Sunday, January 3, 2010

January 3: The Four Tops, "Bernadette"

Artist: The Four Tops
Song: "Bernadette"
Album: Reach Out
Year: 1967

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Much like good help, a good love song is truly hard to find. As the decades have passed, well written and soulful songs of love have mostly turned into copycat songs of lust. Yet there was a time when penning an original musing on love was a very noble, and commercially viable endeavor, and many of these amazing lyrics were brought to love by the stunning sounds of the great vocal groups that dominated the "Motown era." Regardless of the gender it was being sung by, or the tempo of the song in question, one of the key aspects to the entire "Motown sound" was the honestly and sincerity that came through in each song. Among these classic sounds and songs, few were as powerful and one of the purest confessions of love in history, The Four Tops and their timeless single, "Bernadette." The song, released in February of 1967, came near what would be considered the end of the "Motown era," yet it remains today one of the most popular songs of the time. In many ways, everything from the music to the lyrics to the performance of The Four Tops is exactly what made the "Motown sound" so famous, and the song rose quickly up the charts, peaking at the forth spot for a number of weeks. Though it would be their final top ten hit of the decade, in the entire Four Tops catalog, there are very few songs that can compare to the power of "Bernadette."

Much like many great songs of that era, "Bernadette" can be seen as a "deep cut," as it comes from The Four Tops monumental 1967 album, Reach Out. Along with "Bernadette," the album produced a staggering six top ten singles, including the chart topping "Reach Out And I'll Be There." The reason for the success of the record is quite clear, as along with the sensational vocals, the music is all created by the Motown house band, the unsurpassed Funk Brothers. Without question one of the most powerful and creative bands in history, the incarnation of The Funk Brothers that played as the 1960's closed was without question one of the finest lineups of the band. From the shimmering tambourine to the graceful keyboards to the signature "walking" bass line, "Bernadette" is as classic a Motown groove as one will ever find. The song is also significant in that it was part of a small group of Motown hits which did not feature the horn section as the featured aspect of the music. This was likely due to the nature and power of the vocal work throughout the song, and the somewhat less overbearing musical arrangements work perfectly to create a lamenting, yet bright mood on the track. (NOTE: For more information on the amazing work of The Funk Brothers, check out the fantastic 2002 documentary, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.)

Without question, The Four Tops rank among the greatest vocal groups in history, and remain one of the longest running groups of any genre. For more than four decades, the group performed with a single lineup, and they were only forced to change following the passing of Lawrence Payton in 1997. Though each member of the group was certainly equally important to the formula that created their sound, on "Bernadette," the song is all about the vocal work of Levi Stubbs. Rarely in music history has there been a vocal as soulful and powerful as one finds here, and the pleading of Stubbs is nothing short of righteous. Never in the history of music has there been such a song of longing, and perhaps even jealousy, and Stubbs perfectly conveys each moment of emotion. Rarely has there been such a song of admiration of a woman, as Stubbs laments that, though he has such an amazing love, he finds himself stressed by the fact that so many other men clearly want her, and seem set to stop at nothing to get her. The true tone of a concerned love is perhaps no better expressed in the song then when he sings, "...they'd give the world and all they own, for just one moment we have known..." The song is also memorable for it's false ending, as the music pauses for a moment, before Stubbs begins the final chorus, and he song fads, leaving music geeks to wonder exactly how the end of the song actually sounded.

So many classic songs emerged from the Motown scene, that it is almost impossible to note them all, or even to catpure them all on a single box set. Though there are countless such creations, there are always a handful of songs that are left out, and it is mind-boggling to consider the sheer number of hit songs that came from the label in such a short span of time. Without question one of the premier acts from the label were the vocal quartet known as The Four Tops. Performing as a single group for more than four decades, there are virtually no other artists of any genre with similar longevitym and there are also very few artists who achieved as much success over any time span. Though they had already established themselves as one of the finest of all of the Motown groups, when The Four Tops released their 1967 record, Reach Out, nothing could have prepared them for half of the songs on the album becoming hits. Such overwhelming success was clearly due to not only the phenomenal music of The Funk Brothers, but also to the way in which the quartet committed themselves to each vocal, and a more honest and raw performance one would be hard pressed to find. Though it is often relegated to a "second tier" hit for the group due to the success of their other songs, one simply cannot overlook the majesty and overall greatness of one of the finest songs ever recorded, the timeless love lament, "Bernadette."

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