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A big piece of his heart

Doug Morris doesn't much care if his CD tribute to Bert Berns sells or not. He just wants to see the writer of such hits as 'Twist and Shout' get his due.

October 13, 2002|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

As the head of the world's largest record company, Universal Music Group Chairman Doug Morris could spend all morning hobnobbing with the power-breakfast crowd at the Peninsula Hotel. Here comes Dave Glew now, Epic Records Group chairman and Morris' old friend. "Dave, you're looking great. Everything OK?"

Morris, in town from New York for the week, could be talking about his latest successes: the mounting sales of the Eminem album or the critical back flips over the new Beck CD. Both were released by Morris' network of labels, which stretches from Interscope to Island/Def Jam and generates nearly a third of the nation's album sales.

But the soft-spoken chief executive, casual in a dark suit with open-collar shirt and a two-day stubble, has another topic on his mind this weekday morning, and he's so absorbed in it that he hasn't touched his cantaloupe slices for half an hour.

Morris, 63, is talking about a new album that he calls his "baby." It contains 10 tracks written and/or produced by the late Bert Berns, who was an inspiration when Morris was an aspiring songwriter in New York four decades ago.

"In this business, you put out records all the time by artists you love and that you hope will sell a lot, but this is probably the first time I've ever been involved in a record that I don't care if it sells," Morris says. "It's my way of paying Bert back for all he gave me. I hope this illuminates his career, that people will understand who he was. Everybody knows his music, but they don't know him."

And everyone does know Berns' music, starting with his most famous composition, "Twist and Shout."

Was there ever a more effortless hit? From the opening line, "Shake it up baby now," to its seductive mix of R&B and Latin rhythms, "Twist and Shout" is an irresistible piece of rock 'n' roll and a staple at wedding receptions, frat parties and oldies stations.

Because the lively tune was a hit for the Beatles, most pop fans probably assume Lennon and McCartney wrote it. More sophisticated listeners who know that the song was earlier recorded by the Isley Brothers may attribute it to that group. But it was Berns (under the name Bert Russell) who co-wrote the song with Phil Medley.

That tune is one of the best-known products of a hit machine that roared triumphantly from the start of the 1960s until the charismatic New Yorker died of a heart attack at age 38 in 1967.

Van Morrison may have sung the taut "Here Comes the Night" with his group Them, but Berns wrote the song and produced the recording. Janis Joplin's signature hit, the pleading "Piece of My Heart," was written by Berns and Jerry Ragovoy.

Berns was also responsible for such pop or R&B hits as the McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy" (co-written by Wes Farrell), Freddie Scott's "Are You Lonely for Me, Baby?," Solomon Burke's "Cry to Me" and the Exciters' "Tell Him." His production credits also included such memorable hits as the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk" and Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl."

The music in "The Heart and Soul of Bert Berns" is extraordinary--a virtual nomination speech calling for the late songwriter-producer's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the "nonperforming" category that already includes many of his peers, including Phil Spector, Jerry Wexler and the team of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller.

Many of these tracks were hits in their day, but some are relatively obscure now, and they are so striking you may find yourself listening to them over and over, marveling at their construction.

The most impressive thing about the recordings is the masterful way Berns shifted emotional tones. Most of the songs are grand tales of romantic desperation featuring an instrumental tension that builds slowly with defiant horns and insistent drums, then gives way to explosive vocal release. There are lots of references to lonely rooms, tears and regret.

"Are You Lonely for Me, Baby?" opens with female voices taunting a wayward lover with the title phrase. They're answered by Freddie Scott's chilling surrender: "Yes, I am."

Too little time for it all

Berns, an intense, darkly handsome man, had a wide array of influences, and he brought them all into play in his music. He studied classical music as a youngster and fell in love with Cuban music while working at clubs in Havana. That sound would color many of his recordings. In "Twist and Shout," for instance, you can hear the chord sequence of the Cuban folk song "Guantanamera."

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