APRIL 27, 2014
IN HIS NEW BOOK, Joel Selvin describes three different recordings of the song “Twist and Shout.” Two were not simply big hits, but seminal contributions to the rock ’n’ roll canon. The other, however, did not go well. In 1961, songwriters Bert Berns and Phil Medley scavenged pieces from an old, unreleased song of theirs called “Shake It Up, Baby,” and Berns cribbed the chord progression from his favorite song of all time, “La Bamba.” He took the song to Jerry Wexler over at Atlantic Records, where Berns had written and produced a number of his singles already. At an impromptu audition in the label offices, Berns strummed the song out on his beat-up Hagström Goya nylon-string acoustic while a friend drummed on a desk. The performance came to an abrupt halt when a secretary interrupted to remind Wexler of a lunch appointment.
Still, he was impressed. Wexler assigned “Twist and Shout” to a cocky wunderkind producer named Phil Spector, then not even old enough to drink. Spector in turn gave the song to a group of kids called the Top Notes. “In the studio with ‘Twist and Shout,’ Spector took charge,” Selvin writes. Spector — whom Selvin dismisses as a “little squirrel” — “changed the tempo of the song, rewrote the middle section, and lost all the Afro-Cuban rhythms. Wexler urged him on. They turned a surefire natural hit into a bland, banal shuffle. Berns watched from a gallery. He was horrified.”
Afterward, Berns confronted Wexler; Wexler dismissed him with a curt “Shut the fuck up.”
Fifty years later, who even remember the Top Notes? Barely even a footnote in pop history, their version of “Twist and Shout” is remarkable only for what it isn’t — a hit. “Their recording,” Selvin notes, “was dead before it left the studio and scarcely noticed when it was released.” The experience, however, made Berns even more determined to write and produce his own songs on his own terms, to shun industry interlopers who might obscure or dilute his vision. Further emboldened, this Bronx native became one of the most adventurous writers and producers of the era, crafting “three-minute R&B grand operas, all emotional drama and gospel fury.” With his Van Dyke goatee, pompadour toupee, and hipster argot, Berns emerges as both a real character and the main character of Here Comes the Night; yet for all his achievements, he remains a man in the background, never quite as popular or as celebrated as the music he created. On the other hand, who doesn’t know “Twist and Shout”?
A pop critic at the San Francisco Examiner from 1972 until 2009, Selvin works to give Berns his due, describing his upbringing in the Bronx as well as the childhood illness that nearly killed him. When he was only 14, Berns “contracted rheumatic fever, a bacterial inflammation that can severely damage the valves. It scarred his heart. For a teenager in the 1940s, when open-heart surgery was as much science fiction as flying to the moon, it meant a death sentence.” That sense of mortality, learned at such a young age, made the young man careless at times, but socially gregarious and professionally ambitious. Rather than take it easy, he decided “he was not going to live in fear of this time bomb ticking in his chest.” Instead, he frequented nightclubs all over the Bronx and spent time in pre-Castro Havana, where he “told people he ran guns and drugs.” He was that kind of guy.
Nevertheless, Berns’s songwriting career started late — when he was in his late 20s — and took off only gradually. While most of his songwriting peers “were not self-conscious artists exploring their inner lives,” Berns would wring his scarred heart out in his songwriting, confronting his own fears and desires in hits like “Just Like Mine” for the Renaults and “Piece of My Heart” for Erma Franklin. At a time when radio stations programmed heavily toward adolescent consumers, “Berns did not write teenage romance. His songs contained the very real presence of sex and obsession. The stakes are high and the prices are dear.”
Despite Spector’s manhandling, Berns didn’t give up on “Twist and Shout.” In 1962, he all but insisted that a band of siblings from Cincinnati record the song. “This time he would be the producer,” Selvin writes, noting that the sessions with the Isley Brothers were incredibly tense. “The Isleys didn’t know Berns. They hated the song. They didn’t want to do any twist song.” That fad had died a quick and ignominious death the year before. Berns persevered through heated arguments, during which furniture was smashed, and finally the Isleys cut the song. Any hesitation they might have had is not audible in the song, which could not be more different from the Top Notes’s calamity. “The Isleys breathed gospel intensity into the simple, spare arrangement,” Selvin writes. “They climbed all over the song’s architecture, building to two walloping crescendos in the record’s two and a half minutes […]. This was Afro-Cuban rock and roll.”
Considerably more stripped down than the Spector version and much more raw than Berns’s typical production work, “Twist and Shout” became a massive hit. The Isleys’s label, Wand Records, was selling 30,000 a week, and the song launched a wave of knockoffs. Some were even penned and produced by Berns himself, who never met a novelty he wouldn’t at least entertain. “Twist and Shout” was a turning point and helped establish Berns as a reputable and reliable hitmaker. He earned nearly complete autonomy in the studio, garnered a larger share of residuals and royalties, bought a penthouse apartment, imported a Great Dane from England, married a much younger woman. He had arrived.
