“The music of my father’s era was foundational – a Renaissance age that will never be repeated again. Of course, great music continues to be made. But I fear that the attention to craft and commitment to art have been diminished by technology, and it’s going to get worse before it ever gets better.”
Brett Berns: Music of My Heart
Brett Berns is the son of legendary songwriter and record producer Bert Berns. He has devoted much of his life to raising awareness of his late father’s legacy. He spent eight years producing BANG! THE BERT BERNS STORY. You may have never heard of Bert Berns, but you know the enduring songs he’s written and produced: Twist & Shout, Cry to Me, Tell Him, Piece of My Heart, Cry Baby, Hang On Sloopy, I Want Candy, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love – Berns’ career IS Rock and Roll. Berns sessions made legends of Solomon Burke, The Isley Brothers, The Drifters, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison, and Neil Diamond, and his songs became chart-topping covers for the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and Janis Joplin. His premature death at 38 cut short a seven-year streak of hits, rooted in his early Brill Building and 1650 Broadway days, through his tenure at Atlantic Records to the formation and success of his own labels Bang Records and Shout Records. Music meets the Mob in this biographical documentary about the exciting and tragic life greatest songwriter and record producer of popular and soul music of the sixties that you’ve never heard of, narrated by Steven Van Zandt.
“Through my journey of discovery to learn about my late father, I became a guitarist and began to hear music as a musician, something that proved to be life-changing.” (Photo: Bob Sarles and Brett Berns)
The film, which had its highly acclaimed World Premiere at SXSW, beats a peripatetic pace through the history of 60’s R&B-fueled rock as driven by the man who propelled the most emotive, dynamic and sublime soundtrack of the era. Together with his co-director, documentary filmmaker and Emmy nominated editor Bob Sarles, filmmaker Brett Berns brings his late father’s story – which stretches from the Bronx to Cuba, the Brill Building and Atlantic Records to Berns’s own successful record labels, Bang and Shout – to the screen with interviews with those who knew him best and rare performance footage. Included in the film are interviews with Cissy Houston, Ronald Isley, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Van Morrison, Keith Richards and Paul McCartney.
Interview by Michael Limnios
What do you learn about yourself from the Rock, Soul n’ Blues culture?
Through my journey of discovery to learn about my late father, I became a guitarist and began to hear music as a musician, something that proved to be life-changing. This allowed me to understand my father’s music and to know him through his music, which in turn helped me to better understand myself.
How important was music in your life?
I was raised in a music business family, so music was everywhere from my earliest memory. Following my father’s death in 1967, my mother took control of his Bang Records label and became the most powerful woman in the record business of the 1970s. My siblings and I were raised in the recording studio. But it wasn’t until adulthood that music became my life’s work. With my (also very musical) sister, we’ve created music publishing companies, indie record labels, and produced both the documentary and the Broadway-bound musical “Piece of My Heart,” which had an extended run Off-Broadway in 2014. My three children are musicians too, and acoustic guitar jams are a regular at the house.
How has the Bert Berns music and R&B culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
I have dedicated my life to raising awareness of my father’s legacy. Knowing he would die young, he would tell my mother, “My children will know me through my music.” So I set out to find meaning in his words. And through his deeply autobiographical body of work, and by meeting his collaborators, I became fluent in his music. With the film and musical, we’ve been able to bring him back to life on stage and screen.
“My father was smitten with both the Mambo and Rhythm & Blues, and blended influences from both forms to create his own sound.”
How do you describe Bert Berns’ sound and songbook?
My father has a distinct canon that may be best characterized as symphonic soul music. The vast majority of his work was R&B – he almost only worked with black artists. His music featured the baritone sax and background vocals of Cissy Houston and the Sweet Inspirations. He pushed his artists to the edge of despair in their lead vocal performances. And his love for the Mambo saw him bring Latin rhythms into Rock and Roll. But it was the fusion of R&B, Latin, gospel and soul that gave my father’s body of work its unique sound.
What characterized Berns’ music philosophy and mission?
Knowing that he was going to die young, my father lived every day as if it were his last. He was an intrepid Hemingwayish man on a mission whose life was all music. He had the guitar with him constantly. And he would collaborate with anyone. He would listen to his artists (“I hear what you’re saying” was his mantra) and push them to exceed their boundaries. He worked with the same musicians and orchestrators his entire career. He just poured his entire heart and soul into his music, and wrote his own pathology into his lyrics.
What were the reasons that the late Bert Berns started the Soul/Rhythm & Blues researches and experiments?
My father was smitten with both the Mambo and Rhythm & Blues, and blended influences from both forms to create his own sound. He loved Arsenio Rodriguez and Sam Cooke, and thrived in the nightclubs of Harlem where he would dance the mambo and watch his favorite acts at the Apollo Theater. How a Jewish kid from the Bronx brought all those influences to bear in the creation of Uptown Soul music I’ll never fully know.
How started the thought of Bang? Why do you think that his music continues to generate such a devoted following?
The motivation behind the documentary (and biography “Here Comes The Night” by Joel Selvin and the Broadway-bound musical “Piece of My Heart”) was to make people aware of my father’s music and legacy. He was so obscure and forgotten that only by telling his amazing life story would he be recognized for his place in the musical pantheon. With his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, his place in music history is now secure.
“Bert Berns was colorblind – so much so that he worked almost exclusively with African-American artists. He brought people of all races together in the recording studio, and treated everyone as equals. How his music has impacted the social fabric is for historians to say. But my dad’s part in the mystical origins of rock and roll is surely as important as anyone else’s.” (Keith Richards, Brett and Cassie Berns / Photo by Jane Rose)
Are there any memories from Bert Berns which you’d like to share? What was the best advice ever gave you?
As my sister says in the film, all my memories of my father are someone else’s. We were just too young to remember him. The principal advice I got from my dad came through my mother – that I would know him through his music. But his heroic example has inspired and lighted my way.
What do you miss most nowadays from the Berns music? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?
The music of my father’s era was foundational – a Renaissance age that will never be repeated again. Of course, great music continues to be made. But I fear that the attention to craft and commitment to art have been diminished by technology, and it’s going to get worse before it ever gets better.
What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the documentary Bang – The Bert Berns Story?
We set out to make a serious documentary of my father’s life – one that we hope will educate, inspire and entertain generations to come. And the stars of the film, all of whom were deeply impacted by my father, poured their hearts out during their interviews – many of them breaking into tears. But it wasn’t until we saw the film in the theater with an audience that we realized just how funny it was. There’s great humor woven throughout what is still a serious time capsule of my father’s transformative role in the New York music scene of the sixties.
What is the impact of Blues and Soul music (and Bert Berns music) on the racial and socio-cultural implications?
Brenda Reid of the Exciters calls my father “the white soul brother.” And Cissy Houston says “he was the only one at that time who really had that soul.” Bert Berns was colorblind – so much so that he worked almost exclusively with African-American artists. He brought people of all races together in the recording studio, and treated everyone as equals. How his music has impacted the social fabric is for historians to say. But my dad’s part in the mystical origins of rock and roll is surely as important as anyone else’s.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
I would want to go back to 1967 – the year of my dad’s death – and meet the greatest man I never had the chance to know. I would want to see him in action producing Van Morrison and Erma Franklin. I’d want to run around with him and his mob buddies smashing up bootleggers with baseball bats. And I’d want to thank him for everything he gave to me and my family. And to the world.
(Photo: Jerry Wexler, Bert Berns, Neshui Ertegun and Ahmet Ertegun)