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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: March 21, 2017

The songwriter behind ‘Twist and Shout’ and other hits featured in a film, followed by a concert, in Portland

Written by: Ray Routhier

 

Bert Berns, with guitar and seen here with Jerry Wexler, is the subject of "Bang! The Bert Berns Story," which is being shown Thursday at Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy of the estate of Bert Berns

Bert Berns, with guitar and seen here with Jerry Wexler, is the subject of “Bang! The Bert Berns Story,” which is being shown Thursday at Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of the estate of Bert Berns

Bert Berns, the son of Jewish immigrants who ran a Bronx dress shop, had a seven-year music career.

But he made the most of it.

Berns founded two record labels in the 1960s, Bang and Shout, and wrote or produced some of the decade’s most influential and popular songs, including “Twist and Shout,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Piece of My Heart.” He died in 1967 at the age of 38, but his legacy got him inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.

Berns’ meteoric impact on pop music and his hectic life are the subject of a documentary film called “Bang! The Bert Berns Story” made by his son, Brett Berns. The film will be shown Thursday at 6 p.m. at Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival.

Brett Berns co-directed the film with Bob Sarles and both will be on hand at the Portland screening to answer questions. The event has a musical component, too, with soul singer Betty Harris performing at 8 p.m. at the Portland House of Music, just steps from the Nickelodeon. Harris, 77, had a Top 40 hit in 1963 with a slowed-down version of Berns’ song “Cry to Me,” which was also a hit for Solomon Burke. Harris also had success in the ’60s with “His Kiss” and “Nearer to You.” She continued to perform and in 2016 released the album “The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul.”

Take a listen to “Cry to Me” by Betty Harris

Harris is featured prominently in the film about Berns. But so are a host of music stars. There are interviews with Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards. The film is narrated by Steven Van Zandt, guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s band and one of the stars of TV drama “The Sopranos.”

Soul singer Betty Harris, who had hit songs in the 1960s, will perform Thursday at Portland House of Music in conjunction with a showing of "Bang! The Bert Berns Story" at Nickelodeon Cinemas earlier in the evening. Photo courtesy of Betty Harris

Soul singer Betty Harris, who had hit songs in the 1960s, will perform Thursday at Portland House of Music in conjunction with a showing of “Bang! The Bert Berns Story” at Nickelodeon Cinemas earlier in the evening. Photo courtesy of Betty Harris

“One of the great things about doing this film was to shine the light on people like Betty, so that people can see how talented she is,” said Brett Berns, 51, who was just 2 years old when his father died. “But it’s great to hear someone like Paul McCartney talking about ‘Twist and Shout.'”

Bert Berns had rheumatic fever as a child, which led to heart problems and was the eventual cause of his early death. He stopped going to school because of his illness and spent time playing piano and guitar. Because he lived in a diverse neighborhood, with black and Latino neighbors, he became enamored of Latin music and rhythm and blues, his son said. He traveled to Cuba to explore the music and dance of that country.

His music career began because of his determination. He walked around New York’s songwriting and song publishing districts, including the famed Brill Building, and tried to peddle his songs. In 1960, he finally got hired as a $50-a-week songwriter for a music publishing company. A year later, he wrote his first hit, a bouncy, soulful tune called “A Little Bit of Soap” by the Jarmels. In the next few years he wrote more hits, including “Twist and Shout” for the Isley Brothers and “Cry to Me” for Solomon Burke. He then became a producer, in charge of the creative process of recording a song, and produced more hits, including “Under the Boardwalk” for the Drifters and “Baby, I’m Yours” for Barbara Lewis. During the British Invasion of the 1960s, many British bands covered his songs, including The Rolling Stones with “Cry to Me” and The Animals with “Baby Let Me Take You Home.”

Berns then formed his own label, Bang. There he wrote “Hang on Sloopy” for the McCoys, “I Want Candy” for The Strangeloves (also a 1982 hit for Bow Wow Wow) and “Piece of My Heart” for Erma Franklin. The latter is better known for a version by Janis Joplin.

Besides interviews with musicians, the film explores Berns’ ties to organized crime.

“In those days, if you worked in the music business, you did business with the mob,” said Brett Berns.

The film came out last year and has been playing festivals around the country. Brett Berns and his sister are working now to turn their father’s story into a Broadway musical.

They’ve already got the hit songs for the soundtrack.

“Bang! The Bert Berns Story”

WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Nickelodeon Cinemas, 1 Temple St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $10, $8 for students and seniors
INFO: mjff.org

Betty Harris

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Portland House of Music, 25 Temple St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $25
INFO: portlandhouseofmusic.com

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