Who discovered Elvis, what killed Bob Marley, and did The Beach Boys steal a song from Charles Manson?

Madison's 'Rock and Roll Detective' Jim Berkenstadt provides answers to music history's pressing questions in a new book.
On the left is the new book "Mysteries in the Music" and on the right is author Jim Berkenstadt sitting next to a guitar.
Courtesy of Jim Berkenstadt.
"Mysteries in the Music" is a new book by Madison author and Rock and Roll Detective Jim Berkenstadt.

Jim Berkenstadt was a rock ‘n’ roll detective for many years before he became the Rock and Roll Detective.

The journey began when a young Berkenstadt, who grew up in Chicago, was in an Old Town record store and happened upon a bootleg record of a 1969 Beatles studio session. Years later, Berkenstadt — by then a Beatles expert and author of the acclaimed book “Black Market Beatles” — was in London, in a meeting with Neil Aspinall, chief executive of the Beatles’ Apple Corps company.

Aspinall mentioned that they were having great difficulty tracking down a TV interview John Lennon had done in 1965 at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps it didn’t exist. Berkenstadt found an audio recording of the interview. Aspinall was thrilled. “You’re definitely our rock detective,” he said.

Not long after, in 2007, Berkenstadt launched the Rock and Roll Detective LLC, an entertainment consulting business with an office on East Towne Boulevard in Madison. Now Berkenstadt has authored the book he was seemingly born to write, or at least destined to write once he officially became the Rock and Roll Detective.

Mysteries in the Music: Case Closed,” just published, puts Berkenstadt on the trail of some rock ‘n’ roll stories that over time have become enveloped in controversy or conspiracy theories.

His chapter titles include, “Who Really Discovered Elvis Presley?” And, “Did the CIA Kill Bob Marley?” The last chapter: “Deal With the Devil: Did The Beach Boys Steal a Song from Charles Manson?”

“I decided it was time,” Berkenstadt said last week, “given all the social media conspiracy theories that are out there, to use my skills and tools to solve these stories that had never really been fully explained.”

Berkenstadt brought a love and knowledge of music, and a talent for research and interviewing — he’s a former trial attorney — to the task. Also a sense of history. I first met Berkenstadt in the late 1990s when he was helping The Edgewater proprietor Scott Faulkner resurrect and remaster big band shows — Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey — recorded on The Edgewater’s rooftop in the 1950s. They made for two terrific CDs.

Berkenstadt’s enviable music industry contact list was helpful when he embarked on the “Mysteries in the Music” project. He’s still regarded as a top Beatles expert. Berkenstadt’s 2013 book, “The Beatle Who Vanished,” told the fascinating tale of the young musician, Jimmie Nicol, who played drums on a 1964 Beatles world tour while Ringo Starr was ill, then largely disappeared from public view.

A longtime friendship with legendary producer and drummer Butch Vig paid dividends as well. Berkenstadt coauthored a well-regarded book on the making of Nirvana’s Vig-produced “Nevermind” album. Vig wrote a foreword to “Mysteries in the Music,” noting Berkenstadt “has written the definitive book to, once and for all, clear up some of pop music’s greatest mysteries, conspiracies, hoaxes, and wildly inexplicable events.”

In his chapter on who discovered Elvis Presley — Sun Records founder Sam Phillips often insisted on sole credit — Berkenstadt drew from dozens of hours of interviews he’d conducted with Scotty Moore, Presley’s first lead guitarist. Those interviews were for a collaboration on a book about Moore’s life that was never published. But the guitarist’s insights on Presley’s discovery helped Berkenstadt stamp “case closed” at the conclusion of the chapter, as he does for all the others.

It was Berkenstadt’s Beatles connection that helps enrich a chapter titled “The Masked Marauders: Supergroup or Masquerade?” The reference is to an alleged “supergroup” formed in 1969 — super indeed, it was said to include Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and John Lennon — that put out an album as The Masked Marauders. Rolling Stone magazine wrote about it in a rapturous review. Berkenstadt scored an interview with Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner — they’d met at a charity event hosted by Olivia Harrison, George’s widow. Wenner helped Berkenstadt uncover a surprising truth about how the whole “Marauders” caper began.

For the book’s final chapter on the strange interaction between Charles Manson and The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, Berkenstadt — with help from Vig — tracked down the one eyewitness to the moment when Wilson agreed to buy a song titled “Cease to Exist,” written by Manson, who was an aspiring singer-songwriter before he became a cult-leading murderer.

The Beach Boys eventually recorded a different version of the song under another title. Manson had recorded his version, and Berkenstadt took both to the federal courthouse in Madison, where he played them for U.S. Judge James Peterson, who was an esteemed intellectual property attorney prior to President Barack Obama appointing him to the federal bench.

Did The Beach Boys steal the song? Berkenstadt provides his “case closed” answer in a fitting finale to an intriguing book.

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