Bertrand Russel Berns from The Bronx never set foot on the Emerald Isle yet he irrevocably changed Irish music.
Okay, so only his Jewish-Russian socialist parents ever addressed him as Bertrand Russell - in honor of the British philosopher-activist; but, without Bert Berns, Van Morrison would likely be a grouchy curmudgeon still slouching around East Belfast.
Berns is barely remembered nowadays but he’s about to come back with a bang courtesy of a recently published biography, Here Comes The Night by Joel Selvin, and a new theatre production, Piece of My Heart, currently running at New York’s Signature Center.
I first became aware of him as a boy while jamming my ear into an old cloth-covered wireless. On clear nights back in Wexford you could pick up the crackly sounds of AFN (American Forces Network) broadcasting from Germany.
Berns’ songs and productions pulsed through those GI airwaves. Along with Carol King & Phil Spector he was one of the most brilliant graduates of the music scene centered around the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway.
Bert’s effective career lasted only seven years, yet in that short span he wrote or produced 51 hit songs including Twist and Shout, Hang on Sloopy, Little Piece of My Heart and Here Comes The Night. He also owned and operated Bang Records where he nurtured the solo careers of Neil Diamond and Van The Man.
Although a human dynamo who rarely slept Berns had a severe heart condition from boyhood. His parents worked long hours at their dress shop on the Grand Concourse and legend has it that their convalescent son became interested in music on account of the pounding radio of his Cuban neighbors.
Infatuated with the Samba he became an accomplished dancer and even moved to Batista’s Cuba to follow his passion.
Was it in Havana or The Bronx that he first became acquainted with certain shady figures from the New York Crime families? Of course, back then if you were involved in music it would have been hard not to cross paths with “made men.”
Bert hustled around The Bronx and got by with handouts from his mother until well into his 20’s, but eventually moved to Times Square where he honed his skills as a singer, guitarist and pianist cutting demos for songwriters. They soon discovered that he was equally adept as a lyricist.
Many feel he was responsible for introducing the Latin tinge that made New York pop music of the 60’s so irresistible. He was also deeply influenced by R&B or race music, as it was often called. He got The Isley Brothers to record Twist and Shout. That song became the climax of live shows for then unknown Beatles, and was the standout track on their best selling first EP.
That’s how Bert came to be in London where he was hired to produce Them, a raw Belfast R&B band. He instantly recognized the brilliance of vocalist, Van Morrison. Less enthusiastic about the band’s musicians he brought in 20 year-old guitar whiz, Jimmy Page, and organist, Phil Coulter, to record his desolate ballad, Here Comes The Night. That hit record by Them still sends shivers down my spine.
When Them imploded and surly Van retired to his mother’s East Belfast home Berns sent him the fare to New York and turned Van’s Brown Eyed Girl into the exuberant Latin-tinged classic that still fills summer dance floors.
By then Bert’s time was running down literally and figuratively. Corporate America was buying up the small independent labels; paranoid and under financial pressure he turned to his shady friends in the “families” for support.
When Neil Diamond wanted to break his Bang contract a veiled warning was delivered about the consequences. Meanwhile Van, wrestling with the complexity of his Astral Weeks masterpiece, had neither time nor inclination to deliver another Brown Eyed Girl.
Shortly after a telephone screaming match with Mr. Morrison, Berns’ heart finally gave out on Dec. 30th 1967. He was 38.
Hopefully, the musical, Little Piece of My Heart, will catch the effervescence, complexity and volcanic talent of the forgotten genius from The Grand Concourse who changed the face of pop music and rescued Van Morrison from East Belfast anonymity.
For tickets, information and a video visit http://pieceofmyheartmusical.com