Bert Berns: label boss, friend to wiseguys and foe to Van Morrison

Remembered with equal parts animosity and affection, the Bronx-born music man blazed a trail in an era of industry pimps, visionaries and gangsters

Tue, Apr 29, 2014, 01:00

‘Berns liked hanging around the wiseguys. These men wielded the ultimate unfair business advantage, because implicit in all their dealings was the understanding that they would kill anyone who didn’t do what they wanted. Berns came to be friends with these people, and his music business associates were both intrigued and frightened by his new pals.”

Welcome to the the New York music industry of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when, over the course of a few short years, a random team of mavericks ripped up the old rule book and wrote a new one.

This era of industry pimps, visionaries, gangsters and artists – meticulously and vibrantly detailed by US music writer Joel Selvin in his new book, Here Comes the Night – converged on what the author describes as “the richest gold strike in music business history”.

The book is subtitled The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues , in reference to the songwriter and producer who blazed a trail that was as brief – 1961-1967 – as it was intense. The Bronx-born Berns was a consummate record businessman and a music fan through and through, and a passionate friend and then merciless foe to the likes of Van Morrison and Neil Diamond. When he died of heart failure in 1967, aged 38, he left legacies and memories that are equal parts poignant and pitiless.

Ellie Greenwich, a songwriter at New York’s Brill Building, cried throughout her interview with Selvin, the author says, such was her fondness for Berns. Yet when Selvin approached 1960s Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler to talk about Berns, the response was less benign: “I don’t know where he’s buried,” growled Wexler, “but if I did, I would piss on his grave.”

Moral universe
The most difficult job of writing the book, says Selvin, was to describe the moral universe within which Berns operated in such a manner that his actions could be explained. He wanted Berns to be more hero than villain – but certain stories had to be told of the man who, while a pioneer, had a bent moral compass.

“The New York independent record scene of the early 1960s was little better than a racket,” says Selvin, who talks like he writes, in terse, rugged, noirish sentences.

“There was a lot of money in it. It was not part of any established music business. It was a bunch of mavericks. It attracted pirates that plundered ports and had more than their grog ration. Even the most honourable characters – people like Greenwich and the songwriter team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – rub up against these people and their business methods.”

One of Berns’s flintier encounters took place in the mid-1960s when, on his first trip to the UK, he became enamoured with the taut sound of Belfast’s Them – specifically, the band’s abrasive frontman, Van Morrison.

When Them split up in the summer of 1966, following a crash-and-burn residency at LA’s Whisky a Go Go, Morrison returned to Belfast. Berns, with an ear pinned to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver records, and an eye on the mainstream market, pursued his prey.

He signed Morrison to his Bang label, lodged the princely sum of $2,500 into a bank account and flew the singer over to New York in the spring of 1967.

“The original Brown-Eyed Girl sessions went great,” says Selvin, “but when Van came back to New York, Morrison had moved along artistically, and was writing songs like TB Sheets , Madame George and others that would become the core of Astral Weeks .”

Far removed from the likes of Brown-Eyed Gir l – or even Them’s cranky proto-punk tunes – Morrison’s intensely introspective new material was neither appreciated nor understood by Berns.

“Bert was all about hit records,” says Selvin. “Van was stuck in a hotel room. Whenever he went to phone out of the hotel, his Irish accent was so thick that the phone operators couldn’t understand him. He’d get so angry that he’d slam down the phone. He was drinking. He was despondent. So he and Berns fell quickly into a very troubled relationship.”

The way Selvin writes it, Berns operated in a realm where morals bounced between different parameters. The mavericks, chancers and pioneers, he writes, “bribed and cheated in a world where prostitutes were routine business expenses”.

Yet Berns was beloved. Many people he spoke to for the book were “extraordinarily sentimental” about him. “He was an upbeat guy, with contagious energy.” But if you crossed him? “Well, if you did that, then there was going to be hell to pay.”

Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, by Joel Selvin, is published by Counterpoint Press


Peter Grant (1935-1995)
Grant was described by Stephen Davis in his classic music book, Hammer of the Gods , as having a “tenacious instinct for the scent of cash”. He earned Led Zeppelin more money than any rock band before them (at the time of signing the group to Atlantic, in the late 1960s, Grant negotiated the highest ever royalty rate for a band). If this meant being charged for serious assault, then so be it: Grant’s bullish business behaviour, ruthlessness and cocaine-induced paranoia gave him a reputation that was grounded more in reality than myth.

Morris Levy (1927-1990)
New York-born Levy, long associated with organised-crime bosses, systematically took false writing credits from songwriters in order to receive royalty payments. By the 1980s, he was worth in the region of $75 million, the majority coming from his publishing company, Big Seven, which boasted more than 30,000 copyrights.

“The only thing I know about organised crime,” Levy told the LA Times , in 1986, “is my five ex-wives.” Try telling that to US musician Tommy James, who claimed in his 2010 book, Me, the Mob, and the Music , that Levy’s label, Roulette Records, owed him more than $30 million in unpaid royalties.

Don Arden (1926-2007)
Arden was a 1960s London-based businessman who steered the careers of The Small Faces, The Move, ELO and Ozzy Osbourne (to whom Arden’s daughter, Sharon, is still married). Often referred to as the “Al Capone of pop”, Arden would protect his interests with a mixture of threat and action. When music manager Robert Stigwood (who would later steer the careers of Cream and The Bee Gees) tried to poach The Small Faces, Arden went to his office with a handful of heavies and dangled him out of his fourth-floor balcony.

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