Friday, August 29, 2014

The birth of pop music as we know it

"Here Comes the Night : The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues" by Joel Selvin is one of the best pop culture histories I've ever read. But you need to know this: the title is a lie, or least a deception. Bert Berns is a name generally lost in the far-off mists of time; he was a songwriter ("Twist and Shout," "Hang On Sloopy," "Piece of My Heart"), producer (The Drifters, Solomon Burke), and head of the record label Bang, whose biggest artist was Neil Diamond. He died in 1967 at the age of 38 of a heart condition which doctors has thought would kill him at a much younger age (Bobby Darin was in the same situation) and he has not been lionized like some of his contemporaries such as Phil Spector or Carole King. Selvin wants to give Berns his due, and he is theoretically the focus of the book.

But the narrative is really about the pop music industry of the 50s and 60s: the songwriters, producers, and label bosses. Berns vanishes for entire chapters--though the book comes to a sudden stop with Berns' death in '67--and there is almost as much here about Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records and songwriter duos Leiber/Stoller and Barry/Greenwich as there is about Berns. This is not a complaint. Basically Berns serves as a throughline for the larger story of how the modern-day pop music business developed. Even the "dirty business of rhythm & blues" part of the subtitle is a bit misleading--lots of R&B singers crop up here (The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, Ben E. King, and lesser-known artists like the Five Crowns and the Exciters) but so do many performers from other genres like Van Morrison, The McCoys, the Strangeloves, Lulu, and the Beatles. The Brill Building-era songwriters are also evoked: Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Burt Bacharach, etc.

The pace is fast but things never get muddled. The middle bogs down a bit as Selvin has a tendancy to lapse into simple listings of Berns' various recording sessions, but this is easily forgiven as the rest of the book holds the reader's attention so well. The biggest surprise is what a bastard Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records could be--he and Ahmet Ertegun usually come off as nice guy geniuses, whereas here they seem more lucky than smart, and not always nice people. Hence the "dirty business" part of the subtitle, which also refers to various mob connections which are detailed.

I can't say enough good things about this book. If you love pop music and want to know more about its roots, this is an engaging resource, exhaustively researched and well-written. (Coincidentally, there is a "jukebox musical" playing in New York right now consisting of the music of Bert Berns called "Piece of My Heart.")