By Mike Greenblatt
Joel Selvin has written a book whose prose is so alive, it begs to be read out loud. Its subject matter is so thrilling, you feel the excitement of writing a great song, finding an artist for that song, and producing the song on your own label. “Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns And The Dirty Business Of Rhythm’n’Blues” (Counterpoint Press) is set mostly in New York City. The characters are the mobbed-up Roulette Records President Morris Levy, Dick Clark, Jerry Wexler, Neil Diamond, Alan Freed, Lieber & Stoller, Van Morrison, Burt Bacharach, Tommy Dowd, Elle Greenwich, King & Goffin, Jimmy Page, Wilson Pickett, The Brothers Ertegun and the Mafia. Throw these mammoth egos in a room with a piano and watch what happens.
It’s the great netherworld of pop in between the original 1950s pioneers and the revolution kickstarted by the British Invasion of 1964. Between those two poles of cultural existence came The Brill Building and its twin at 1650 Broadway, where every door down the hall belonged to another songwriter/producer.
Bert Berns had been to Havana, a city so wide open before Cuba’s revolution, that Selvin, the longtime San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic, refers to it as “a city with its skirts raised.” Indeed, Berns becomes infatuated with its fiery Afro-Cuban salsa, and when he returns his productions carry that spark. His lyrics carry the weight of death waiting just around the corner.
When he co-writes “Piece Of My Heart” for Aretha’s big sister Erma, little did Berns know Janis would make it explode. But Berns was writing about his own heart: a faulty mechanism that had doctors warning his parents that he’d be dead before his 21st birthday. So that’s how he lived his life. Everything had to be NOW, he lived life every day as if it’d be his last. And when he finally died in 1967 at 38, when his heart just couldn’t continue to pump out all the life he was expending at 100 mph, he had, in those few short years, lived the lifetimes of many men, scaling heights mere mortals could only dream of.
Along the way, he writes “Hang On Sloopy” for the teenaged Rick Derringer and his band The McCoys, and discovers Van Morrison and Neil Diamond. (The scenes with the surly drunken kid genius Morrison are poetry-in-prose). In fact, the dozens of stories that have nothing to do with the book’s protagonist are the grit of early rock’n’roll itself. The scenes detailing the abject corruption of the R’n’B business are fascinating and actually made my own heart race. There’s Morris Levy strong-arming a young singer and his inexperienced manager. Other scenes carry the weight of cinematic profundity. There’s Wilson Pickett landing in Muscle Shoals for the first time amazed that this legendary studio crew is white. There’s Berns quiet in the room while Phil Spector tries to produce “Twist And Shout,” a song Berns co-wrote. He fails but when Berns takes it to The Isley brothers and produces it with that fire he remembered from Havana, the song is a smash, soon to be covered by The Beatles. There’s Berns arriving in London for the first time like a rock star himself. There’s Dick Clark and Jerry Wexler turning down The Beatles for being “too derivative.”
It’s to Selvin’s shining credit that he takes this one particular music-bizzer with a hell of an ear–who could play guitar, piano, produce like a genius, write like he knew exactly what teenaged yearning felt like, produce like Spector only more succinct–and use him as a jumping off point for stories and cross-stories that will keep you enthralled. And then wait until the money starts rolling in! The is the music industry in the ’60s at its most naked.
The Erteguns love Bert Berns so much, they form Bang Records which he heads. Jerry Wexler, though, stabs him in the back. Alan Freed goes down in the payola scandals. Phil Spector goes crazy. Jimmy Page comes to America as a hired guitar gun in the studio and Berns lets him crash at his apartment before introducing him to Ahmet Ertegun who ultimately signs the kid’s band, Led Zeppelin.
The list of songs Berns worked on is a history of early rock’n’roll: from the depths of emotion he wrung out of Solomon Burke on “Cry To Me” and the revved-up action of “Tell Him” by The Exciters to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” (which he changes from Van’s original “Brown Skinned Girl” so radio would play it) and Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry,” they all carry that Berns motif of propulsive rhythmic savvy.
Later, as Berns gets power and fame in a fickle music business that’s only interested in how high your last single charted, he becomes mixed up with the mob. He loved the mob guys. And the mob guys loved the music business. Did Berns plant a stink bomb in a club that Neil Diamond was singing in because the singer opted out of working with him? Diamond certainly thinks so. Berns becomes fast friends with Tommy Eboli [1911-1972] who becomes the acting boss of the Genovese crime family. Their families even vacation together, and, as a result, no one dare touches Bert Berns. (Eboli was whacked in 1972.) Although sometimes you need a scorecard for all the minor characters, Joel Selvin has brought to stunning life an era of rock’n’roll history that could never possibly be duplicated for a multitude of reasons. I never thought he’d top his great “Peppermint Twist: The Mob, The Music And The Most Famous Nightclub Of The ‘60s” (written with John Johnson, Jr.). I was wrong. “Here Comes The Night” is THE rock’n’roll book of 2014.