Forgotten Rock Pioneer Bert Berns Becoming Remembered At Last

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Anyone with a serious interest in Rock history should try to catch Bang! The Bert Berns Story, an acclaimed documentary now streaming on Apple Music. Berns was one of the more influential Rock songwriters and producers of the 1960s, but he passed away just as the Rock scene was unfolding – in December 1967 at the age of 38 – and his early demise resulted in his influence becoming largely forgotten. This doc corrects that wrong as it spins the wildly entertaining tale of his short Rock & Roll life.

Just look at some of the songs he wrote: “Twist And Shout” by the Isley Brothers and The Beatles; “Cry Baby” and “Piece Of My Heart” by Janis Joplin; “Here Comes The Night” by Them; “I Want Candy” by The Strangeloves and later Bow Wow Wow; and the irrepressible “Hang On Sloopy” by The McCoys. Bert Berns songs had an edge and a grit that the other Brill Building pop songwriters didn’t have, partly because he also worked closely with R&B artists and was mixing the genres long before the Classic Rock artists got the same idea.

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Check out the trailer for the film, it’s pretty entertaining on its own. Keith Richards calls Berns “one of the greatest bloody songwriters of all time” and Van Morrison calls him “a genius”. You also get a sense of another key aspect of Berns’ strange life, and that was his deep connections to organized crime, as deep as Sinatra’s it was said. It plays fascinatingly, like one of those Sixties’ film noir crime dramas, a real period piece.

Little Stevie Van Zandt narrates the film, which was 10 years in the making, and he played a big part in getting Bert Berns’ name back into circulation with his sponsorship of the project. Three years ago the respected journalist Joel Selvin published a Berns bio Here Comes The Night: Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, and he provided a lot of research for the documentary. There was also an Off Broadway musical called Piece Of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story that Van Zandt wants to reboot for Broadway next year.

I guess the ultimate point is this: sooner or later every deserving Rock & Roll story will be revisited in one form or another. Personally, I’ll take a documentary over musical theater every time.

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