Here comes the night…again! Even if you don’t know the name of Bert Berns, chances are you know the songs he wrote (“Twist and Shout,” “I Want Candy,” “Hang On, Sloopy,” “Piece of My Heart”), produced (“Under the Boardwalk,” “Baby I’m Yours,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Here Comes the Night”) and oversaw as head of Bang Records (“Cherry, Cherry,” “Solitary Man” and the rest of Neil Diamond’s earliest recordings). Though Berns died in the final days of 1967 at just 38 years of age, a year hasn’t gone by since when his songs haven’t been recorded and played. Ace Records kick-started the Berns renaissance with two volumes, in 2008 and 2010, of The Bert Berns Story. Now, the label has belatedly continued the series with a third, equally exciting volume. Hang On Sloopy: The Bert Berns Story Volume 3 follows other high-profile events including the 2014 release of Joel Selvin’s biography Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, and the recent off-Broadway musical Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story. All of these projects have combined to reveal a life as exciting as the music it yielded.
An outcast from a young age, Berns raced against the clock. Rheumatic fever as a child led to the heart condition that would take his life, but he packed his 38 years with enough living to pack a couple of lifetimes. The sound of his records owed a considerable debt to his fascination with African-American blues and soul as well as Latin dance rhythms. The 26 tracks on this set all pulse with the energy and eclecticism of the big city. A native New Yorker, Berns was also creatively stimulated by a trip to Havana, Cuba, and his melding of disparate styles can be heard on tracks such as Ben E. King’s gospel-flecked, jaggedly pulsating “Let the Water Run Down,” written and produced by Berns in 1964 with an arrangement by his frequent writing partner Phil Medley.
The most famous Berns/Medley copyright, of course, is “Twist and Shout,” heard here in a recording circa 1963 by Scepter Records’ premier girl group, The Shirelles. “Twist,” of course, was introduced by The Top Notes on Atlantic but wasn’t a hit until Berns produced it himself for The Isley Brothers. They followed it up with “Twistin’ with Linda” b/w “You Better Come Home.” The sound and style of “Twist” was recreated on this Berns-penned B-side (which he first recorded as Russell Byrd in 1961), included here. (Berns transformed the spirit of “Twist and Shout” yet again for Tami Lynn’s 1964 record “At the Party,” a highlight of this set.) Another Berns and Medley track here, Hoagy Lands’ 1960 “(I’m Gonna) Cry Some Tears,” is a real rarity with an insistent “Peter Gunn”-esque feel.
Legendary hitmaker Jeff Barry (“Be My Baby,” “Chapel of Love”) co-wrote Freddie Scott’s funky, torrid “Am I Grooving You” with Berns in 1967. As producer of The Drifters, Berns notched the vocal group eleven Hot 100 hits including Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” and Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “At the Club.” Berns and Jeff Barry co-wrote The Drifters’ catchy ode to “Aretha,” heard here, but their association is probably best remembered for Neil Diamond. Barry and his onetime wife and writing partner Ellie Greenwich discovered the future superstar and brought him to Berns’ Bang Records label where they produced his initial string of hits including “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” and more.
Co-writer Jerry Ragovoy brought out the most dramatic side of Berns. Soul man Garnet Mimms recorded six Berns/Ragovoy tunes including the immortal “Cry Baby” and this collection’s slow-burning “One Girl,” with its majestic Garry Sherman arrangement. Erma Franklin matched her sister Aretha for vocal power on Berns and Ragovoy’s storming “Open Up Your Soul,” recorded in late 1967 for Berns’ Shout label.
Ace estimates that the sound of Cissy Houston and her background-singing Sweet Inspirations is present on at least ten of this collection’s tracks. Cissy is the uncredited duet partner on Wilson Pickett’s “Teardrops Will Fall,” and as on “Teardrops,” her voice is the first you’ll hear on Roy Hamilton’s 1964 “A Thousand Years Ago,” a quintessential Latin-flavored Berns groove (a bit redolent of “Save the Last Dance for Me”) with a Teacho Wiltshire arrangement. Wiltshire also arranged Berns’ uptempo variation on his own “Here Comes the Night,” entitled “There They Go” as recorded by The Exciters. (The girl group gave Berns a big hit with “Tell Him,” though he didn’t produce that record.)
