label boss, friend of the wise and enemy of Van Morrison
“Berns liked to hang out with the wise men. These men held the ultimate unfair trade advantage, for implicit in all of their dealings was the understanding that they would kill anyone who did not do what they wanted. Berns became friends with these people, and his associates in the music business were both intrigued and afraid of his new friends.
Welcome to the New York music industry of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when, within a few years, a random team of Mavericks tore up the old rulebook and wrote a new one.
This era of industry pimps, visionaries, gangsters and artists – painstakingly and vividly detailed by American music writer Joel Selvin in his new book, Here is the night – converge on what the author describes as “the richest gold strike in the history of the music trade”.
The book is subtitled Bert Berns’ Dark Soul and the dirty business of rhythm and blues , in reference to the singer-songwriter and producer who traced a track as brief – 1961-1967 – as it was intense. Born in the Bronx, Berns was an accomplished businessman and end-to-end music fan, and a passionate friend, then a ruthless foe of Van Morrison and Neil Diamond. When he died of heart failure in 1967 at the age of 38, he left behind both harrowing and ruthless legacies and memories.
Ellie Greenwich, songwriter at the Brill Building in New York City, cried throughout her interview with Selvin, the author says, such was his fondness for Bern. 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,” Wexler growled, “but if I did. , I would piss on his grave.
The most difficult job in writing the book, Selvin says, was to describe the moral universe in which Berns operated in such a way that his actions could be explained. He wanted Berns to be more of a hero than a villain – but certain stories had to be told about the man who, although a pioneer, had a twisted moral compass.
“The independent New York record scene of the early 1960s was little better than a racket,” says Selvin, who speaks as he writes, in terse, crass, black sentences. What is dirty roulette?
“There was a lot of money in it. He was not part of any established music company. It was a bunch of nonconformists. He attracted pirates who plundered the ports and had more than their ration of grog. Even the most honorable characters – people like Greenwich and the team of songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – run up against these people and their business methods.
One of Berns’ most significant encounters came in the mid-1960s when, on his first trip to the UK, he fell in love with the strained sound of Them from Belfast – in particular, the group’s abrasive frontman. , Van Morrison.
When Them parted ways in the summer of 1966, following a disaster residency at Los Angeles’ Whiskey a Go Go, Morrison returned to Belfast. Berns, with an ear pinned to the Beatles Soul rubber and Revolver records, and an eye on the mainstream market, pursued its prey.
He signed Morrison to his Bang label, deposited the princely sum of $ 2,500 into a bank account, and took the singer to New York in the spring of 1967.
“The original Brown eyed girl the sessions went very well, ”says Selvin,“ but when Van came back to New York, Morrison had grown artistically and was writing songs like TB sheets , Madame George and others who would become the heart of Astral weeks . “
Far from the likes of Brown-eyed gir l – or even Them’s grumpy proto-punk tunes – Morrison’s new, intensely introspective 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 outside the hotel, his Irish accent was so thick that the phone operators couldn’t understand him. He was so angry that he slammed the phone. He was drinking. He was discouraged. So he and Berns quickly fell into a very troubled relationship.
The way Selvin writes it, Berns was operating in a realm where morality bounced between different parameters. Mavericks, cankers and pioneers, he writes, “corrupted and cheated in a world where prostitutes were routine business expenses.”
Yet Bern was beloved. Many people he spoke to for the book were “extraordinarily sentimental” about him. “He was an optimistic guy, with contagious energy. But what if you meet him? “Well, if you did that then there would be hell to pay.”
Here Comes the Night: Bert Berns’ Dark Soul and the dirty business of rhythm and blues, by Joel Selvin, is published by Counterpoint Press
THEY ARE BUSINESS: THE ROCK’N’ROLL TOUGH GUYS
Peter Grant (1935-1995)
Grant was described by Stephen Davis in his classical 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 (when the band signed with Atlantic in the late 1960s, Grant was negotiating the highest royalty rate ever recorded for a band. ). If that meant being charged with serious assault, so be it: Grant’s bullish trading behavior, cruelty, and cocaine-induced paranoia gave him a reputation that was based more on reality than myth.
Morris Levy (1927-1990)
New York-born Levy, long associated with organized crime bosses, routinely took bogus writing credits from songwriters to receive royalties. In the 1980s, it was worth around $ 75 million, the majority coming from his publishing house, Big Seven, which claimed more than 30,000 copyrights.
“The only thing I know about organized crime,” Levy told the LA Times , in 1986, “these are my five ex-wives”. Try saying this to American musician Tommy James, who claimed in his 2010 book, Me, the crowd and the music , Levy’s label, Roulette Records, owed him over $ 30 million in unpaid royalties.
Don Arden (1926-2007)
Arden was a London-based businessman in the 1960s who led 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 “Pop’s Al Capone,” Arden would protect his interests with a mixture of threat and action. When music director Robert Stigwood (who would later lead the careers of Cream and The Bee Gees) attempted to poach The Small Faces, Arden went to his office with a handful of heavyweights and hung him out of his balcony in the fourth floor.