Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Twist and Shout. This is one of the great R&B/rock songs of the 60s. Most people know that the Beatles covered the Isley Brothers’ version of this song. However, very few people know that the Isleys themselves covered a version by one-hit wonders the Top Notes.
Bert Berns, The Top Notes and Shake It Up, Baby:
We want to start out by reviewing the short but fabulous career of Bert Berns. Bertrand Russell Berns, aka Bert Russell, aka Russell Byrd, was one of the great early pioneers in soul and rock music. My friend Glenn Gass says that Berns “virtually invented garage-rock music.” Starting out writing songs for $50 per week in New York’s famed Brill Building, Berns quickly discovered that he had genuine musical talent. He subsequently parleyed that into producing, and eventually owned two record companies.
We first heard of Bert Berns in my blog on the song Piece of My Heart, which Berns co-wrote for Aretha Franklin’s big sister Erma Franklin, and which was famously covered by Janis Joplin. But in addition, Berns wrote a slew of pop songs that include “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “Under the Boardwalk,” and “Here Comes the Night.” Wow, what a track record!
The picture below shows, from L: producer Jeff Barry, Bert Berns and Van Morrison in the recording studio for Morrison’s first solo record, in March 1967. Berns discovered Morrison when he was the frontman for the group Them.
In 1963, when Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller left Atlantic Records to set out on their own, Berns was hired as Atlantic’s staff producer. There he produced records for artists like Solomon Burke, The Drifters, Ben E. King and Wilson Pickett. Bert Berns was sufficiently successful in this position that he subsequently formed two of his own record companies. The first was called Bang Records and specialized in rock and roll music. The company’s name was an acronym consisting of the first names of the four partners – Bert Berns, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and Gerald Wexler.
Berns’ second record company, Shout Records, was devoted to soul and R&B music. Erma Franklin’s Piece of My Heart was released on Shout Records. I am told that a documentary on Berns, “BANG – the Bert Berns Story,” is due to be released soon, perhaps this year. I’m really looking forward to that!
Bert Berns had a weak heart, the result of a bout of rheumatic fever in his youth. Thus, he realized that he might not have long to live. Sure enough, Berns died of a heart attack in December 1967; he was only 38 at the time. But what a creative guy! Berns brought a deep interest in both soul and Latin music to rock and roll, and both his songwriting and producing were first-rate.
In addition to all the other songs we have mentioned, in 1961 Berns and Phil Medley co-wrote a song initially titled Shake It Up Baby (I believe that the song-writing credits list “Medley and Russell,” but the “Bertrand Russell” is actually Bert Berns). The song outlines a man’s encouragement that his girlfriend dance with great energy. The lyrics are plain and simple:
Shake it up, baby
Twist and shout.
Come on, baby,
Come on and work it on out.
The Berns-Medley tune was picked up by Atlantic Records, and Atlantic turned the song over to a young hotshot producer named Phil Spector. Spector in turn assigned the song to a group called the Top Notes, and they released their single in 1961. And here it is – Shake It Up, Baby by the Top Notes, produced by Phil Spector.
Have you ever heard this version? I certainly hadn’t before doing the research for this blog post. I have to say, although the song has a catchy beat, it is otherwise unremarkable. The song features falsetto lead singing in a manner similar to the singer Jimmy Jones (“Handyman”). At this point in time, Spector had not yet developed his famed “Wall of Sound” production values. Coming in at just about two minutes, the song does have a rocking saxophone solo in the middle. Whoever posted the audio also included a bonus with some interesting vintage photos of the Beatles.
Well, Shake It Up, Baby sank like a stone, never denting the pop charts. And the group The Top Notes also disappeared into obscurity. Here is what I was able to find courtesy of Jason Ankeny in All Music Guide:
an R&B group called the Top Notes signed to Atlantic in 1960. Featuring vocalists Derek Ray and Guy Howard, this lineup made its Atlantic debut with “A Wonderful Time,” soon followed by “Say Man.” In 1961, they released their reading of Bert Berns and Phil Medley’s composition “Twist and Shout” … the original was not a hit and Atlantic terminated the Top Notes’ contract.
