on 11 November 2008
If anyone deserves the full Ace Records treatment, then that person is Bertrand Russell Berns.
Described by Doug Morris, CEO of the Universal Music Group, as the Lost Titan of American Music, Bert Berns accomplished more in barely eight years in the business than most others do in a lifetime. And over forty years after his sudden death, the music he left behind - be it as performer, producer, writer or arranger (and sometimes all four) - still packs an enormous punch and generates tremendous emotional power.
Like many others on this side of the Atlantic, I first encountered Bert Berns through his work with Van Morrison & Them. Hearing the lead guitar intro on 'Here Comes The Night' for the first time, is one of those treasured moments that has stayed with me for almost 50 years. And although Them are not on this album - we get Lulu's original version of Here Comes The Night instead - that song title gives a very accurate sense of what Berns' music was all about, because he specialised in reaching out to those of us who related to the night. Nights of passion, nights of pain, nights of ecstasy or desolation. A glance at some of the titles on this CD will confirm as much.
Broken down into its component parts, one could be forgiven for thinking there was little to set Berns' music apart from that of his peers. Latino rhythms, gospel and soul influences, piano triplets, ascending and descending cadences, falsetto lead vocals, call & response choruses, doo-wop stylings, and Carribbean flavoured guitar figures were all well established elements in New York and East Coast based pop music of the day. However, what set Bert Berns apart was the way in which he fused these elements together to deliver something that was totally unique. Put simply, like all top quality musicians/producers, he had his own sound. And what a sound it was!
Given Berns' phenomenal output, the good people who compiled and produced this CD have done an absolutely magnificent job. I have spent a small fortune over the years trying to locate many of these tracks, often with very mixed results, and frequently without any success whatsoever. So a sincere vote of thanks goes to Rob Hughes, Mick Patrick and Tony Rounce for their excellent work. The audio quality is, of course, as superb as ever, and the accompanying booklet contains a feast of background material and fascinating information.
Bring on Volume 2!
If you've read this far you're probably aware that Bert Berns is/was a forgotten man. Others from that marvellous period of sixties song writing and production are household names: Goffin & King, Bacharach & David, Phil Spector and the guys who inspired them all, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. But I did use a past tense in my opening sentence. There are signs that Bert might be emerging from cult status: the release of this set and its companions, the 2014 publication of a Berns biography by Joel Selvin and the fact that's there a film currently being worked on plus an off-Broadway musical, are all factors which will give his name a much wider airing. But one does wonder; do we really want to share Bert with the world? Isn't there something in all of us that wants to keep him close?
The fact that the set is from Ace means that it's done properly or, in other words, with loving care. It takes us chronologically from early songs and productions of relative unknowns in 1960, through to the November 1964 release of "Here come the night" from Lulu. Straightaway I should warn that there are only near teasers from Bert's sterling period as Staff Producer at Atlantic where he was responsible for whole series of brilliant records from Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Esther Phillips and the Drifters. I hasten to add that the presence of only a single track from each of those artists here is merely due to Ace's desire to cast the net as wide as possible over Bert's career during the timeframe. Again if you're reading this review you may well have albums from those artists - if not you should!
In nit-picking mode, another fact I should point out is that not all the offerings here are Berns songs. Three tracks - "You can count on me," "Mo Jo Hannah" and the simply knockout "Moment of weakness" - are Berns productions, and are here to represent purely his skills in that arena. It wasn't at all unusual in the timeframe for one songwriter cum producer to produce a song from a different songwriter producer. It's worth adding that 12 more of the tracks are Berns productions and often carry those dramatic flourishes we so associate with the man.
It almost goes without saying that everything here is good, touching on excellent in several cases. For more consistent brilliance I'd reiterate my suggestion to investigate any Atlantic based albums from the artists I mentioned earlier (though bear in mind some of these artists had long careers at the label and were at times in the hands of other producers).
My semi-random comments below are intended to provide a little context for some of the music contained herein:
* There are only a few Berns productions from the first half of the period covered though even on the non Berns productions there are suggestions that his style was coming through even with someone else's hand officially on the tiller. The first "official" Berns production is "Lighted Windows" from the unknown Hoagy Lands. Several of the Berns production / arrangement techniques are already present: the unusual semi-latin rhythm, the prominent piano and the usage of backing singers in gospel call and response mode. It's worth adding here that Berns was one of the relatively rare producers to make intelligent use of backing singers in those days. In other people's hands, such additions were often little more than a distraction or even downright ruinous. And I should mention that Hoagy Lands was reportedly one of Bert's favourite singers - he continued working with him up until shortly before he died. The Lands voice has some similarities to Ben E.King in its combination of ease/fluidity and tension. Unfortunately the Lands career was never to soar like Ben's even with Bert's assistance. As a final note on this track: the Bert Berns site has this as his production but the Joel Selvin book credits it to one Morty Palitz - I wonder.
