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Pop composer Berns is finally getting his due

By LARRY ROHTER The New York Times

This article was published July 24, 2014 at 2:24 a.m.

book cover Here Comes the Night Joel Selvin

Even in his mid-1960s heyday, Bert Berns was barely known beyond the obsessives who studied songwriters' and producers' credits on 45 rpm records and LP album jackets. And then, after his death in 1967 at the age of 38, something truly odd happened: Though the songs he wrote and produced, like "Twist and Shout" and "Hang On Sloopy," proved to have durability, growing in stature and popularity as the years passed, Berns' reputation receded even further into obscurity.

But now, Bert Berns is having a moment. A new biography, Joel Selvin's Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues, praises him as "one of the great originals of the golden age of rhythm and blues," an argument repeated in a documentary film about his life that is in the works, tentatively called Bang! The Bert Berns Story. And now a new musical named for another of his well-known songs, Piece of My Heart, has opened off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

"He wasn't the best," Selvin says, "but his best was as good as anybody's best."

Certainly the story of Berns' life, short though it was, lends itself to the same sense of drama often expressed in his songs. Born into a Jewish family in New York that hoped he might become a classical pianist, he instead developed a love of Latin music that took him to Cuba, where he claimed to have run guns for Fidel Castro's rebels. A late starter in the music business, he had a hand in more than 50 hits in seven years, consorted with gangsters and succumbed to heart disease just as the careers of his last three proteges, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison and a studio guitarist named Jimmy Page, were getting underway.

"I had no idea who he was" before being invited to write the book for Piece of My Heart, playwright Daniel Goldfarb says. But now, "I feel like Bert Berns was an artist who had a lot stacked against him and had to fight his way through it." He adds: "Even though his music is so diverse, the songs are autobiographical. That's why he's a great artist: He has a voice and knew how to tap into it."

At the time Berns was active, hyphenated songwriting teams, usually with the responsibility for lyrics and music clearly divided, dominated a scene centered on the Brill Building: Burt Bacharach-Hal David, Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich, Gerry Goffin-Carole King, Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller, Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil. Berns was different. He either wrote alone ("Here Comes the Night," "Tell Him," "Cry to Me") or with a revolving cast of collaborators that included Jerry Ragovoy, Phil Medley, Wes Farrell, Jerry Wexler and the soul singer Solomon Burke.

The tone of Berns' compositions, many of which he wrote on a battered acoustic guitar, was atypical, too. Bacharach and David created a cosmopolitan sound with complex harmonies, and Leiber and Stoller offered acute social observations with a humorous streak. But Berns' trademark was the dark, angst-ridden tale of love unrequited or gone wrong, often with the words "cry" or "heart" in the title. Within months of Berns' death, Janis Joplin had hits with "Piece of My Heart" and "Cry Baby."

"Bert was really a purist, after a pure sound that was soulful, had simplicity and was rhythmically solid," says Garry Sherman, Berns' favorite orchestrator and arranger, who came out of retirement to work as the music supervisor on the play. "The one thing he demanded was that every artist tell a story," and as a result "he was able to get performances that were meaningful, not just a melody and words."

One explanation endorsed by all three of the new works, reductionist though it may seem, is that Berns took a gloomy view of life because he knew he didn't have long to live -- or as Selvin put it, "you can hear the pathology in the music." As a boy, Berns had rheumatic fever, which led to heart disease and doctors' warnings that he was likely to die before he reached 30.

In the studio, "he used to tell me, 'I don't want to jump around too much, my heart you know, I want to stay in the seat,'" says Brooks Arthur, a recording engineer who often worked with Berns and went on to become a Grammy-winning producer. "The writing was on the wall, but he powered through it. He'd talk about it in jazz terms: 'I don't know how much song there is left in me.'"

The Berns revival is occurring at a moment when jukebox musicals like Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Motown, A Night With Janis Joplin and Million Dollar Quartet have encountered success on and off-Broadway. In addition, a raft of documentary films about overlooked pop music figures have been released in recent years, including the last two Oscar winners in the documentary category, Sugarman, about the Detroit singer Rodriguez, and 20 Feet From Stardom, about backup singers.

So there is an understandable temptation to view the Berns musical and documentary as somewhat late entrants in what is becoming an increasingly crowded field. But Berns' son Brett, who is involved with both projects, took pains to note that the musical has been in the works for at least seven years, and that its origins go back even further, to the 1990s, when the Berns family recaptured control of the copyrights to the songs he had written.

"That was the impetus for doing all these projects," Brett Berns, 49, says. "We have this great catalog of known songs by an unknown songwriter, so what are we going to do with this? Really, for 20 years my sister and I were music publishers who really worked the catalog, that was our day job."

It appears that even more efforts to raise Berns' profile are to come. There is talk of a movie and a tribute album in which today's stars would sing some of Berns' best-known compositions. In addition, his heirs recently signed a deal with MPL Communications, the music publishing company founded by Paul McCartney, an unabashed Berns fan, to distribute the more than 200 songs that make up the Berns catalog.

All that stands in sharp contrast to the reception Selvin received when he was trying to get his book project off the ground a decade or so ago. "You can't imagine how many times editors and publishers said to me, 'Nobody has ever heard of him,'" he says. "But that turned out to be the hook."

Weekend on 07/24/2014

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