Here Comes the Night, by Joel Selvin (2014): Books

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I like to think that I have at least a tentative grasp on recorded music of the 20th century. Then I meet a person or read a book that makes me realize I know very little. This is not self-deprecation; it’s an acknowledgement of the vast stretches of the art form called music. One area of the music spectrum I know least well is the business realm.

Music publishing, copyright ownership, royalties, and composer credit — these are arguably peripheral to the creation of music, and yet each is absolutely inseparable from its presentation in any recorded form. It is not a widely discussed field. In 1964, John Lennon surprised many by announcing that The Beatles made more money “from writing songs than by running around waving to people” while on tour.

A book published earlier this year accentuates the multiple, interconnected layers of the music business. Joel Selvin’s Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and The Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues (Counterpoint Press) fills a hole in the history of American music. What makes the book so remarkable is that very few realized that this specific subject was in need of illumination.

Selvin’s scene is New York City just before and during the first years that the Beatles forever changed the landscape. Songwriting is the key element, and this book regularly reminds the reader that without a good song, nobody is making any money. In fact, the song is far more important than the artist, as Phil Spector knew so well.

Spector makes important appearances in Here Comes the Night, as do other industry heavyweights such as Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Tom Dowd, Alan Freed, Dick Clark, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Morris Levy. But the book belongs to Bert Berns. If his name rings no bells, you are in good company. This lack of recognition is the very reason that Joel Selvin undertook the task of writing this biography.

Yet, biography is too narrow a term for Here Comes the Night, for in it Selvin offers the complete context of Bert Berns’ world. This includes an insider’s look at the American music industry during mid-century. Berns’ interactions with the names listed above show that Selvin’s subject was working with the newly elevated hierarchy of independent record labels, such as Atlantic, Stax, Roulette, Bang, and Scepter.

Among the performers passing through Berns’ orbit are Neil Diamond, the Drifters, Van Morrison, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Ruth Brown, Solomon Burke, the Isley Brothers, Big Joe Turner, Aretha Franklin, and a very large cast of artists who really can’t even be called one-hit wonders. But each did release a record that was in some way connected with Bert Berns — who served as songwriter, producer, session musician, or in a combination of these roles.

In Here Comes the Night, Joel Selvin focuses on an overlooked figure, and by doing so explores a much larger and equally unknown world — what the author himself terms “the dirty business of rhythm & blues.” This should be the next music book you read.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Wilmeth
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