Three guys in their early 30s cram into a recording booth made for one, maybe two people, tops, at a Great Lakes Mall kiosk that allows anyone to record their own vocals to hit songs. In their hands are handwritten alternative lyrics to The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” As is the custom, after each cassette is made (this is 1986, compact discs are scarce and MP3s don’t yet exist), the song is played for everyone to hear.
Bernie, Bernie. Oh, yeah! How you can throw! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah ...
It is so stupid — and so appealing.
“They put it on and people walking by kind of stopped,” recalls Lee Herlands, who along with Bruce Kretch and singer Donald King comprised The Bleacher Bums. “The guy who was working there put it on again, and more people stopped. Next thing we knew, there was a spontaneous little party of people singing. They didn’t know the words, but the chorus was so catchy.”
Two weeks later, The Bleacher Bums are all over Cleveland radio. One morning, Herlands gets a phone call from WMMS-FM 100.7 DJ Kid Leo. “He said we were the No. 1 song in Cleveland,” remembers Herlands, now an entertainment consultant. “He said we were more popular at the time than Bon Jovi. Come on! We were The Bleacher Bums.”
Bernie, Bernie. Oh, baby. Super Bowl!
Before all of it — before they even call themselves The Bleacher Bums — Herlands, Kretch and King routinely drive to Pittsburgh for Browns road games. Distracted by a dominating Steelers score on one occasion, they write really bad lyrics rallying the Browns faithful to the tune of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” They toss the song aside, but the idea sticks.
He came from Miami, was oh so young. Rifles to the Wizard. Man what a gun.
Back in Cleveland one evening, Herlands, Kretch and King sit around chatting. Herlands can’t get “Louie, Louie” out of his head. He says, “Bernie, Bernie!” Kretch grabs his guitar. Two hours later, the song is written. Kretch hopes they’ll be able to get it played on local radio stations, maybe even land a spot on WJW-TV 8’s “Big Chuck and Lil’ John” show.
When they first hear it, disc jockeys remark that the audio quality is too poor to play on air. The Bums promptly head to a studio to record a fresh take. When “The Drive” ends the Browns season, “Bernie, Bernie” is put on ice after just 14 days of airplay.
Took the snap, dropped back, looks down the field. Brennan breaks open. The victory is sealed.
But the Browns are still hot the next season, and The Bleacher Bums sell 75,000 copies of their “Bernie, Bernie” cassette. “Our idea wasn’t to make a business out of this,” Kretch says. “It was just for fun. Then it just got so big and people wanted it.”
As the Browns come within a single win of the Super Bowl, the Bums prepare to order 300,000 more copies. If the Browns reach the big game, the Bums estimate they’ll make about $750,000 with their plan to distribute the tapes across five states. But nobody foresees Earnest Byner dropping the ball on the
3-yard line. Suddenly, the Browns’ season is over, and so is “Bernie, Bernie.”
Today, 20 years later, The Bleacher Bums are thinking about releasing a second version of “Bernie, Bernie” they recorded later, called “Bernie, Bernie II: The Prediction.” It features late Browns play-by-play guy Nev Chandler calling a Super Bowl win for the team. Other than that, the Bleacher Bums are retired.
“Anything else that I might do would be a letdown from ‘Bernie Bernie,’ ” says Kretch, who is now an insurance agent. “People have mentioned doing something about Brady Quinn. I don’t see how we could ever do something as good as ‘Bernie, Bernie’ and have it catch on like that. We’re not that talented.”