Episode 102: "Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers
Episode eighty-one of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers, and the early career of Bert Berns. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "How Do You Do It?" by Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
No Mixcloud this week, due to the number of songs by the Isleys.
Amazingly, there are no books on the Isley Brothers, unless you count a seventy-two page self-published pamphlet by Rudolph Isley's daughter, so I've had to piece this together from literally dozens of different sources.
For information about the Isley Brothers the main source was Icons of R&B and Soul by Bob Gulla.
The information about Bert Berns comes from Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin.
There are many compilations of the public-domain recordings of the Isleys. This one seems the most complete.
This three-CD set, though, is the best overview of the group's whole career.
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Today we're going to look at one of the great Brill Building songwriters, and at a song he wrote which became a classic both of soul and of rock music. We're going to look at how a novelty Latin song based around a dance craze was first taken up by one of the greatest soul groups of the sixties, and then reworked by the biggest British rock band of all time. We're going to look at "Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers.
[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Twist and Shout"]
When we left the Isley Brothers, they had just signed to Atlantic, and released several singles with Leiber and Stoller, records like "Standing on the Dance Floor" that were excellent R&B records, but which didn't sell:
[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "Standing on the Dance Floor"]
In 1962 they were dropped by Atlantic and moved on to Wand Records, the third label started by Florence Greenberg, who had already started Tiara and Scepter. As with those labels, Luther Dixon was in charge of the music, and he produced their first single on the label, a relatively catchy dance song called "The Snake", which didn't catch on commercially:
[Excerpt: The Isley Brothers, "The Snake"]
While "The Snake" didn't sell, the Isley Brothers clearly had some commercial potential -- and indeed their earlier hit "Shout" had just recharted, after Joey Dee and the Starliters had a hit with a cover version of it. All that was needed was the right song, and they could be as big as Luther Dixon's other group, the Shirelles. And Dixon had just the song for them -- a song co-written by Burt Bacharach, and sung on the demo by a young singer called Dionne Warwick. Unfortunately, they spent almost all the session trying and failing to get the song down -- they just couldn't make it work -- and eventually they gave up on it, and Bacharach produced the song for Jerry Butler, the former lead singer of the Impressions, who had a top twenty hit with it:
[Excerpt: Jerry Butler, "Make it Easy on Yourself"]
So they were stuck without a song to record -- and then Dixon's assistant on the session, Bert Berns, suggested that they record one of his songs -- one that had been a flop for another group the previous year.
The story of "Twist and Shout" actually starts with a group called the Five Pearls, who made their first record in 1954:
[Excerpt: The Five Pearls, "Please Let Me Know"]
The Five Pearls recorded under various different names, and in various different combinations, for several different mid-sized record labels like Aladdin throughout the 1950s, but without much success -- the closest they came was when one of the members, Dave "Baby" Cortez, went solo and had a hit with "The Happy Organ" in 1959:
[Excerpt: Dave "Baby" Cortez, "The Happy Organ"]
But in 1960 two members of the Pearls -- who used different names at different points of their career, but at this point were calling themselves Derek Ray and Guy Howard, signed to Atlantic as a new duo called The Top Notes. Their first single under this name, "A Wonderful Time", did no better than any of their other records had -- but by their third single, they were being produced by a new staff producer -- Phil Spector, who had started taking on production jobs that Leiber and Stoller weren't interested in doing themselves, like a remake of the old folk song "Corrina, Corrina", which had been an R&B hit for Big Joe Turner and which Spector produced for the country singer Ray Peterson:
[Excerpt: Ray Peterson, "Corrina, Corrina"]
But soon after that, Spector had broken with Leiber and Stoller. Spector was given the opportunity to co-write songs for the new Elvis film, Blue Hawaii. But he was signed to a publishing contract with Leiber and Stoller's company, Trio Music, and they told Hill & Range that he could only do the songs if Trio got half the publishing, which Hill & Range refused -- there was apparently some talk of them going ahead anyway, but Hill & Range were scared of Trio's lawyer, one of the best in the entertainment industry. This wouldn't be the last time that Phil Spector and Lee Eastman ended up on the opposite sides of a disagreement.
Shortly after that, Spector's contract mysteriously went missing from Trio's office. Someone remembered that Spector happened to have a key to the office.
But by this point Spector had co-written or co-produced a fair few hits, and so he was taken on by Atlantic on his own merits, and so he and Jerry Wexler co-produced singles for the Top Notes, with arrangements by Teddy Randazzo, who we last heard of singing with accordion accompaniment in The Girl Can't Help It.
The first of these Top Notes singles, "Hearts of Stone", was an obvious attempt at a Ray Charles soundalike, with bits directly lifted both from "What'd I Say" and Charles' hit "Sticks and Stones":
[Excerpt: The Top Notes, "Hearts of Stone"]
But the next Top Notes release was the song that would make them at least a footnote in music history. The writing credit on it was Bert Russell and Phil Medley, and while Medley would have little impact on the music world otherwise, the songwriter credited as Bert Russell is worth us looking at.
His actual name was Bertrand Russell Berns -- he had been named after the famous philosopher -- and he was a man on a mission. He was already thirty-one, and he knew he didn't have long to live -- he'd had rheumatic fever as a child and it had given him an incurable heart condition. He had no idea how long he had, but he knew he wasn't going to live to a ripe old age. And he'd wasted his twenties already -- he'd tried various ways to get into showbiz, with no success. He'd tried a comedy double act, and at one point had moved to Cuba, where he'd tried to buy a nightclub but backed out when he'd realised it was actually a brothel.
On his return to the US, he'd started working as a songwriter in the Brill Building. In the late fifties he worked for a while with the rockabilly singer Ersel Hickey -- no relation to me -- who had a minor hit with "Bluebirds Over the Mountain":
[Excerpt: Ersel Hickey, "Bluebirds Over the Mountain"]
Berns was proud just to know Hickey, though, because "Bluebirds Over the Mountain" had been covered by Ritchie Valens, and "La Bamba" was Berns' favourite record -- one he would turn to for inspiration throughout his career. He loved Latin music generally -- it had been one of the reasons he'd moved to Cuba -- but that song in particular was endlessly fascinating to him.
He'd written and produced a handful of recordings in the early fifties, before his Cub…