January 28, 2016

Rock Hall 2016: Feelin' the Berns

So... Bert Berns is receiving the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement. Rock Hall followers might be scratching their heads today, but it's fair to look at the basic facts. From the Rock Hall website: 

"Bert Berns was one of the great record men of the New York rhythm and blues scene of the 60s. Berns produced 51 chart records in seven years, most of which he also wrote. His songs have been recorded by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. Janis Joplin made her career with her version of his “Piece Of My Heart,” a song he wrote and produced for Erma Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s sister, only weeks before his death on December 30, 1967 at age 38."

Also a fact, and blowing up up the Rock Hall social media channels today is that Steven Van Zandt and Paul Shaffer are producing a Broadway musical about Bert Berns. And per the Future Rock Legends Twitter (@futurerocklgnds), Van Zandt and Shaffer are both on the committee that picked Berns for this honor, raising the issue of a conflict of interest. Wow.

But let's take one step back here. One positive to extract is that a rock n' roll luminary from the '60s is being inducted, giving hope to many a snubbed artist of that era and maybe earlier. Despite recent Nomination Committee purges, the door is evidently still open, in theory, to worthy artists such as Mary Wells, Link Wray, Joe Tex, the Zombies, Chuck Willis, Dick Dale, and Captain Beefheart. Berns deserves the honor, but the timing feels suspect now. He could have been honored previously, maybe even in an inductee-heavy year like 2012, where producers Glyn Johns, Tom Dowd, and Cosima Matassa got the Award for Musical Excellence, and Don Kirschner was given the Ahmet Ertegun Award. What's another Ahmet Ertegun Award when there were multiple "Musical Excellence" honorees? 

In any case, the Rock Hall, true to form, continues to confound. Not only with inductees vs. snubs, and the worsening inductee gender gap that people are really starting to pay attention to, but also with the relatively meager count of inductees they're putting in this year (now 6 total). Speculation that ceremony length is an issue seems legitimate, but ultimately, the HBO broadcast will be edited. So if say, the J.B.'s were announced alongside of Berns last night in the "Musical Excellence" category, at least we would have gotten Bootsy Collins out of the deal, bringing some bass magic to the end-of-night jam.

Berns, with all due respect, isn't bringing viewers to HBO nor is his name selling tickets to the ceremony. So the question becomes, "Why Bert Berns, and why now?" Honoring someone overdue? Well, there's a long list of those. Yet another head-scratcher is waiting until January 27 to "officially" announce this decidedly non-flashy inductee choice, especially when as of January 12, Bert Berns' Facebook page had already announced it. Couldn't they have determined last month that Berns was going in, and then rolled his name out on December 17 alongside of Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, Steve Miller, and N.W.A.? There's some unprecedented stuff happening, and it raises legitimate questions.

But, here we are. Six inductees, five of them mostly mainstream and crowd-pleasing, and this last one controversial out of the gate.