Tuesday, 6 July 2021

The Sad Saga of Bertrand Russell Bernstein and Sir Ivan Morrison

 Talk about odd couples, they didn’t come much stranger than the Russian Jew from The Bronx and the surly genius from East Belfast. I’m talking about Bertrand Russell Bernstein and Sir Ivan Morrison.


I’m sure you know Van Morrison. However, Bert Berns died young, yet in a short life he was very influential in the world of music production and songwriting.


I’m still astounded at the list of his hits: Twist and Shout, Piece of My Heart, Hang on Sloopy, Here Comes The Night, and so many more. In fact Bert’s whole life is like a dizzying movie – and what a soundtrack!


His parents were Russian immigrants, obviously well read, given that he was named after Britain’s premier philosopher; they founded a successful clothing business in midtown Manhattan.


Born in 1929, Bert early on contracted rheumatic fever that damaged his heart. In an age before organized child care his parents left him at home to be checked upon by friendly neighbors.


The Bronx, then as now, throbbed to the music of immigrants, and Bert fell for the Samba music of the Cubans who lived next door. 


The Blues and Gospel music of African-Americans only added to the cultural riches of the sick little boy consigned to his bed.


But Bertrand Russell Bernstein had a will of iron and as a teenager sought out music and dance lessons; soon he was taking the subway down to Manhattan.


Rebellious and driven, he eventually made his way to Cuba where he faked his way into Samba dance groups and worked in Havana’s casinos. Was that where he first came in contact with the mob? 


Probably, though Cosa Nostra was always a presence in his native Bronx.


When Castro closed the casinos Bert returned home and began his songwriting career in the Brill Building next to Carol King, Phil Spector, and Neil Diamond. 


Right from the start he had the ability to turn three chord tricks like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy into pulsing teenage anthems. 


But Bert was also adventurous. From the moment he heard British Invasion songs, he recognized that groups like the Beatles and Stones were using his same musical building blocks of R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll.


Already an accomplished producer with tracks like Under The Boardwalk by The Drifters, he took his skills to London and there in a recording studio he heard a teenage Van Morrison.


Bert had always wanted to discover a white singer with a voice to match Sam Cook’s and he struck gold with Van.


Them, Morrison’s group, was struggling in the studio until Bert put some shape on their first single, the Blues standard Baby Please Don’t Go, and wrote Here Comes The Night for the boys from East Belfast.


Them had a legendary two-year run until they imploded, returned to Belfast and anonymity. But Bert was haunted by Van’s voice, invited him to New York City, and put his three-chord production stamp on Brown Eyed Girl, Van’s first single.


He also signed Morrison to Bang Records and a rapacious music publishing deal. 


Did I mention that Tommy Eboli, boss of the Genovese crime family, was rumored to be Bert’s protector and silent business partner, and it was nigh impossible to walk away from Bang Records. Ask Neil Diamond.


Things appear to have come to a head in 1967. Van wished to go Jazzy with songs that would later feature on his iconic Astral Weeks album, while Bert and shadowy others wished for more Brown Eyed Girls.


Following a tempestuous phone call between the two quarreling friends, Bert died of heart failure leaving Van on shaky terms with Bert’s widow and the other owners of Bang Records.


Van went to ground in Boston and it would be some time before he would sign a deal with Warner Brothers Records, courtesy of a brown paper bag full of cash delivered, it is rumored, to some characters in a parking lot.


Would Van have ever risen to his successful artistic heights without the influence of Bertrand Russell Bernstein? 


Van’s social skills were never the best, and in their early partnership Bert did all the “moving and shaking.”


It’s a question that will never be answered, and therein lies the legend of Bert, Van, and the big Bang!

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