When Steven Van Zandt launched his Underground Garage radio show in 2003, he realized he needed to bone up on the geeky details of rock history, especially once he was going to serve as DJ. “I thought, ‘I gotta do some research,'” he recalls. “You have to start to learn stuff like the names of the songwriters. You start looking at those parentheses in the credits to see who did what, and his name kept coming up.”
That name was Bert Berns, who was on his way to becoming one of pop and rock’s lost early heroes and creators. As a producer, songwriter and label head, Berns played a role in some of the most enduring records of the Sixties. He produced Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” co-wrote “Piece of My Heart” (best known for Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company’s version), and wrote and produced the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” (before the Beatles took it on). That’s just for starters. Berns wrote and produced Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy,” co-produced the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” and wrote and produced Them’s “Here Comes the Night.” He co-wrote and co-produced the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” later New Waved–up by a Bow Wow Wow cover. Berns’ Bang label also unleashed Neil Diamond on the world via “Cherry, Cherry,” “Solitary Man” and Diamond’s other early hits.
Berns had also worked in various guises with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Ben E. King, Dion and Lulu. Yet for whatever combination of reasons, he had become even less than a footnote in pop history. “My first revelation was how obscure he was,” says his son Brett Berns, who was only three when his father died in 1967 (at age 38) and was later put in charge of Berns’ publishing with Brett’s sister Cassandra. “He was written out of the history books and blackballed by the industry he helped create. We thought, ‘How are we going to get him recognized for his part in music history?'”
Thanks to a concerted effort by his family, Berns is finally receiving that due. Respected journalist Joel Selvin’s well-received bio, Here Comes the Night: Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, was published in 2014, followed months later by the acclaimed Off Broadway musical Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story. With Van Zandt leading the charge, Berns was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. And in his new Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen sings a bit of the Exciters’ 1962 hit “Tell Him” (written by Berns) when he talks about the night he met Patti Scialfa; she was singing that song at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park.
Next in the Berns revival movement is the documentary Bang!: The Bert Berns Story, which streams on Apple Music starting Tuesday. Narrated by Van Zandt, the film includes testimonials from Morrison, Burke, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Cissy Houston and Wilson Pickett along with Berns’ widow Ilene, and family members and business associates. Thanks to a childhood case of rheumatic fever that scarred his heart (and led to his premature death), Berns wanted to experience as much of life as he could, and the film recounts the way he charged and hustled his way into the music business, shaping the sound and business of pop along the way. Richards (who cut “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Cry to Me” with the Stones) calls Berns “one of the greatest bloody songwriters of all time.”
Van Zandt, who serves as narrator, says he was first drawn into the songwriter’s universe when he heard the Isleys’ “Twist and Shout” – even though he didn’t know who Berns was at the time. “That was one of two or three records I actually wore out, and it wasn’t easy to wear out a single in those days,” Van Zandt tells RS. “Those vinyl singles back then were made of iron. But I wore it out. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.”
Making Bang! posed several challenges, starting with the daunting fact that no film footage of Berns exists. According to Brett Berns, the family was in the midst of moving into a new home in Jersey right before his father died, and Bert was storing film footage and family photo albums in the hotel room where he was staying. “My mother never went back to the hotel and they threw it all on the street,” he sighs. “I can’t imagine what was thrown out there.” Even the few bits Brett knew existed, like his father’s appearance on an early episode of American Bandstand, were not archived. “I’ve been on an archeological dig my whole life,” he says.
But Brett, along with co-director Bob Sarles, continued on his quest during the 10 years it took to make the film. He learned more about his father’s ties to the mob, who were all over the New York music business of the time. “My mother would say, ‘I never want you to think your father was a gangster,'” he recalls. “I had no idea what she was talking about. But he was the most mobbed-up guy other than Sinatra.” (Adds Van Zandt, “We knew about the mob stuff with Tommy James, but this one was a whole new story for me.”) Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler emerges as both mentor and villain, especially when he wanted to buy Berns out his share of Bang (which Wexler co-owned with Berns and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun). As the film recounts, Berns’ friends in the mob helped ensure he wasn’t cast aside.
Neil Diamond never got back to Brett Berns for an interview, but to Berns’ surprise, the normally reticent Morrison agreed to be interviewed and invited Berns to meet him in Belfast. “I’d read everything Van said about my dad, which was a mix of complimentary things and some things that were less so,” Berns says. “So when Van saw the film, it made him see his own history in a new light. He didn’t know all the things my father was going through. He didn’t know about my dad’s heart condition. A lot of people, like Cissy, didn’t know that either.”
Bang! also serves as an unintentional eulogy for an era of pop that recedes into the history books more with each year. Some of the legends Brett interviewed on camera – his mother Ilene, songwriter Ellie Greenwich and producer-songwriter Jerry Ragovoy – have since passed away. Ragovoy, in fact, died of a stroke soon after sitting for an interview with Berns. “We filmed him at the Bitter End in New York, and I walked him out and he went straight to the hospital,” Berns says. “The stroke started before the interview, but he died a few days later.”
According to Brett, the next step in preserving his father’s legacy is a Broadway reboot of Piece of My Heart, which he hopes to launch next year. Van Zandt and his wife Maureen are serving as producers, and Van Zandt hopes to be the show’s musical director. What would Bert Berns himself think of all the belated attention? “None of these people had any idea they were creating the next chapter of the American songbook, but my dad must have wondered if he would be remembered,” Brett says. “I think he would have loved to see his colleagues joining together to tell his story in this film. He would have been thrilled and honored by it all.”