Saturday, June 22, 2013

Track of the Week: The Four Tops, "Bernadette"

Motown had an amazing ability to put out records that were as sleek and well-constructed as a Cadillac coming off a Detroit assembly line, but which still bore the warm, organic stamp of having been recorded in the humblest of studios in Barry Gordy's garage.  Years of listening to Motown records have also taught me that individual producers put as much or even a bigger stamp on the songs as the performers themselves.  For example, when Norman Whitfield started producing the Temptations, their sound became edgy, funky, and psychedelic.  "Cloud Nine" is a million miles from "The Way You Do the Things You Do."

The production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland probably did more than any other to define the "Motown sound" via Supremes songs like "Baby Love."  Their best creations were mini-pop symphonies, but not always as bright and cheery as you might think.  Unlike the Temptations, the Four Tops' love songs produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland had an air of menace and darkness behind them.  Even a positive song like "I'll Be There" has a lot of minor-key stuff going on.

I think Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Tops reached their apex with "Bernadette."  The key is lead singer Levi Stubbs' muscular yet emotionally desperate singing style.  This song is from the point of view of a man absolutely obsessed with a woman who he tells is his "reason to live" and "you mean more to me than a woman was ever meant to be."  He reveals insecurity along with obsessiveness when he warns her that other men are after her, but do not "treasure" and "adore" her as much as he does.  This does not sound like a healthy obsession, a point underscored by the musical accompaniment.  The background singers keen in a minor key like a ship tossed at sea, and the normally bright Motown symphony keeps up a staccato beat that underscores the scary desperation and obsession of the lyrics.  You worry about what would happen to Bernadette if she decided to walk out the door.

Despite these dark overtones, the song was a hit, and how could it not be?   Pocket symphonies featuring a penetrating vital soul singer embodying the creepy side of love don't come around too often, and certainly not anymore.

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