If Berns is the central figure in Selvin’s rambling book, he’s hardly the only compelling character to grace its pages. In fact, Berns is simply a hook for a larger history of the business of rhythm and blues in the 1960s. Here Comes the Night paints this milieu — unscrupulous businessmen shilling teenybopper hits — so vividly that it threatens to swallow Berns altogether. It’s a wildly complicated system of songwriters, song pluggers, managers, executives, licensers, publishers, and — somewhere near the bottom of the hierarchy — singers and musicians. There was no science to creating a hit single, which means that the industry ran on graft, corruption, and payola, among other shady strategies. DJs like Alan Freed and Dick Clark were willing to accept towering stakes of money, not to mention songwriting credits and royalties, to spin records and generate sales. Clark in particular was a kingmaker who wielded spectacular power. “While most disc jockeys who took cash from the labels at least gave the records a spin for the money, Dick Clark operated from such regal heights, payola was paid him as a tribute, offered up so that he might even deign to pay attention.”
Selvin obviously admires some of the more colorful characters in the business, whether they’re songwriters like Doc Pomus (a Jewish blues singer who penned “Save the Last Dance for Me”) or mob-backed thugs like Tommy Eboli (who had been a boxing promoter until he beat up a ref and was banned for life). Here Comes the Night frequently veers away from Berns’s story to follow another character or peek into another publishing office on Broadway, and Selvin digresses into short histories of Latin pop in mid-century New York, for example, or the founding of Atlantic Records. It can be distracting — the book’s nominal subject is often obscured by the minutia of the milieu — but these passages are presented so vividly and knowledgeably that they rarely seem extraneous. Dotting his prose with period-specific hipster patter, Selvin comes across like an insider: a local showing you the sights, a guy on the corner who knows all the neighborhood secrets and might steal your wallet.
The Top Notes couldn’t kill “Twist and Shout” and the Isley Brothers couldn’t own it. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, “the Beatles had been using the song to close its shows starting the year before,” Selvin writes. “They had been playing the number, fresh off the U.S. charts by the Isley Brothers, since the band’s final nightclub engagement at Hamburg’s Star Club, whipping up hometown crowds with the song during their last shows at the Cavern.” In February 1963, with only 15 minutes left on their tab at EMI Studios, the group decided to set it down on tape.
Lennon gargled milk to sooth his vocal cords, then he let it rip: “His throat would hurt for days. He staggered through the number, wrenching the vocal out of somewhere deep inside. His raw, inflamed flesh is there for all to hear, embedded in the performance.” They tried a second take, but Lennon was shot. Everybody knew the first run-through was it. “What they had committed to tape in that last half hour was nothing less than the most rugged, powerful piece of rock and roll that had ever been recorded in a British studio.”
What’s bigger than a smash hit? Whatever it is, that’s what the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” turned out to be. Whether fairly or not, this quartet of white guys from the United Kingdom would entrench the song in popular culture in a way the Isleys could not. This third version of the song, only slightly denuded of its Afro-Cuban rhythms, became the foundation for rock ’n’ roll in the 1960s and 1970s. For Selvin, the choice in material is revealing: “Most of the British pop upstarts drew their clearest inspiration from the New York rhythm and blues scene. Lennon and McCartney really just wanted to be Goffin and King.”
So began a great period of transatlantic musical exchange, as British bands tried to sound American and American bands tried to sound like British bands trying to sound American. Even as his contemporaries ignored the threat — Dick Rowe at Decca Records famously rejected the Beatles, claiming they had no future — Berns understood that the British Invasion represented a sea change in popular music, and he adjusted accordingly. He made two trips to England to produce British acts and scout for talent, not that he ever found anything on par with the Beatles. He produced several hits for the Belfast rock band Them, including “Gloria,” and eventually signed their frontman, a feisty drunk named Van Morrison, to the Atlantic offshoot Bang Records. Overseas, he played the rock star with ease: “They’d never seen anything like Bert Berns in London before. He was an authentic character, a bit of Guys and Dolls in the flesh. He dressed like a racetrack tout, smoked like a chimney, and talked a mile a minute in the hipster argot of the Broadway underworld.”
Back home, Berns knew that underworld all too well:
Berns liked hanging around the wiseguys. These men wielded the ultimate unfair business advantage because implicit in all their dealing was the understanding that they would kill anyone who didn’t do what they wanted. This was raw, vicious power, almost intoxicating in its purity and simplicity.
Berns even picked up a few tactics from his cohorts: during a protracted contract dispute with Neil Diamond, Berns threw stink bombs into a club where the singer-songwriter was performing.
Selvin hints that Berns’s association with these shady businessmen led to his downfall, but as Here Comes the Night enters its final chapters, it’s clear that his ticker will catch up to him before the mob or the cops or pop-cultural obsolescence ever will. He died suddenly on December 30, 1967, at only 38. In retrospect, it was as inevitable as it was abrupt, and Selvin does his best to give it some impact. “The curtain had run down on more than Berns, truth be told, although they were all too stunned to take account. One of the great golden ages of American music had come to a close, although nobody may have noticed at the time.”