More than a few friends – folks who were I'd say more knowledgeable than average music fans – saw me carrying around this weighty volume and asked "Bert Berns? What did he do?" I took it to be a sign that Berns's legacy is still somewhat out of proportion to his tremendous influence. I became accustomed to rattling off song titles of Berns's products and compositions: "A Little Bit of Soap," "Hang on Sloopy," "Tell Him," "Brown-Eyed Girl," and so on...eyes quickly widened, and any charges of musical bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping were quickly set to rest.
It's strange to think that Berns's contemporaries – Lieber and Stoller, Greenwich and Barry, Jerry Wexler, the Erteguns, Phil Spector, Neil Diamond, and so on – are so deified, and Bert still elicits a "Who's that?" from people otherwise well-versed.
Joel Selvin's meticulous yet compulsively readable biography should help push Bert into the pantheon where he so belongs. From a reasonably well-off mambo-smitten teenager to one of the most powerful men in the seedy, mob-tainted record biz, Here Comes the Night tracks the indefatigable Berns – a songwriter, producer, and guitarist with somewhat limited tools, but endless enthusiasm and passion. His ability to translate his passion and heartbreak to wax was his real gift, and this book is rather well-complimented by Ace's two-volume compilation of Berns's hits and rarities.
While Selvin writes about Berns in great depth, he wisely chooses to make this book as much a biography of the mid-'60s pop/R&B scene as it is of Bert. The author vividly depicts a milieu – a new frontier, really – born of the new, burgeoning teenage market, the crossing over of black music to white audiences, and the wild west potential of independent labels, who flooded in to produce and release the kind of dynamic, raucous records that Berns loved, and that major labels wouldn't touch.
So who or what was Bert Berns? In the most basic terms, he was a songwriter, sometime singer, record producer, executive, and occasional guitarist. His best songs seemed to either be absolutely devastating, heart-rending pleas and laments or joyful calls to the dancefloor inspired by his favorite record, Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba." As a producer, he could make singers plumb unimaginable depths of anguish and darkness. As a writer, he had a knack for Latin-inflected hooks and surprisingly intense poetry...
Here Comes the Night takes us from Berns's earliest efforts as an impresario (which involved a very young Rosemary Clooney), through his years as an independent writer, songplugger, and producer, and finally to his incredibly fruitful relationship with Atlantic Records and the Bang subsidiary (an Atlantic spinoff). His life becomes increasingly mob-intertwined, even as he settles into a marriage and fatherhood.
All the while, Berns was tormented by the knowledge that a pre-existing heart condition would likely strike him down by before he entered his fourth decade. Was that what drove him to maddening levels of productivity and success? Or would have been just as manic? Hard to say...but it's a hell of a ride, cut off by said heart troubles when Berns was just 38.
I was first turned on to Selvin's work when I read a tremendous article in Mojo about Stevie Wonder's intersection with the Black Power movement. Selvin has a gift for contrasting a lone individual with the current of the times and the greater context of his community, of which Here Comes the Night is an absolutely masterful example. There are a few small complaints: The book ends rather abruptly, with no discussion of Berns greater legacy and the subsequent impact of his loss on his young family; a few of the photos are pixilated and poorly reproduced; and so on...but these are slight in comparison to the formidable achievement that is Here Comes the Night.