Every so often, a music bio arrives that becomes “the book to read.” Think of Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick’s exhaustive considerations on the arc and impact of rock’s first true superstar. Last year gave us Johnny Cash: A Life, Robert Hilburn’s deeply lived and reported recounting of the Man in Black. Books like these, defining what lives and careers really mean, engage readers well beyond the realm of music bios.
It’s a tricky line to walk. The author must balance the deep insights and minutiae the invested music lover expects with a story that draws those who have little interest in who played what instrument on what album, or when a certain record came out. Writing that reaches further, creating connections with the culture at large and offering a mandate about what these lives say about America in the moment, elevates truly great books no matter what subjects they capture.
Joel Selvin’s new book makes a claim to greatness. In the world of glaringly and exhaustively over-examined star bios, the San Francisco-based journalist not only exhumes a lost soul in the pantheon of ‘60s pop and soul (along with capturing rock ‘n’ roll’s burgeoning eruption), he also creates as engaged and energetic a narrative as any so-called serious writing can contain.
Selvin’s subject: Bert Berns. Born to Russian Orthodox Jewish parents in the Bronx, Berns contracted rheumatic fever at a young age. It left him with a compromised heart, yet that hardly slowed him. With a doting mother and a hunger for nightlife, for love and for rhythms that made people dance, he started hustling the Brill Building in no time, making records and trying to find a place at the table in a wildly shifting record business.
In many ways, the man remains only a footnote, but Berns’ songs and productions are legend. He wrote or co-wrote “Twist & Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” “Here Comes the Night” and “I Want Candy.” He produced Solomon Burke, the Drifters, the Isley Brothers, Erma Franklin, Neil Diamond, Lulu, Them (and later its lead singer, Van Morrison), and we find his fingerprints on the iconic recordings of these artists, including standards like “Cry To Me,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Cherry Cherry” and “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Berns worked at the same time as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Motown’s Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Eddie Holland, uber-producer Phil Spector and Atlantic Records founders Gerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun and Nesuhi Ertegun. Even among these immortals, Berns’ ability to throw himself over a cliff in the name of a song, a star or a moment gave him a brio all his own. He died of heart failure at 38, a perfect rock ‘n’ roll ending that truncated the legacy-polishing that comes with time. Those who remained took—or obscured—credit for too much of his work.
Hands-down the most outlandish persona in a business of brimming with outlandish characters, Berns, as Selvin renders him, became the brilliant loser who harnessed lightning and churned it into platinum, betting it all on one act or another.
Selvin’s vibrant language ripples with immediacy, whether he describes Cuba before Castro, Mafia bosses like Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia’s investment in “the music business” or the way actual songs emerge from your radio. The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic from 1972-2009, Selvin knows the machinations of the music business and understands the artists who make it. Beyond the story of a life, Selvin paints an insightful picture of how music business gets done. He perceives the circuitous routes through politics, drug problems, greed, personal life snafus and rampant egos that most people don’t realize can come between a tune in someone’s head and a record that person loves.
Selvin tells of rock ‘n’ roll’s birth and how the golden age of rhythm and blues flared to life, of rules written and rewritten. Sharp guys with an eye on the prize could suddenly not just get in the game, but rule it. Berns gripped the new reality with a vengeance. From wannabe to indie hitmaker, he kept pushing, striving, but especially creating. His street-corner romanticism mainlined a vein broad enough to briefly make him the toast of New York City’s night club/Brill Building scene.
AM radio drew young America, offering a compelling world of old-school glamour, wise guys, bouffant hair … and music so sweet. Berns, the outsider, got into Atlantic Records as a staff producer. Later, he teamed with the Erteguns and Wexler to create Bang! Records. His label heated up with the McCoys, the Strangeloves and Them (featuring that young Van Morrison, who would also record for Berns’ label on his own).
Selvin captures the appetites of the power players, as well as their vulnerabilities and blind spots, and he somehow manages to tease a seamless tale from a bottomless catalogue of sources. He eschews the gossipy showbiz tone embraced by many pop culture chroniclers. Instead, he traces the works of iconic names (Leiber and Stoller, for example) from songwriters to publishers to label owners. When he explains the demise of these artists, we feel compassion more than sensation.
