Best known for his compositions “Twist and Shout”, “Hang On Sloopy”, “Piece of My Heart”, and “I Want Candy”, Burns was born to Russian Jewish immigrants, Berns contracted rheumatic fever as a child, an illness that damaged his heart and would mark the rest of his life, resulting in his early death. Turning to music, he found consonance in the sounds of his African American and Latino neighbors. As a young man, Berns danced in mambo nightclubs, and made his way to Havana before the Cuban Revolution
Shortly after his return from Cuba, Berns began a seven-year run from an obscure Brill Building songwriter to owner of his own record labels. He signed as a $50/week songwriter with Robert Mellin Music at 1650 Broadway in 1960. His first hit record was “A Little Bit of Soap”, performed by the Jarmels on Laurie Records in 1961. One year later, the Isley Brothers recorded “Twist and Shout” on Wand Records, written by Berns and Phil Medley. Berns also hit in 1962 with the Exciters’ “Tell Him” on United Artists, and with Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” on Atlantic Records. As an independent producer working with a myriad of record labels, Berns also made important records with Garnet Mimms (“Cry Baby”) and Gene Pitney (“If I Didn’t Have a Dime [to Play the Jukebox])”.
Berns’s early work with Solomon Burke brought him to the attention of Atlantic label chiefs Ahmet Ertegün and Jerry Wexler. In 1963, Berns replaced Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as the staff producer at Atlantic, where he wrote and produced hits for Solomon Burke (“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”), the Drifters (“Under the Boardwalk” and “Saturday Night at the Movies”), Barbara Lewis (“Baby I’m Yours” and “Make Me Your Baby”), Little Esther Phillips (“Hello Walls”), Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett and LaVern Baker.
With many of Berns’s songs being recorded by British Invasion bands such as the Beatles (“Twist and Shout”), the Rolling Stones (“Cry to Me”) and the Animals (“Baby Let Me Take You Home”), Berns became the first American record producer to travel across the Atlantic to work in London. He went to England three times between 1964 and 1965, where he produced a number of British Decca artists such as Van Morrison’s Them (“Here Comes the Night”, “Baby Please Don’t Go”) and Lulu.
In 1965, Bert Berns formed his own record label, Bang Records. Bang Records was founded with the Atlantic Records partners, with the label’s name derived from the initials of their first names—Bert Berns, Ahmet Ertegün, Nesuhi Ertegün and Gerald (Jerry) Wexler. Bang was home to such artists as the McCoys (“Hang on Sloopy”), the Strangeloves (“I Want Candy”), Them’s ex-lead singer Van Morrison (“Brown Eyed Girl”), and Neil Diamond (“Solitary Man” and “Cherry Cherry”).
With Bang Records releasing predominantly rock and roll, Berns formed Shout Records in 1966 as an outlet for his greatest passions of R&B and soul music, recording artists such Freddie Scott (“Are You Lonely for Me Baby”) and Erma Franklin (“Piece of My Heart”). One of his last songs, “Piece of My Heart”, was covered shortly thereafter by Big Brother and the Holding Company (fronted by then unknown Janis Joplin).