* As an aside, but continuing roughly in order, Austin Taylor was a pseudonym for semi-obscure soul singer Ted Taylor who had previously appeared with vocal group, the Cadets.
* The Jarmels' "Little bit of soap" was momentous for Bert in that it was the first of his songs to crack the US Top Twenty. The arrangement & production on this one are similar to some of the Atlantic Drifters output as produced by Leiber & Stoller at the time - Bert certainly picked up elements of this approach.
* "Cry to me" from Solomon Burke is the one that kick started that fabulous series of Solomon and Bert records. Quite unlike some of Bert's later more overtly gospel efforts with Solomon it starts with a descending bass riff before marimbas add the latin flourishes. The backing singers are there for the second verse and Solomon's on top ramping up the tension. It all flashes by in under two and a half minutes and you're pressing that repeat button. Playful and agony packed at the same time. One of THE soul classics.
* Two other tracks in the set, both Berns productions, are reminiscent of the Burke / Berns records. "I'll be a liar" from the great Betty Harris is not at all dissimilar to the more intense Burke recordings. Betty had intensity writ large though she didn't match Solomon on those occasions when he deployed a lighter touch. As on the Dean Martinish "You can't love 'em all". This set gives us a Mel Torme version of the song (so obscure it's not on YT) and the arrangement & production would seem to have come straight from the Burke effort - near karaoke but still very enjoyable - and I do wonder if that's Bert himself on nylon stringed guitar.
* As a digression from the above it's worth checking out the Betty Harris version of "Cry to me" (not on here). It's produced by Bert (of course) and is in that slow intense style you'd expect from the lady - completely different to the Burke original.
* There's plenty of evidence in this set of Bert's near obsession with the melody line of La Bamba / Guantanamera. It's there in "Twist and shout" and "My girl Sloopy", both of which songs - with the latter marginally changed to "Hang on Sloopy" - would become rock standards. It's also present in "You'd better come home" and "Killer Joe". And Bert's "Piece of my heart" (not here) was basically that same riff but slowed down. Bert wasn't the only one at this game. Just think of the more familiar Chip Taylor songs.
* Mention of "Twist and shout" reminds me that this song was given by Atlantic, to the then up-and-coming prodigy Phil Spector to record with a group called the Top Notes. Reportedly Berns was at the session and felt that they'd not done justice to the song so he went off and recorded it with the Isley Brothers for the tiny Wand label. You know the rest. Ironically the Isley Brothers had been Atlantic artists about a year or so earlier and had released some excellent singles produced by Leiber & Stoller.
* You (and I) may know "One way love" better via the Cliff Bennett cover which charted in the UK. The Drifters original is less forceful but possibly more subtle.
* Two tracks in this set are actually performed by Bert himself. Russell Byrd who appears to be responsible for "You'd better come home" was one of several aliases used by Bert. The most common one was Bert Russell which you'll see in umpteen song credits. And the Mustangs weren't a band or vocal group; rather they were a duo consisting of Bert and Wes Farrell, the co-writers of "Baby let me take you home". The song, which was also covered by the Animals (with Mickie Most producing), was a variation on "Baby let me follow you down" written by Eric Von Schmidt, and it appeared on Dylan's first album. That distinctive electric guitar intro to the Animals version also appears on the Mustangs one albeit from an acoustic guitar (very likely played by Bert himself). Both records have a May '64 release but I'd strongly suspect that Most or the Animals might have heard the Mustangs version.
* On the subject of versions, this set includes a "Here comes the night" from Lulu which was released several weeks before the far better known (and classic) Them version. Bert produced both versions. According to Wiki, the Them version was actually recorded before Lulu's but held back - it was the release of the Lulu version which persuaded Decca to put out the one from Them. So much for the facts, what's interesting is that the Lulu take on Bert's song exists very much in its own right - it's darker, slower and with heavy reverb guitar - and definitely worth a listen.
A fascinating album, and if you're in any doubt about it, check out Garnet Mimms' "Look away", Ruth McFadden's "Pencil & Paper" and particularly, Jimmy Radcliffe's "Moment of weakness", three sixties soul gems that you might not know.
on 25 February 2008
Everyone knows all about Van Morrison. Few people know that Van Morrison started his career with "Them" (Irish band). Betcha you don't know that when "Them" and Van Morrison suddenly appeared out of the night sky one week in 1964 it was on the back of an amazing Bert Berns tune: "Here Comes The Night". Bert Berns' great song, his lyrics, Morrison's delivery makes this track a classic. Shame it has not yet been remastered to CD. Meantime, to hear it at its best find it on vinyl disc and play through earphones. Or buy an old Dansette, stick the disc on the autochanger, and hear it as meant. "Here Comes The Night" by "Them" is the ultimate Sixties experience. Get this, you get the decade. xxHerbs.