Watch CBS News

New biography, musical explores unknown hitmaker Bert Berns

He was responsible for some of music’s most enduring hits, and now a new biography brings unknown hitmaker Bert Berns to life
New biography explores unknown hitmaker, history of R&B 06:33

You may not know his name, but you sure know his songs.

Bert Berns wrote and produced some of the 1960's greatest hits for groups like the Isley Brothers -- and those songs would be remade over and over in the rock 'n' roll era.

After years in the shadows, Berns is now the subject of a new book, an upcoming Broadway musical, and a documentary film.

Berns grew up in the Bronx, just a few miles but a world away from Broadway's hit factories. Rheumatic fever contracted during childhood severely damaged Berns' heart; he wasn't expected to live to 21.

But by age 30, Berns had broken into the record industry.

"The single definitive part of his life was that heart problem, it just pushed him and prodded him and drove him," rock journalist Joel Selvin said on "CBS This Morning: Saturday." "In seven years he went from a fairly untalented. mediocre songwriter to the top of the record business -- president of his own record label, number one hits, song writer, record producer, [and] music publisher."

Selvin said Berns made a fortune, living in penthouses "stuffed with a fishbowl of royalty checks, and too busy to get [them] to the bands."

Selvin is the author of the book, "Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues" (Counterpoint Press).

Berns began at Atlantic Records, working alongside founder Ahmet Ertegun and producer Jerry Wexler, who coined the phrase rhythm and blues.

Berns' songs infused Afro-Cuban mambo with R&B, creating a sultrier, more savage sound than his contemporaries.

In seven short years, Berns had 51 hits on the chart.

He produced for acts like the Drifters, and started his own record label (Bang Records), where he signed undiscovered talent like Van Morrison and Neil Diamond.

But for all the accolades, Berns' former ties to organized crime -- common at the time in New York's music scene -- have turned many friends into mortal enemies.

In the end, Berns turned increasingly to writing songs about his damaged heart.

In 1967, he recorded "Piece of my Heart" with Erma Franklin. He died just a few months later, a year before Janis Joplin made it the hit so many recognize today.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.