The Songwriters – Bert Berns

“Live fast, die young” is the sort of motto that appeals to young people, but the image it conjures up is of hedonism: drink, drugs, sex and rebellion. In the case of Bert Berns, the fact that he crammed a lot of songs into his short life (he died at 38) may have had something to do with his knowing he didn’t have long in the first place.

People who contract rheumatic fever as a child know their heart has been weakened and that it is likely to give out relatively young, and such was the case with Bertrand Russell Berns, author of immortal pop/rock songs like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy.

Those two songs alone make Berns the king of the three-chord trick, the holy grail of the aspiring guitarist. You’re aged 12, say, and you’ve just persuaded your parents to buy you a guitar. It’s a terrible thing with a heavy action and a tone devoid of any beauty, and it doesn’t stay in tune. But it’s a guitar and you are now a guitarist. All you need is a song you can knock off in five minutes, because the fancy stuff can wait – you just want to be able to bash something out and show the world you’ve got the gift.

Without wishing to get any 11-year-olds too excited, you should be able to master three simple chords quite quickly. By the time your fingertips have hardened enough to hold the strings down for three minutes you should be able to go – slowly and clumsily – from D to G to A, and if you can, that’s Twist And Shout in the bag.

Learn how to play the chord of C and you’ve got Hang On Sloopy, which is G, C and D. And Bob’s your uncle: you’re a star in the making.

For the rest of the world, those are just great little songs. The Isley Brothers had a hit with Twist and Shout before the Beatles took it on. John Lennon recorded the lead vocal at the end of a long day in the studio, his voice tired and ragged, and had to be cajoled to go through with it when he would have preferred to leave it for another day when he would be more in control. He didn’t like the result – strained, imprecise and as rough as a bear’s armpit – but for us, the consumers, it’s kind of thrilling. And the song itself is just one of those rabble-rousing things that gets people dancing and singing almost in spite of themselves.

Its durability can be seen by its success in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Matthew Broderick as the charismatic Ferris gatecrashes a carnival float and mimes the entire song. That’s a song more than 20 years old, sounding as fresh as yesterday.

Sloopy was recorded by The McCoys and easily makes it into my top ten raucous, good-time songs.

And then from Berns’s pen came Here Comes The Night, a hit for a young Belfast band, Them, featuring Van Morrison before he  became  a “serious artiste”. The chords have upped the ante a little, but any young guitarist worth his salt and with six months’ experience should be able to negotiate it. Speaking of guitars, Jimmy Page played on the track, even though Them had their own guitarist in Billy Harrison.

It’s another irresistibly singable song and has been covered many times, including early versions by Lulu and David Bowie and a more recent one by Rod Stewart. Lulu’s version actually came out before Them’s, but tanked, failing to make the top twenty – much to Them’s delight.

Lyrically it’s quite gloomy, a tale of lost love and seeing your girlfriend with someone new and wondering what is wrong with you and why you can’t accept the situation: Morrison’s voice and character are perfect for it.

Another success for Berns was Tell Him, a hit in the US for The Exciters (as Tell Her – it works either way) and in the UK for Billie Davis, sometime girlfriend of Shadows bass player Jet Harris.

Other early 60s hits included Cry Baby and Piece Of My Heart, both revamped later in the decade by Janis Joplin.

Berns also had a successful career as a record producer, working with people such as The Drifters.

His damaged heart duly packed up in 1967 when he was just 38, and that was the end of Bert Berns. Such was his knack for creating a hit song out of very little, he could have extended his career and reputation for many more years. Think what might have happened if he had still been around in the punk era. Three chords and a catchy chorus – there was no one better.

 

 

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The Songwriters – Holland Dozier Holland

Lamont Dozier (left) Brian Holland and Eddie Holland

When you consider that we’ve looked at Motown writers from Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy, Mickey Stevenson and Smokey Robinson to Norman Whitfield and Ashford and Simpson, the casual observer might think that pretty much sums it up. Shedloads of hits, after all.

But music lovers all around the world know there was a songwriting trio more profilic than all those others: Holland Dozier Holland.

The Holland Brothers, Eddie and Brian, teamed up with Lamont Dozier in 1962 and became almost synonymous with Motown, such was the volume and quality of songs they wrote and produced.

Unusually, one of their first efforts was arguably also the finest: Heat Wave, which took Martha and the Vandellas to the top of the US charts in 1963. This is a tune that could make a camel dance, and I’m just sorry I don’t know the technical term for the rhythm that propels it.

Although obviously it is the work of the masterly Motown house band, The Funk Brothers, it’s not something even they repeated. Let’s just say it’s like My Guy on amphetamines and Needle in a Haystack with more swagger. The Vandellas’ Third Finger Left Hand is  pretty close. It’s also close in brilliance.  I used to have a vinyl single of that with Jimmy Mack on the other side: both HDH songs, and what a pairing.

Although most of the time the Motown writers found their work snapped up by more than one of the label’s acts, HDH did a lot of work with The Supremes and The Isley Brothers. Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love and Stop In The Name Of Love paid huge dividends for Diana, Flo and Mary, while This Old Heart of Mine – intended for The Supremes –  is an Isleys standard that has been covered many times, not least by Rod Stewart. And there’s I Guess I’ll Always Love You, again with that Heat Wave beat.

Martha Reeves makes no secret of the fact that HDH had very definite ideas about how their songs should be recorded, and that Eddie Holland, the lyricist of the trio, would tell the singers exactly how they should deliver the lines. Reeves speaks reverently of Levi Stubbs, lead singer of The Four Tops, but says Eddie Holland would even lay down the law to him.

Speaking of the Four Tops, HDH demonstrated a cheeky streak when, as the follow-up to I Can’t Help Myself, they came up with a tune that was so similar they called It The Same Old Song – and still managed to slip it under the radar of the vast majority of us. That was in addition to the solid gold trinity of Reach Out, Standing In The Shadows of Love and Bernadette.

Among the lower-profile acts on the label, HDH provided hits for The Elgins (Put Yourself In My Place – better known in the UK by The Isley Brothers – and Heaven Must Have Sent You) and a classic that somehow seems like the odd one out in the whole catalogue, Roadrunner by Junior Walker and the Allstars. The conspicuous white face  among the artists, R. Dean Taylor, was given a flying start (which didn’t lead to consistent success) with There’s A Ghost In My House.

During 1967, the “Summer of Love” which largely passed Motown by, HDH fell out with Berry Gordy  over money, and the following year they were gone. The dispute wasn’t resolved until 1977. In the meantime they set up Invictus Records and wrote under pseudonyms, because they were still bound by their Motown  publishing contract. Band of Gold by Freda Payne and Give Me Just A Little More Time (Chairmen of the Board) are the highlights of a surprisingly paltry post-Motown  output.

So it ended, if not in tears, then in disappointment for them and for us.

Their legacy of cover versions, though, includes James Taylor’s how Sweet It Is, Linda Ronstadt (Heat Wave), Phil Collins (You Can’t Hurry Love) and You Keep Me Hanging on, versions by the Vanilla Fudge and Kim Wilde.

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