So there you have it – even though Shake It Up, Baby was the precursor to the Isley Brothers and Beatles’ song Twist and Shout, and thus became one of the all-time classic rock songs, the original artists the Top Notes have more or less disappeared from the history of rock and roll.
The Isley Brothers and Twist and Shout:
One person who was not surprised that the Top Notes’ song was unsuccessful was Bert Berns. As soon as he heard Phil Spector’s studio cut, he declared that Spector had “messed up the song,” and Berns correctly predicted that the single would be a failure.
However, Berns was convinced that the song itself had real merit, so he decided to produce it himself. In 1962 he gave the song to a soul group from Cincinnati, the Isley Brothers. Initially a quartet consisting of four brothers, the Isley brothers performed gospel songs until the death of Vernon Isley, at which time they became a trio and transitioned to R&B music. After an initial success in 1959 with the gospel-inspired Shout, the Isleys had suffered through a fallow period, and they were frankly skeptical that Berns’ song, now re-named Twist and Shout, would stop their slide.
Below is a photo of the Isley Brothers in 1975, after they added several additional members (including two more Isley brothers). I can’t identify all of them, except that lead singer Ronald Isley is on the far right.
To everyone’s surprise except Bert Berns, the Isley Brothers’ recording of Twist and Shout became a break-out hit for the group. The song made it to #17 on the Billboard pop charts, but hit #2 on the R&B ratings. And here’s the audio of that single.
Pretty great, huh? Clearly, Bert Berns knew exactly what kind of sound he wanted. This is a terrific R&B song, featuring the call-and-response technique borrowed from gospel music. Berns slows the tempo down to just the right speed, and then adds a great supporting band, heavy on the horns and delightfully funky. Furthermore, Ronald Isley’s lead vocals are perfect for this song.
A highlight of the song occurs at the 1:30 mark when Ronald Isley sings “aaaah”, and is then joined by the other brothers repeating this phrase while raising the pitch to progressively higher notes, finishing off with a high-pitched shout in unison. If you listen carefully, you can also pick up some features borrowed from Latin music; Bert Berns had visited Cuba before the revolution and was a big fan of Latin rhythms.
The Isleys’ version become the standard that was copied by one rock group after another. But most importantly, theirs was the version that was covered by the Beatles in 1963.
Building on their success with Twist and Shout, the Isley Brothers went on to have an exceptionally long and successful career that continued for several decades. Isley Brothers songs spanned the gamut from gospel to R&B to funk, and some of their albums were extremely influential. The Wikipedia bio on the group states that
the Isley Brothers have had four Top 10 singles on the … Billboard chart. Sixteen of their albums charted in the Top 40. Thirteen of those albums have been either certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum by the RIAA. The brothers have been honored by several musical institutions including being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
I’m sorry that I was unable to find live video of the Isleys from the 60s. All that I could find is shown below – a recent video featuring Ronald Isley live. He provides roughly one minute of Twist and Shout, and then segues into the chorus from Land of a Thousand Dances. This bit is perhaps most memorable for the line of sexy dancers dressed in red, although it’s nice to see that Ronald is still rocking.
The Beatles and Twist and Shout:
The beginning of the Beatles occurred in the late 1950s, when John Lennon recruited some of his friends from school to form a skiffle group. Fairly quickly, he added Paul McCartney and then George Harrison on guitar to join with his good friend Stu Sutcliffe on bass. The group shuffled through a series of drummers before settling for a while on Pete Best.
The earliest recordings of the group are quite unremarkable; I couldn’t hear anything that would distinguish them from countless thousands of garage bands. However, starting in fall 1961 the Beatles took a number of trips to Hamburg, Germany, where they typically performed in clubs in that city’s outstandingly raunchy red-light district. There, playing one or two sets a day in disreputable dives, the Beatles molded themselves into an incredibly talented and tight-knit unit.
