found. Berns went down the hall and found Phil Medley, who he had written with in the past. They took elements of an unrecorded song they had worked on the year before called “Shake It Up Baby.” The Afro-Cuban beat paired with the old lyrics produced “Twist and Shout.” The Top Notes went into the recording studio with producer Phil Spector and recorded the song. The beat was changed, and the middle section was transformed. Berns saw the role of a producer. From then on, he wanted to be in charge of his recordings. The Top Notes version of the song failed to chart.

Solomon Burke cut “Cry to Me” and took it to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot R&B chart. Berns went into the recording studio with The Isley Brothers to record “Twist and Shout.” This time, he was the producer and conveyed how it should sound. It was a smash hit on both the pop and R&B charts.

In 2016, engineer Brooks Arthur said in Bang! The Bert Berns Story: “He blended that New York Cuban into something that was pounding in his body that he couldn’t get out, and suddenly it came to fruition.”

Berns Produced for Atlantic Records

Brothers Ahmet and Nesui Ertegun and Jerry Wexler ran Atlantic Records. They always relied on outside producers. Berns wrote “Tell Him,” which was recorded by The Exciters. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced the song, and it spent six weeks at No. 1. Berns then produced “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” by Solomon Burke. He became the hot new producer, placing 19 songs on the charts in 1964 alone. British bands began taking notice. The Beatles included “Twist and Shout” on their debut album. The Rolling Stones recorded a version of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and The Animals reworked the Hoagy Lands song “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” as “Baby Let Me Take You Home” as their debut single.

Robert Mellin brought Berns over to London to produce for Decca Records. He began working with Them featuring lead singer Van Morrison. They had hits with “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Gloria,” and the Berns composition “Here Comes the Night,” which Lulu recorded as well. Mellin and Berns parted ways in 1965.

Berns Started His Own Publishing Company and Record Label

Berns set up Web IV Music to publish his compositions. It was a four-way venture between Berns, Wexler, and the Ertegun brothers. The record label was also a joint venture. They named it Bang Records using the first letter of each principle (Bert, Ahmet, Nesui, and Gerald). The first big hit came when Berns teamed up with songwriters Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and Richard Gottehrer to write “I Want Candy.” The trio called themselves The Strangeloves. While they were promoting the record, they were performing a show with a local group named Rick and the Raiders. The Strangeloves were so impressed with the young band they convinced Berns to sign them to Bang. They changed their name to The McCoys and recorded a song Berns wrote with Wes Farrell called “Hang on Sloopy.”

The songwriting duo of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich urged Berns to sign Neil Diamond. He had success with “Solitary Man” and “Cherry Cherry.” Berns got Van Morrison to come to New York to record an album without his band, Them. Berns produced “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Berns Created Shout Records to Focus on Contemporary Soul Music

“Are You Lonely for Me” by Freddie Scott went to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. He followed it up with “Cry to Me.” Wexler made a move to buy out Berns. It went back and forth, and Berns ended up buying Wexler out.

Neil Diamond left Bang Records and sued Berns. In 1967, Erma Franklin recorded “Piece of My Heart,” written by Berns and Jerry Ragovoy. Janis Joplin would take the song to No. 1 the following year.

On December 30, 1967, Bert Berns died of heart failure. He was 38 years old. In 2016, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame gave him the Ahmet Ertegun Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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