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'BANG: The Bert Berns Story': Uncovering the legacy of a legendary R&B producer

Bert Berns was a pioneering R&B producer and songwriter.
Bert Berns was a pioneering R&B producer and songwriter.
Courtesy of
Bert Berns was a pioneering R&B producer and songwriter.
Cassandra Berns and Brett Berns attend the 31st Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center on April 8, 2016 in New York City.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Bert Berns was a pioneering R&B producer and songwriter.
Bert Berns was instrumental in developing the uptown soul music sound in the '50s and '60s.
Courtesy of

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In the early 1960s, an ambitious young songwriter named Bert Berns began making a name for himself in New York City.

One of his first hits was "Twist & Shout," made famous by The Isley Brothers and The Beatles.

The success of “Twist & Shout” and other hits led to a staff producer job for Berns at Atlantic Records, where he wrote and produced a string of R&B hits. He soon started his own label, Bang Records, with acts that included a British band named Them. The band’s singer was a lad named Van Morrison, and Berns wrote their hit, “Here Comes the Night.”

Berns lived and worked fast because he knew he didn’t have long to live. A bout of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a weak heart. When he died in 1967 at the age of 38, he left behind a wife and three kids. His oldest, Brett, was only two years old when his father passed away.

Brett Berns has now made a documentary about his father’s life and career. It’s called “BANG: “The Bert Berns Story.” Brett recently chatted with The Frame host, John Horn.

Interview highlights:

On when he learned about his father's legacy:

My mother was the star of our lives growing up because she had this amazing run with Bang Records — the second incarnation with Paul Davis and Peabo Bryson and artists like that. So it wasn't until I went to college and went through the army and the copyrights came back to the family [that] I realized, Oh my god! — the depth of his legacy. I also realized how obscure and forgotten he was in the history of American music.

On his father's involvement with the criminal side of the music industry:

I think it was like the Wild West back then. But instead of cowboys and indians, it was gangsters, hoodlums and record men. You had to be tough to work in that realm. But the mob were everywhere back then as well, so it wasn't just my dad that was a great mob story. But no one was more mobbed up than my father in that era. And it worked out okay for him. He was living on borrowed time and he had the charisma of a Bill Clinton, so they were attracted to him as well.

On his father's illness:

People with rheumatic fever like Bobby Darin, they knew it was a death sentence and so you either lived like there was no tomorrow or you curled up in a ball and waited to die. My dad did the former. 

On Bert Berns' prolific career despite passing away at the age of 38:

He was a late starter. He was supposed to be dead by the time he was 31, when he had his first hit record. So that seven-year run, I think it was the ticking time bomb of a heart that just drove him to keep doubling and tripling his success. It really happened that way. One minute he was a $50-a-week songwriter, and the next minute he was a staff producer at Atlantic [Records] and the next minute he had his own record label. I mean, it was just meteoric.

On his father's work at Atlantic with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler:

[Wexler] says, "If I knew where [Bert Berns] was buried, I would piss on his grave." Jerry Wexler was the great hero of my father's story as well. If it wasn't for Ahmet and Jerry at Atlantic Records, the Bert Berns story would not have been the same. 

On his contentious relationship with Jerry Wexler:

It was really a love relationship, like a father-son. He was best man at [my father's] wedding and he was my godfather. So it was really [bad] at the end [when] Jerry Wexler wanted to sell the label. Ahmet didn't want to sell, but Jerry got his way. And he needed to take Bang Records with him because Bang was such a big part of their success at the moment.

On Berns' and Wexler's writing credit on Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love":

Solomon Burke always said this was [an] old song from the church and it was his song. He said that Jerry Wexler put his name on the song. I heard over time that he accused my father of also putting his name on that song. But of the three of them, my dad was really the principle songwriter. His first gig [was] as a songwriter. I find it hard to believe that my father did that to Solomon. Solomon loved my dad anyways. But the thing about my dad as a songwriter is, he wrote half of these songs on his own. He didn't have a permanent songwriting partner like Goffin and King or Leiber and Stoller. So half the songs he wrote on his own, and half with everybody from Jerry Wexler to my mother. 

On the autobiographical nature of his lyrics:

Joel Selvin, the author of the Bert Berns biography, said that my father wrote his pathology into his music. Knowing he was going to die, his songs were deeper and more soulful. They were all these songs about crying — "Cry To Me," "Cry Baby," "Piece of My Heart," "Heart Be Still." The songs were deeply autobiographical.

On getting interviews with elite musicians for the film:

We started getting people like Cissy Houston, Solomon Burke and Ben E. King into the film. We thought if we got the heroes of the guys like Keith Richards, Paul McCartney and Van Morrison that it would be easier to get them in a film with a no-name director and with no distribution behind us. It was a process. A build-it-and-they-will-come kind of approach. But I always joke, the hardest interview for me to get was not these legends of rock 'n' roll, but my mother. She really held out on me and made me wait for that interview.

It was years of begging and then I had to show her a semi-completed version of the film. When she saw the quality of the film and who we'd gotten in it, she decided to jump on board.

On what he learned about his father making the film:

There were so many revelations, not just the autobiographical lyrics and not just the depth of the mob story. The real revelation for me was twofold. One, how deeply obscure he was; and the next one was how great he was. When you look at the totality of his legacy — songwriter of standards, consummate record producer, label man. He was the tip of the spear of the uptown soul, contemporary soul music revolution. The first American producer to work in England. When I look at the totality of his legacy, I really can make an argument that he was one of the greatest of all-time.

My dad said, My children will know me through my music. It was something he would tell my mother. It was really his prescient prediction and my children — his grandchildren — are also knowing him through his music.

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