There’s a slinky, “Stand by Me”-esque riff adorning Berns’ production of “Stop What You’re Doin’” for the singer named Roy C (real name Roy Charles Hammond) at Shout. Berns actually co-wrote a number of songs with “Stand by Me” co-author Mike Stoller, including “You’ll Never Leave Her” which was introduced by the Isleys but featured here in Lulu’s later, Berns-produced version cut in the United Kingdom with musical director Mike Leander. Perhaps the most elegant track here is Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles’ classy, string-drenched “All or Nothing,” a Berns production of a Pam Sawyer/Lori Burton composition arranged by Artie Butler. Considerably more frenetic is Betty Harris’ “Mo Jo Hannah,” introduced on an early Motown single for one Henry Lumpkin. Berns took a liking to the urgent blues shouter, also recording it with “Little” Esther Phillips.
No Berns compilation would truly be complete without a song from one of his most sympathetic collaborators, the late, great Solomon Burke. The choice here is Roy Acuff’s country heartbreaker “Beautiful Brown Eyes,” given an uptown soul makeover by Berns and Garry Sherman. A less felicitous collaboration of Berns’ was with former Them member Van Morrison, who resented Berns’ assembly of his first LP, Blowin’ Your Mind without his consent. Still, in their brief association together, Berns and Morrison recorded some timeless music including Them’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Here Comes the Night,” and Morrison’s solo “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the song included here, “Chick-a-Boom.” Morrison hadn’t yet found his own voice; the instrumental track would have been equally suitable for, say, Neil Diamond.
One of Berns’ most enduring hits was the song which gives this anthology its title, “Hang On Sloopy.” It’s heard here not in its hit version by The McCoys, but in a reimagined recording by the man often considered the originator of the mambo – and therefore a Bert Berns favorite – Arsenio Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s over-the-top recitation of the lyric over a mambo beat (“Que pasa, Sloopy?”) and Spanish-language background vocals show that Berns wasn’t afraid to reinterpret his past successes. As for The McCoys, they make an appearance with the lean, garage-rocking “I Wonder if She Remembers Me,” with its electric guitar, harmonica and organ.
Hang On Sloopy: The Bert Berns Story Volume 3 offers the full breadth of Berns’ talents as songwriter, producer and talent spotter. Mick Patrick (who compiled the set with Tony Rounce and Rob Hughes) provides detailed track-by-track liner notes in the thick 20-page booklet; Duncan Cowell has superbly remastered this collection of the vital, vibrant and roof-raising music of Bert Berns.
Volume One and Volume Two of The Bert Berns Story are still available:
- Let the Water Run Down – Ben E. King (Atco 6315, 1964)
- Am I Grooving You – Freddie Scott (Shout 212, 1967)
- Love (Can’t You Hear Me) – The Knight Brothers (Checker 1049, 1963)
- I’ve Got Nothing to Say But Goodbye – Tammy Montgomery (rec. 1963 – issued Hip-o Select CD B0014792-02, 2010)
- You Better Come Home – The Isley Brothers (Wand 127, 1962)
- There He Is – Baby Washington (Sue 783, 1963)
- Aretha – The Drifters (Atlantic 2366, 1966)
- Open Up Your Soul – Erma Franklin (Shout 230, 1968)
- A Thousand Years Ago – Roy Hamilton (MGM 13315, 1965)
- One Girl – Garnet Mimms (United Artists 715, 1964)
- Mo Jo Hannah – Betty Harris (Jubilee 5480, 1963)
- Stop What You’re Doin’ – Roy C (Shout 206, 1966)
- There They Go – The Exciters (Roulette 4632, 1965)
- (I’m Gonna) Cry Some Tears – Hoagy Lands (Judi 054, 1960)
- At the Party – Tami Lynn (Atco EP 111, 1964)
- You’d Better Find Yourself Another Fool – LaVern Baker (Atlantic 2234, 1964)
- Teardrops Will Fall – Wilson Pickett (Atlantic LP SD 8114, 1965)
- Twist and Shout – The Shirelles (rec. 1963 – issued Scepter LP SPS 2-599, 1972)
- All or Nothing – Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles (Atlantic 2311, 1965)
- My Block – Clyde McPhatter (Mercury LP SR 60902, 1964)
- You’ll Never Leave Her – Lulu (Decca LP LK 4719, 1965)
- Beautiful Brown Eyes – Solomon Burke (Atlantic 2205, 1963)
- Chick-a-Boom – Van Morrison (Bang 552, 1967)
- I Wonder if She Remembers Me – The McCoys (Bang 549, 1967)
- Hang On Sloopy – Arsenio (Bang 533, 1966)
- Hitch Hike Pt. 1 – Russell Byrd (a.k.a. Bert Berns) (Symbol 915, 1962)
All tracks mono except Tracks 2, 4-5, 10-13, 20-21, 23 in stereo