The group experienced a couple of personnel changes. Stu Sutcliffe left the band in 1961 to return to art school, at which time Paul moved to playing bass. The final piece of the puzzle was added in August 1962 when, under pressure from their producer George Martin, they replaced their drummer Pete Best with Ringo Starr. Below is a photo of the Beatles on a staircase in 1964. From L: Ringo, Paul, John, George.
After adding Ringo, the Beatles were on their way to becoming the greatest pop group of all time; however, they needed some additional good fortune in order to make it big. They struck paydirt with their manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin. Epstein was not in it for the money – his family was relatively well to do. He just loved the Beatles’ music and did everything he could to ensure their success. And George Martin turned out to be a genius producer. Working together with the Fab Four, he was able to channel the Beatles’ incredible creativity into musical contributions that may well endure for centuries.
Here is a priceless live video of the Beatles performing Twist and Shout. The occasion was the Nov. 4, 1963 Royal Variety Show at the Prince of Wales Theatre, where the Beatles appeared to an audience that included royalty (we glimpse the Queen Mother briefly at the beginning).
In addition to a terrific performance and scintillating vocals from John, the Beatles became instant sensations for their cheeky humor (e.g., John’s request that “the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands, the rest of you just rattle your jewelry”). This event gave the Beatles terrific exposure in the UK, and may be considered the unofficial beginning of “Beatlemania,” where the group made the transition from a local Liverpool phenomenon to the national stage.
Despite the fact that they copied nearly all elements of the Isley Brothers’ version, the Beatles nevertheless managed to convert a gospel-tinged song into a British Invasion anthem. The Beatles trademark “woos” and tight harmonies are prominent here, and the song fits perfectly into the group’s format of two guitars, bass and drums.
By the way, note that once the Beatles finish their song and bow before the curtain, the orchestra chimes in with a few notes from Twist and Shout, demonstrating beyond any doubt that the orchestra members are totally clueless about rock and roll.
Next, here is a fascinating video of the Beatles in a “live” performance of Twist and Shout.
This video is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is obviously a composite, a montage of the Beatles performing the same song in as many as half a dozen different venues (note that the Beatles’ costumes change with every clip). And the audio is simply the Beatles’ recording of this song. However, the video is carefully assembled so that the images reflect the lyrics that the group is singing at each moment.
There is a fascinating story behind the recording of this song. On Feb. 11, 1963, the Beatles entered the EMI Studios in Abbey Road, London for the very first time. Their first two single records were doing very well in the UK, so the Beatles’ record label Parlophone decided to capitalize on this by quickly recording and releasing an album.
The Beatles entered the studio at 10 am, and less than 13 hours later had recorded an astonishing ten tracks. These, combined with the four already-recorded sides of their two singles, comprised their first UK album Please Please Me. The content of the album was essentially identical to the playlist of the Beatles’ live shows; the 14 tracks on the album consisted of eight original Beatles tunes together with six covers.
One reason for the haste in making the recording was an attempt by George Martin to re-create the feeling of a live performance by the Beatles. However, Martin was also operating on a shoestring budget, and at that time he had very limited funds to devote to recording studio expenses.
You can readily ascertain that John’s vocals on Twist and Shout are distinctly more harsh and raspy than usual. This is because Lennon was suffering from a bad cold on that day, and it was not clear that his voice would last for the entire session. As a result, George Martin saved Twist and Shout until last, since that song caused the greatest strain on John’s voice.
Lennon managed to make it through the first take of the song, however at that point his voice was definitely shot. So the Beatles’ Twist and Shout, one of the most iconic songs in the rock and roll catalog, was recorded in a single take!
Imagine yourself as John Lennon – on the one day that you get a single shot at the big-time recording studio, you have a wicked cold. You suck on cough lozenges all day, manage to make it through ten songs in thirteen hours, until your voice finally gives out on the last tune.
I know that the Beatles always complained that (until they became famous and powerful) the record companies treated them as “the yokels from Liverpool.” But it was incredible to see how little time the Beatles were given to produce their first album. And what an album it was! Please Please Me was ranked 39th in Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time.