Mill Valley Film Fest documentary celebrates Bert Berns

Producer Bert Berns, left, musician Van Morrison and musical director Garry Sherman (standing, right) work in the booth at a BANG Records recording session in the studio for Van Morrison’s first album “Blowing Your Mind!” on March 28, 1967. (Photo by PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The New York Times called it “the Berns boomlet,” referring to the mini explosion of long overdue recognition for Bert Berns, who’s described in a new documentary in the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 6 to 16) as “the most important songwriter and record producer from the ’60s you’ve never heard of.”

This long forgotten figure in pop music history comes to vivid life in “BANG! The Bert Berns Story,” co-directed and edited by San Francisco filmmaker Bob Sarles, who previously produced and directed “Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield” that was screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2013. After the Northern California premiere of the “The Bert Berns Story” on Oct. 11, there will be a concert celebrating his life and music at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.

After seeing the film, I now know why not many people, myself included, had ever heard of Berns, who died of a heart condition in 1967 at age 38, leaving behind a wife, a couple of young kids and a phenomenal catalog of 51 pop chart hits in just seven intensely creative years. He wrote or co-wrote “Twist and Shout,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Tell Him,” “Cry Baby,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “Cry to Me,” “Here Comes the Night,” “I Want Candy,” “Everybody Needs Somebody” and a slew of lesser known songs.

With his sharp eye for talent, he discovered an unknown Van Morrison and produced “Brown Eyed Girl,” the hit that launched the taciturn Irishman’s career. Morrison was so grateful that he agreed to be interviewed on camera for the documentary, the first time I’ve ever heard him speak in actual sentences.

As a producer, Berns was the man behind “Under the Boardwalk,” “Baby I’m Yours,” “Make Me Your Baby” and Neil Diamond’s early chart toppers “Solitary Man” and “Cherry Cherry.”

The E Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt, aka mobster Silvio Dante in “The Sopranos,” narrates the film in his minestrone-thick New York-ese. It was written by San Francisco music scribe Joel Selvin, author of “Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues,” published by Counterpoint Press in 2014. That same year, the jukebox musical “Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” opened Off-Broadway.

Van Zandt gave the induction speech when this unheralded pioneer of ’60s rock and soul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. It’s more than ironic that he was honored with a lifetime achievement award named after Ahmet Ertegun, one of the Atlantic Records honchos (the other was Ertegun’s ruthless cohort Jerry Wexler) accused of spitefully suppressing his musical legacy.

According to Sarles, Ertegun once told Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner that Berns would get into the rock hall of fame “over my dead body,” which turned out to be the case. He died in 2006. Selvin writes in “Here Comes the Night” that when he asked Wexler, who died in 2008, to comment about Berns for his book, Wexler snarled, “I don’t know where he’s buried, but if I did, I’d piss on his grave.”

That’s the unsavory part of the Bern’s story that’s so fascinating and revealing. The book and film expose the ugly underbelly of the pop music business in New York in the ’50s and ’60s, an era of mobsters and payola, quick money and dirty dealing.

To make a long story short (you’ll have to see the movie or read the book for all the sordid details), Berns’ incredible string of hits and his instinctive talent for finding future stars while he was on the staff of Atlantic Records kept the label from going under.

“He basically saved Atlantic Records at a time when it was dying,” Sarles says.

To keep Berns from bolting and going out on his own, Wexler and the Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, made him a partner with them in a label they called BANG, for Bert, Ahmet, Nesuhi and Gerald (Wexler). Berns had 50 percent and they had 50 percent.

According to the book and the movie, Berns’ success caught them by surprise, and only Berns’ wife, Ilene, prevented them from talking her husband into handing over 25 percent of his share of the company to them. They also tried to weasel out of a lucrative publishing deal they’d promised him.

With battle lines drawn, both sides brought in their own personal gangsters.

“Ahmet and Jerry were connected with some bad guys, and when they needed some muscle, they knew who to call,” Sarles says. “They knew people who would break your legs.”

But Berns had mob contacts of his own. He was close friends with an even more high-ranking mobster, Tommy Eboli, who would become boss of the Genovese crime family in New York.

“They underestimated Berns,” Sarles says. “Tommy Eboli never bothered breaking people’s legs. People just disappeared if they crossed him.”

Berns ended up with the top hand, raising the money he needed to buy out his onetime friends at Atlantic (Wexler had once been a father figure to him) and taking control of BANG. But he was living on borrowed time.

He had suffered from rheumatic fever that damaged his heart as a child growing up in the Bronx, and doctors told him not to expect to live into old age. On a bitterly cold and snowy day in December 1967, he died of heart failure in his Manhattan penthouse.

After he was buried, Atlantic Records made sure his memory died with him.

“Wexler and Ahmet worked really hard to rewrite their history of Atlantic Records,” Selvin says, noting that Ertegun wouldn’t talk to him for his book. “They furiously buried Berns.”

Berns’ children, Brett and Cassandra, were too young when their father died to have any memory of him. According to them, he told their mother that they would know him through his music. But that wasn’t enough for them. They preserved his legacy and became his champions, beginning a campaign to win his rightful place in the pop pantheon.

Brett turned Selvin on to his father’s story and encouraged him in his efforts to write the book. He also bankrolled the documentary and shot all the interviews over a decade, including segments with Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Cissy Houston and Wilson Pickett. He brought Sarles in to reshape and finish the film.

“I don’t know if there’s anything more noble than fatherless children devoted to their father’s memory,” Selvin says. “They put up their not inconsiderable fortune to memorialize this guy and bring him back to life.”

By Paul Liberatore, Marin Independent Journal

PHOTO:  Producer Bert Berns, left, musician Van Morrison and musical director Garry Sherman (standing, right) work in the booth at a BANG Records recording session in the studio for Van Morrison’s first album “Blowing Your Mind!” on March 28, 1967. (Photo by PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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If you go

What: “BANG! The Bert Berns Story”

When: 6:15 p.m. Oct. 11, Sequoia Theatre, Mill Valley; 9 p.m. Oct. 11; 8:45 p.m. Oct. 13, Century Larkspur

Admission: $9 to $15

Information: mvff.com, 877-874-6833

More: Bert Berns Celebration at Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley; $50