A thrilling story of a little-known songwriter and record producer of some of the greatest rhythm and blues hits.
Longtime San Francisco Chronicle music critic Selvin (Smartass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin, 2010, etc.) digs with gusto into the tasty history of New York City’s hit-making songwriters, artists and record magnates of the great R&B era of the early 1960s, focusing on one of the greatest, if least sung of the bunch, Bert Berns (1929-1967). A Jewish kid from the Bronx with a heart condition caused by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, Berns lived as though on borrowed time. As a young man, he fell in love with the Latin music that had made its way from Havana and points south to the nightclubs of New York. Particular favorites of his were “Guantanamera,” the irresistibly catchy Cuban anthem, and “La Bamba,” the Mexican folk song that Ritchie Valens made into a rock ’n’ roll hit. Berns turned to the mambo rhythms and mariachi chords again and again when writing his own songs and producing other artists’ recordings of them—notably “Twist and Shout” for the Isley Brothers and “My Girl Sloopy” with The Vibrations. When the Beatles recorded a worldwide hit with “Twist and Shout” in 1963, Berns’ fortunes were made. In the years leading up to his death, Berns continued to pen and record a string of classics with Solomon Burke, Van Morrison, The Drifters, Neil Diamond and others. But his story is not all sweet. Selvin’s prose, muscular and Runyon-esque and never taking itself too seriously, moves the narrative along from its upbeat start to its sordid denouement at the edges of New York’s gangland.
A fascinating time capsule of a free-wheeling era in American music and society.