Rant ‘N’ Roll: Shake It Up, Baby

NEW YORK, NY—Piece Of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story opened recently at the Signature Center on 42nd Street. The brand new rock musical features 26 of the title character’s songs played by a rampaging rock ‘n’ roll big-band, obscured from on high, and performed by a cast overflowing with talent and charisma in telling an engaging true story, maybe the greatest untold story in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

Bert Berns had over 50 hits in a seven-year period. When he went to England in the early ‘60s because he sensed the seismic shift in pop music that his American peers were quick to dismiss, he was treated like a rock star. The Stones, Beatles, Yardbirds and Animals recorded his songs. He took session guitarist Jimmy Page back to New York with him where Page crashed on Bert’s couch, before Berns introduced him to Ahmet Ertegun who wound up signing Page’s new band, Led Zeppelin.

He died of a heart attack in 1967 at 38 just when his musical vision was being realized. His doctors had told his parents he’d never see 30 because of rheumatic fever. Thus, he lived life at 100 mph since he knew he was running out of time, and became, in the process, one the greatest songwriters and producers of the ‘60s. In honor of their fallen benefactor, Zep recorded “Baby Come On Home: Tribute To Bert Berns” for its ‘69 debut but it took 24 years before the track would be released.

What? You say you never heard of him? You never heard of Bert Berns because Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, two Atlantic Records principals, although both legends, were ugly and powerful enough to successfully erase his name from rock ‘n’ roll history.

Until now.

This is the guy who wrote and produced “Twist And Shout” for The Isley Brothers, discovered Van Morrison, produced “Brown Eyed Girl” and wrote “Here Comes The Night” for Van’s band, Them. He discovered Neil Diamond (ok, we’ll forgive him for that). He co-wrote “Piece Of My Heart” for Aretha’s older sister Erma Franklin before Janis Joplin (who also recorded his “Cry Baby”) truly nailed it. (No one knew Berns was writing about his own heart.) He wrote “Hang On Sloopy” which made 17-year-old Rick Derringer a rock star in The McCoys. Listen to his “Cry To Me” by Solomon Burke. His songs were dark.

Inspired by Cuban salsa music, he went to Havana, told people of running guns for Castro and turned a Havana whorehouse into a nightclub, yet returned to New York to put his rapidly deteriorating heart into his highly personalized musical vision. Although his songs and productions have lived on, his history was, indeed, effectively squashed. There’s a great scene in Piece Of My Heart where Phil Spector tries to produce “Twist And Shout” but gets it all wrong. Berns slows his own song down, adds the soul, and it’s ultimately interpreted by The Beatles, with John Lennon’s vocal now known as one of the greatest vocals of the rock era.

The musical moves from past to present to past as his daughter tries to come to grips with her dad’s legacy. Zak Resnick as Bert amazingly conveys the title character’s alternate sense of anguish amid the joy of creation. Leslie Kritzer heartbreakingly plays the daughter Jessie (a composite of two of Bert’s three children who are now on a mission to get their dad rightfully into various Hall Of Fames). Joseph Siravo plays the gangster Wazzel with a touch of danger…yet he’s a totally sympathetic character.

Bert Berns had so much soul. Listen to “Are You Lonely For Me Baby,” which opens the production. Freddie Scott had the original 1967 hit. It’s sung with a sense of raw, primal urgency. That urgency is pure Bert Berns. Listen to “Tell Him” by The Exciters and you’ll feel the same thrill.

The renaissance for this forgotten giant started earlier this year with Joel Selvin’s brilliant biography Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns And The Dirty Business Of Rhythm & Blues, THE rock ‘n’ roll book of 2014. It continues with this production, a 2:20-long blockbuster in two acts, in league with the current spate of such profound jukebox musicals as Jersey Boys, Beautiful, After Midnight, Motown and the criminally shut-down A Night With Janis Joplin (maybe the best of them all).

Hollywood ain’t far behind. The tentatively titled Bang has reportedly been green-lighted. There’s talk of a various-artists tribute album.

Bert Berns kept Atlantic Records afloat during some of the label’s lean years, so much so that producer Jerry Wexler, with Nesui and Ahmet Ertugun, made him a partner at Bang Records, a partner with artistic control, then, when things got ugly, tried to sabotage his career and muscle him out of the business by inducing The Mob to threaten his life. No problem for Berns, who went over everybody’s head to one Tommy Eboli, a close personal friend and head of the Genovese crime family from 1962 to 1972 before he got whacked. Thus, Berns stayed protected from such strong-arm tactics.

There’s over 200 songs in the Bert Berns history. Don’t be surprised if the biography, this musical, the movie, and the tribute album (Paul McCartney is “an unabashed Berns fan,” according to Larry Rohter in the New York Times) results in Berns being posthumously inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.

“We’re on a mission for just that,” his son Brett tells The Aquarian Weekly while in the lobby of the theater. “Dad had his faults, sure, he could be abrasive, he didn’t have the time to mend fences, and he let the chips fall where they may. But he should be recognized as one of the greats.”