People often think Motown is the preeminent soul/R&B record label, but hit-for-hit, it is tough to beat Atlantic Records. In the mid-1960s, Bert Berns was a major reason why. As both a producer and songwriter, Berns cranked out a steady stream of hits until Atlantic’s owners staked Berns’ own label, leading to a tense power struggle. Casual soul listeners might not recognize Berns’ name, but they will know his music and his short but eventful life will confirm everything they ever suspected about the recording industry. The producer’s son earns all kinds of credit for presenting the straight dope on his father in Bang! The Bert Berns Story, directed by Brett Berns & Bob Sarles, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.
When we say Berns produced hit records, we are talking about massively catchy, instantly recognizable tunes, like Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” The Exciters’ “Tell Him,” and the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.” As luck would have it, Berns penned several tunes that so appealed to the British Invasion bands that they recorded their own versions, like a little number called “Twist and Shout.” (If you forgot it, Sir Paul McCartney is on-hand to remind us just how big it was.)
For Berns’ friends and colleagues, his importance extended beyond the charts. They also give him credit for introducing Afro-Cuban rhythms into rock & roll. However, for Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, it really was about the hits. When the commercial success of Berns’ Bang Records exceeded all expectations, Wexler made a grab for a bigger piece of the pie by appealing to gangster allies. However, Berns had even higher ranking mobster friends to call upon. Maybe there should be an “alleged” in there somewhere, but Berns fils and Sarles present it all as the straight-up truth. They never suggest Bert Berns did anything illegal himself (except maybe facilitate the harassment of a wayward label artist by the name of Neil Diamond)—he just happened to make friends with connected figures liked the late Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia, whose interview segments sure add a lot color to the film.
Seriously, if Bang! is sanitized in anyway than the truth might be too much for mere mortal soul fans to wrap their heads around. Frankly, Bang! often has a distinctly hardboiled vibe thanks to Steven Van Zandt’s tough-talking narration (penned by Berns biographer Joel Selvin). Still, it is hard to lose sight of the music. In addition to McCartney and Burke, Ben E. King, Cissy Houston, Van Morrison, Keith Richards, and Ronald Isley also pay tribute to Berns, which keeps things in perspective.