With everything up for grabs, these electric intersections and moments dazzle readers. When a young Van Morrison starts behaving abusively, he’s promptly moved to the cheaper King Edward Hotel where “Wassel ran a poker game and professional wrestler Haystacks Calhoun lived in the penthouse.” In true rock star fashion, Morrison soon wears a lampshade and drags the window blinds down the hall, singing “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” In another passage of the book, Ellie Greenwich, a noted era songwriter, carves background vocal parts for Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” Voila! A hit is born.
Of course the star here, in spite of the legends that move in and out of AM radio’s glory days, remains Berns. Writing, recording, wheeling, dealing, he lives flat out, with an almost crazed passion. No matter how dire things get, his spirit never falters.
Nor does his sense of expediency in the eat-or-be-eaten realm of a business marking its own turf. Berns was pragmatic in the extreme … and perhaps a bit in thrall to “made men.” Selvin captures the mob’s impact on the growing realm of soul and rock ‘n’ roll in the chapter “Up In The Streets of Harlem .” He writes of a music business where even the very staid president of Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson, gifted mobster Wassel with 20,000 “clean” copies of an album. These could be traded in for cash at a local rack jobber. The payoff came when Wassel convinced an artist over whom he had “influence” to sign with Columbia.
For Berns, though, it was not only business but social connection. He entertained and intertwined the shylocks and monsters. Wassel and another shadowy figure, Patsy Pagano, spent time at Berns’ house and on his boat, ironically named A Little Bit of Soap. Yes, they managed his acts, shook down deadbeats, engaged in all sorts of off-the-books activities. Berns embraced the men, and he even integrated Wassel, as Selvin tells it, to the point of being “part of the furniture at the Bang! Records office.”
Even in the shadows, the music flourished.
Today, in our world of top-heavy regulations, accounting and second-guesses for every dollar spent, we find it hard to imagine creativity as a mercurial commodity, not something doled out, something manufactured. Much of what passes for creativity nowadays turns out to be marketing, to be products determined by focus groups. But once upon a time, records simply found their ways onto the airwaves to see what struck lightning in people’s hearts.
In the end, lightning struck Berns’ heart. When he informs his wife that he doesn’t feel well and wishes to lie down, it first feels like post-holiday malaise. At the moment his heart takes him out, it feels like the inevitability he played against, the reality we knew all along.
Among favors lost and battles compounded, the larger trope of Selvin’s story is a metaphor for the music business today. Take the freaks, punish them for being wildly creative, then mitigate … if not eradicate … room for magic to happen. You end up with machined music devoid of soul, all too often what we hear of EDM, hip-hop and production-driven pop.
To understand how Solomon Burke could tear a hole in your being, how Van Morrison (or even Neil Diamond) might quicken pulses all these years later, we must understand the power of the singular creative soul at full bore. Like lightning, such people strike fast, can’t be contained and leave confounded the logical, the envious and the lazy. For Joel Selvin, writing about one such creative has been not just another day in the office, but 18 years spent following the credits, squinting at the liner notes and listening to whispers from those previously unnoticed.
Here comes the Night may not change your life or save the music business. But the exhaustively researched, almost breathlessly written book will provide a courtside seat to how the unthinkably unorthodox once flourished and fashioned a soundtrack not just for the generation who lived it, but for subsequent generations digging a little deeper than the standard Top 40.
Perhaps in savoring this read and considering the difference, creatives can be emboldened and supported. If nothing else, perhaps we can shift the dialogue from Lohan/Kardashian/Bieber to actual music. It’s incremental, but maybe, as Selvin’s book suggests, small steps continually taken can create something built to last.
Certainly Here comes the Night, like the 45s Berns created, will engage and enrich as well in 50 years as it does right now.
Holly Gleason is a nationally recognized music critic who has written for Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Oxford American and other noteworthy publications.