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The Isley Brothers

Twist And Shout

Twist And Shout co-writer, Bert Berns was horrified at the treatment his song was given by co-producers Phil Spector and Jerry Wexler during the recording by the group, the Top Notes. Berns told Wexler, “You f**ked it up!” Wexler, also a partner with Atlantic Records, responded simply to the songwriter, “Shut the f**k up.” (1)

The journey of Twist And Shout never had a clear path to success. It started in typical songwriting fashion in early 1961 in the New York offices of Mellin Music with fellow songwriter, Ray Passman. Berns, using his nylon-string guitar, started humming while playing the chords and rhythm to La Bamba. Passman picked up the beat while tapping his fingers on his desk. Just as the two had a groove going, Passman’s secretary interrupted and reminded him of his scheduled lunch date. The two agreed to pick up after lunch.

When Berns returned from lunch, Passman was nowhere to be found. So, he asked another songwriter, Phil Medley (A Million To One as a solo credit for Jimmy Charles while he also co-wrote If I Didn’t Have A Dime for Gene Pitney and Killer Joe for the Rocky Fellers) to work with him. Using the inspiration of La Bamba and inserting some lyrics from their previous collaboration entitled, Shake It Up Baby, the two completed Twist And Shout.

Berns next visited Wexler at Atlantic Records to push some songs he had. First up was Twist And Shout. Wexler liked it decided to use the song for an upcoming session with an R&B duo, the Top Notes.

Bert Berns with Jerry Wexler in better days.

Photo courtesy of Falco Ink.

On February 23, 1961, the Top Notes were in Atlantic studios with an up and coming producer all of 19-years old by the name of Phil Spector. The cocky teenager was a hot commodity as he just hit the Top Ten producing Ray Peterson’s Corrine, Corrina. Co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun brought Spector over to Atlantic and eventually hired him as staff producer. On this particular day, the “boy wonder” shared the control room with engineer Tom Dowd and Wexler.

Spector immediately took charge. He changed the tempo, rewrote the middle section and removed all of the Afro-Cuban rhythms. In effect, he turned a surefire hit into a bland, banal shuffle. (1) Disappointed and understandably angry, Berns expressed his feelings to Wexler.

However unhappy Berns was, he learned a valuable lesson. The power to achieve your vision lay in the hands of the producer. It would take but a year for Berns to get his shot.

The Isley Brothers, Ronald, O’Kelly, Rudolph and Vernon, began their singing career in churches around the Cincinnati area in the mid-50s. When Vernon passed away in a traffic accident, the family moved to New York City to pursue a career as a vocal group.

After cutting a few records with George Goldner on his independent labels, the Isleys found their way to RCA. In 1959, they recorded their self-written hit, Shout. The song reached #47 on the Billboard Hot 100 but failed to dent the R&B chart. (2) Subsequent singles on the label failed to chart and the Isleys left RCA in 1961 with hopes to find greener pastures.

After a brief stay at Atlantic, they signed a deal with Wand Records and producer Luther Dixon. Their first try with Dixon was The Snake, a dance song that did nothing. Dixon wanted one more try with the group, this time with Berns in the studio.

It was at a three-hour session at Bell Sound in New York in March of 1962 that Dixon wanted the Isleys to lay down a vocal track to a prerecorded track written by Burt Bacharach titled Make It Easy On Yourself. The pop sound was new to the group and they had trouble from the start, even though the vocal demo was performed by future pop star, Dionne Warwick. The Isley Brothers couldn’t make it happen and the song was forgotten.

With studio time remaining, Berns recognized an opportunity. He suggested his song, Twist And Shout, but with a caveat…he would be the producer. Full of frustration from the direction of the session, the Isleys rebelled saying they hated the song and they didn’t want to do a “twist” song. Both Dixon and Wally Roker, a label executive, begged to differ. According to Selvin’s book, “Angry words were exchanged, furniture was broken while loud arguments could be heard in the control booth. When the smoke cleared, Bert Berns took over and produced the record.” (3) When the final mix was completed and the song was released, the fortunes of Twist And Shout had changed.

L-R O'Kelly, Ronald and Rudolph Isley.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/GAB Archive.

Twist And Shout hit the charts with its release in June. Debuting on June 2 at #84 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song spent a total of 16 weeks on the chart reaching a top spot at #17 on August 11. (4) Twist And Shout was a bigger hit on the R&B side. The song entered on June 16, stayed for a total of 19 weeks and peaked at #2. (5)

Twist And Shout built a strong career foundation for the Isley Brothers. They landed 46 songs on the Pop side and 74 more on the R&B list in a 42-year stretch. (4) (5) O’Kelly Isley passed away in 1986 followed by Rudolph in 2004. Ronald is still associated with the current group of touring Isley Brothers.

Bert Berns was vindicated for his opinion when he produced Twist And Shout. His career soared as he wrote and produced a number of hits for artists such as Tell Him by The Exciters, Cry To Me by Solomon Burke, Under The Boardwalk and Saturday Night At The Movies by The Drifters and Baby I’m Yours by Barbara Lewis. He also produced hits for Van Morrison (Here Comes The Night and Baby Please Don’t Go). He also founded Bang Records— home for The McCoys (Hang On Sloopy), The Strangeloves (I Want Candy), Van Morrison (Brown-Eyed Girl) and Neil Diamond (Solitary Man and Thank The Lord For The Night Time). He passed away on December 30, 1967 at 38 years old of heart failure.

Give a listen to the Top Notes version of Twist And Shout...

Now, here's the Isley Brothers version.

Ronald and Rudolph Isley talk about Twist And Shout.

1) Selvin, Joel, Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, 2014, Page 105.

2) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 339.

3) Selvin, Joel. Page 152.

4) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.

5) Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles 1942-1999, Page 209.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archive.

© 2018 Jerry Reuss

Copyright  2009