There are many explanations for Bertrand Russell Berns' relative obscurity. The subject of Bang! The Bert Berns Story flopped as a performer, and so turned to songwriting and producing. He sometimes composed under aliases such as Bert Russell and Russell Byrd. And several of his tunes became associated with their performers, who were widely assumed to have written them.
Also, Berns died young, succumbing to the long-term effects of childhood rheumatic fever at 38. It was 1967, and rock 'n' roll was just beginning to be chronicled by sympathetic observers.
So Berns is less remembered than his songs, which include "Piece of My Heart," "Tell Him," and "Here Comes the Night." These were all written during an eight-year run whose first success was the Jarmels' 1961 "A Little Bit of Soap." The soap, the group sang, "will never wash away the tears" — a Berns motif. A child of Russian Jewish immigrants and the polyglot Bronx, Berns wrote almost as many weepies as Appalachia's Hank Williams.
It's a compelling story, told unobtrusively by directors Brett Berns — the musician's son — and Bob Sarles. The documentary may not have widespread appeal, but should engross viewers who know the songs but not the man behind them.
Berns was one of many white (and mostly Jewish) New Yorkers who in the early 1960s wrote and produced for African American performers. These acts included the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Garnett Mimms, the Exciters, and the Isley Brothers, who scored with "Twist and Shout," a song to which co-writer Berns brought the Afro-Cuban beat he loved.
Among Berns' peers and collaborators were Mike Stoller, Jeff Barry, Brooks Arthur, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Ragavoy, and the late Ellie Greenwich, all of whom appear in Bang! Another associate was Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler, who became a nemesis after Berns' BANG! Records proved a strong competitor. (Atlantic actually backed BANG!, whose name was derived from the initials of Berns and the label's ruling troika: Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Gerald Wexler.)
After his songs began to be covered by British rock bands, Berns did three stints in London, working with Lulu and Them, whose singer was Van Morrison. That led to Berns' production of Morrison's first solo album. In Bang!, Morrison, Paul McCartney, and Keith Richards all extol Berns' gifts and influence.
Although his preference was for R&B, Berns also launched the careers of Rick Derringer (then with The McCoys) and Neil Diamond. The latter is probably not a Berns fan. After Diamond asked to be released from his BANG! contract, one of his gigs was disrupted and his manager was assaulted.
A coincidence? Bang! is no exposé, but it doesn't ignore Berns' links to gangsters. One of them, Carmine DeNoia, even appears on camera to recount some of his milder misdeeds. As befits his nickname — Wassel, a child-like mispronunciation of "Rascal" — he doesn't appear all that scary. But Berns' pals and protectors also included Tommy Eboli, acting boss of the Genovese crime clan.
Perhaps that connection is what inspired the filmmakers to enlist Steve Van Zandt to narrate the movie in a Sopranos-worthy growl. The cliche-loaded lines he speaks were written by Joel Selvin, who penned a 2014 Berns biography.
Fortunately, Van Zandt says less than Berns' friends and family, notably wife Ilene, who outlived him by 40 years. Thuggish business practices aside, Berns seems to have inspired much love and admiration, partly by being color-blind in an industry that treated great black singers as hired help.
Of course, one way Berns endeared himself to such on-screen reminiscers as Cissy Houston, Ronald Isley, and the Exciters' Brenda Reid was simply by giving them great songs to sing.